Left to rot and sink, dozens of abandoned boats litter Washington’s waterways

The cost of dealing with a derelict boat can easily reach into tens of thousands of dollars. Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources

The cost of dealing with a derelict boat can easily reach into tens of thousands of dollars. Photo courtesy of Washington Department of Natural Resources

First in a four-part series.

It might have been somebody’s dream boat once.

But by the time it was hauled out of the water earlier this year at Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle, the 60-foot rumrunner had a hole in its side big enough to climb through. Thieves had been poaching items off the ship, and Port of Seattle workers had to pump it out repeatedly over the several months it took to arrange for demolition.

“This thing was a beast,” said Mike DeSota, environmental compliance specialist for the Port of Seattle. “It was sinking.”

The situation isn’t unusual. In waters around Washington, dozens of boats sit abandoned and on the verge of sinking, posing serious environmental hazards and costly nightmares for the marinas and government agencies left to deal with them.

There are currently close to 200 boats abandoned in Washington waters that authorities know about, but the real numbers could be considerably higher. And officials expect to see more boats headed for a watery grave as the effects of the recession drag on.

“The suspicion is that the number (of abandoned boats) is growing because of the economy,” said Doug Helton of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration.

“Last year the issue was fuel prices, and this year it’s the general economy.”

Derelict boats pose navigational hazards for other vessels and environmental hazards for marine life. Most boats contain a toxic stew of chemicals—fuel, oil, cleaning materials—that can leak out and imperil marine life.

Maritime officials say abandoned boats are typically a casualty of misguided dreams. Someone buys a used boat with the intention of fixing it up, without any idea about the cost of maintaining and mooring a boat. Reality sets in, the boat is sold again and the process is repeated. Eventually it becomes a rundown liability and the owner leaves it in a marina or ties it to a buoy and walks away.

For others, a boat in poor condition might be seen as an inexpensive abode. A quick look on Craigslist ads in the Seattle area turns up scores of ads from sellers—and a few from seekers—of inexpensive boats.

“I’m looking for a fixer upper liveaboard 40′-80′ must be titled and stickered and not on the bottom of the ocean,” read once recent ad with a desired purchase price of $1. “As long as it floats.”

Washington is one of just a handful of states nationwide that have programs in place to deal with derelict and abandoned boats. Washington’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program, launched in 2003 and run by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, allows authorities to remove and dispose of derelict or abandoned vessels within their jurisdiction. Since the program started, about 220 boats have been cleared from Washington waters.

While pleasurecraft comprise the vast majority of derelict vessels, industry-specific abandonments are not uncommon. In the Northwest, increased numbers of abandoned fishing boats followed the decline of the salmon fishery over the past few decades. Similarly, the Gulf Coast becomes a dumping ground for barges when the oil industry experiences a downturn.

The cost of dealing with abandoned commercial vessels can easily reach into the hundreds of thousands. In May, DNR issued a contract for $873,000 to remove and dispose of Northern Retriever, a 186-foot steel Navy tug built in 1943. The owner had moored the vessel on tidelands near Aberdeen, Wash., living aboard for more than a dozen years until the ship became too rundown to inhabit.

“It’s a real burden on the economy, because DNR doesn’t have the money to take on a vessel,” said Kim Schmanke, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Ecology. “They have even less money to take on abandoned vessels.”

derelict2If maintenance costs are an issue for owners of derelict boats, it’s unlikely those owners can afford to properly dispose of their vessels. The cost of having a 40-foot boat taken to a landfill and demolished could range from $5,000 to $10,000, experts say. Abandoning a boat carries the possibility of a misdemeanor charge and a fine—if the perpetrator is caught.

“There is an incentive to do the wrong thing here,” Helton acknowledged. “It’s much cheaper to abandon your boat, and hopefully you won’t get caught, than it is to dispose of it properly.”

Boat owners aren’t the only ones tempted to shirk responsibility. In 2004, after reports of suspicious towing and oil sheens around the Crow’s Nest Marina in Tacoma, divers discovered dozens of sunken boats in the vicinity. They showed signs of intentional sinking, such as holds filled with concrete blocks and holes punched in their sides. Authorities believe the marina owner was scuttling boats when owners fell behind on moorage payments.

Authorities are sometimes able to reach owners of abandoned boats and convince them to retrieve their boats or set up a payment plan to reimburse the cost incurred in dealing with them. But it’s more likely that the government agency or private marina that has jurisdiction over the boat will end up taking responsibility for the vessel.

“Most of the time we either can’t find (the owners) or we find them and they would like to take of their boats but they don’t have the means to do so,” said Melissa Montgomery, who runs Washington’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

In January, Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, introduced legislation that would establish a pilot amnesty program for cash-strapped boat owners to have their decrepit vessels disposed of at no cost. But the legislation died during the session, making it unlikely that the numbers of derelict and abandoned boats cluttering coastal waterways will decline any time soon.

“Having a proper way to dispose of a vessel is key,” NOAA’s Helton said. “Right now, all the incentives are in the wrong direction, involving a lot of cost or finding someone to buy it from you for a dollar.

“That’s the cheapest way of disposing of a boat—find someone who’s more gullible than you.”

Part 1 in a four-part series.
Part 2 – Tuesday: Washington’s state-run program to address derelict and abandoned boats is one of very few in the nation.
Part 3 – Wednesday: Abandoned and sunken boats wreak havoc on the underwater ecosystem, releasing toxic chemicals and jeopardizing marine life.
Part 4 – Thursday: Read about the state’s biggest and most expensive derelict boat disaster.

4 Responses to Left to rot and sink, dozens of abandoned boats litter Washington’s waterways

  1. jeff lynch217-532-6020 May 29, 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    I would love to move to the ocean and help clean up abandon boats as long as I get one to live on 54 single male with toolsn its my life dream and goal to live on the ocean the rest of my life pleas leave message.

  2. Carolyn June 19, 2009 at 5:38 am #

    That was a great story Deborah.It is a tough situation to be in for many boat owners.It is a big cost to maintain a boat and a huge expensive to properly dispose of it.
    Is there a good solution to the problem?a real tough one!

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