Sinking Ships

Decaying Boats Are Often a Nuisance in Sarasota, Manatee Waters

But police have a year-old tool in which owners of vessels in peril can sign them over for rapid removal.

By Catherine Hicks/Community News Collaborative August 24, 2023

For owners, removing swamped and sunken craft can be a financial burden beyond reach. For others on the water, there are dangers of collision or hazardous leaks.

For owners, removing swamped and sunken craft can be a financial burden beyond reach. For others on the water, there are dangers of collision or hazardous leaks.

In a region associated with tropical weather and the boating lifestyle, dilapidated and wrecked vessels on Florida’s waterways often become part of the seascape when the two Sunshine State staples come together.

For owners, removing swamped and sunken craft can be a financial burden beyond reach. For others on the water, there are dangers of collision or hazardous leaks.

And for law enforcement, the hours involved in tracking ownership and ultimately removing smelly, barnacle-encrusted hulls can add up to months or more. And yes, there can be legal consequences.

“Just a few weeks back, I sent a law enforcement officer up in Pennsylvania to an address,” says Officer Michael Skinner of the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) Marine Patrol, explaining a recent attempt to track the owner of decaying sailboat in city waters. “We go above and beyond for a misdemeanor investigation. At the end of the day, we want to do our due diligence to find that owner and make contact.”

A map published online by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission shows hundreds of vessels reported to be derelict statewide, mostly along the coast but some on inland lakes and rivers. Among the four dozen or so marked from Port Manatee to near Englewood are a collection of power and sail craft, some listed since not long after Hurricane Ian passed through in September, 2022.

A large sailboat was hauled ashore by Sarasota Police in July, eventually broken up and taken away for disposal by the city from the parking lot of the 10th Street boat ramps. Police said it had been in need of removal for three months.

A derelict boat

A derelict boat

State officials launched a plan in 2022 in which owners can voluntarily give up ownership, paving the way for more rapid removal without the financial cost that can reach thousands of dollars and the time to track down absentee owners. The Vessel Turn-In Program is grant-funded and works on a first-come, first-served basis. When used, it relieves owners of the boat and the responsibility of paying for its removal.

“It’s a great program, but it’s not going to last forever,’’ Skinner says. “Right now, boat owners are still eligible for it.’’

There are three qualifications that define a vessel as derelict by law, such as the inability to move on its own; being involved in a boating accident that caused damage  to the point of inoperation; or being substantially dismantled and therefore unable to meet safety standards.

A vessel only has to meet one of these requirements to be considered derelict, at which point the owner must be notified to move it or be held financially liable.

Police can also cite owners on a variety of factors that could lead to a derelict boat, such as an anchor line that is free or about to break; extensive underwater growth to indicate a period without use; windows or ports that are not closed, allowing water into the vessel; or an inoperable water removal system.

On an annual basis, the SPD spends between $20,000 to $30,000 on vessel removals. Last year, they worked on 36 derelict vessel investigations and removed 25 vessels.

Each year, the Marine Patrol Unit of SPD applies for grant money through the West Coast Inland Navigation District for hazardous removals.  Vessel removals can cost anywhere from $2,000 to over $25,000, depending on the level of difficulty of the removals. While Sarasota has removed boats on its own, other jurisdictions often rely on contractors to do the work.

“We’re tired of seeing the taxpayers get stuck footing the bill for removals, especially of salvage companies,’’ Skinner says. “We’ve had boats cost upwards of $25,000 to be removed from state waters. We say [to the court], 'We don’t want jail time, we just want that money back.'”

Through the procedure of placing a hold on the driver's license of the owners responsible for these removals, the SPD has recovered a little over $10,000 in the last two years.

One offender Officer Skinner deals with regularly has had six derelict vessel investigations, four removals and, despite the holds on his license, continues to allow his vessels to fall into disrepair.

In Venice, Hurricane Ian wrecked about a dozen boats that were left to become derelict.

“We had anywhere between 10 and 13 vessels that were impacted by Hurricane Ian,” says Paul Joyce, a master patrol officer at the Venice Police Department Marine Unit. “Our biggest issue was the vessels that were anchored in the anchorage area of Roberts Bay. Just in that area alone, I had six vessels that were impacted by Hurricane Ian, whether they were partially sunk, completely sunk, sail and masts broken...basically, a no longer navigable boat.”

On the plus side, police often make good use of vessel removals, allowing dive teams the opportunity for realistic training in situations similar to what they may usually work in in other investigations, with limited visibility, low light, or otherwise hazardous environments that recreational divers wouldn’t choose to dive.

Catherine Hicks is a reporter for the Community News Collaborative. Reach her at [email protected]

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