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Sunken sailboat becomes a DIY project

After unmanned sailboat crashes into his dock, Connecticut man finds he’s on his own getting rid of it

Many people would have been at a loss if an unregistered and undocumented vessel landed on their dock in rough weather. But for Stamford, Conn., resident Robert Dettmer, it became just another do-it-yourself project.

When Stamford, Conn., resident Robert Dettmer couldn't find anybody to remove a derelict 28-foot sailboat from his property, he raised it himself.

Dettmer was having dinner with a couple friends when he saw a 28-foot sailboat break loose from its mooring near his home on Westcott Cove near Stamford, Conn. The boat headed straight for his dock, 2- to 3-foot seas smashing the vessel into the gangway.

“I ran out with my friend [Anthony Fucci] because we figured the faster we could get it off the dock, the less damage it would do,” says Dettmer. “We used half-inch chains and three lines around the boat just to hold it off of my dock.”

Robert Dettmer

The sailboat managed to wedge itself underneath the dock and the gangway at about a 90-degree angle at about 9 p.m. July 23. Dettmer and Fucci set to work running lines around the body of the vessel in order to pull it free and avoid causing more damage to the dock or the boat. Dettmer says he could hear the hull crunching up against the rocks.

“If we had left it, it would’ve pulled the whole dock away,” says Dettmer. “We had to go down onto the beach and pull and pull and pull.”

The boat finally started to move, but only about 6 inches at a time. After an hour and a half, hands raw and gritty, the boat was freed but taking on water. The men left the vessel on the nearby rocks.

Dettmer’s dock suffered a few broken lights on the stationary pier and a couple popped boards on the gangplank. Dettmer has lived in the area since 2002 and says he has never seen anything like this. He owns a 48-foot Viking with twin 892 Detroit diesels and a 26-foot Formula, with 375 Mercruiser I/O. He keeps the Viking at Harbor House Marina in Stamford, Conn., and the Formula is kept on a mooring in back of his house.

“The sailboat probably missed it by about 20 yards or so,” says Dettmer.

But the wayward boat was still taking on water, so Dettmer called the marine division of the Stamford Police Department, who told him the boat was unregistered and undocumented, so there was nothing they could do. He also tried BoatU.S., but with the absence of an owner they told him there was little they could do to help.

Dettmer was on his own.

Dettmer raised the sunken boat by himself.

An hour later the boat sank, left sitting in the high tide, with only the mast sticking up. Dettmer determined there was nothing he could do other than secure the stray boat and wait for low tide.

At 8 a.m. the following day, Dettmer decided to take matters into his own hands. His father had owned a marina near the Throgs Neck Bridge in New York City and Dettmer had assisted in boat salvage growing up. In the now-low tide, he set to work on patching the hole the rocks punched in the forward port side of the fiberglass hull. He used a 2-foot-by-2-foot sheet of plywood and sheet metal screws. Then Dettmer pumped out the cabin with an electric sump pump connected to a fire hose that he ran from shore. The inside of the cabin had floating seat cushions and boxes of food.

“Luckily I didn’t find anything too nasty in there,” says Dettmer. “You never know with these things.”

About an hour later the boat floated to the surface and Dettmer was able to pull it to the dock with no problems. With the vessel no longer submerged, Dettmer called the police again.

Once raised, the boat was towed away by authorities.

“When I told them that I raised the boat, they said, ‘You’re kidding,’ ” says Dettmer. “I worked for eight years doing recoveries and towing, but I never had to raise a sunken boat before.”

With the boat freed from Dettmer’s dock and floating once more, the police were able to tow it to West Beach, about a mile away, and leave it on the sand. It was red-tagged as an abandoned vessel and, upon inspection, it was declared derelict and a nuisance, according to Frank Fedeli, Stamford Harbor Commission administrator. The boat was towed away by the town highway department and disposed of Aug. 26.

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters Section of the November 2009 issue.