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Removing abandoned boats takes persistence, detective work

MASTERS BAYOU — On a bright Tuesday morning, at the eastern end of the Gandy Bridge, officer Jon Saltzgaver steered his boat into the glassy tide of Tampa Bay. He sped past fishermen wading in the green water. Bounced by sunbathers bobbing on blow-up rafts.

He wore polarized sunglasses, a khaki shirt, the trim life vest issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. In his 23-foot, state-owned boat, he carried a cell phone, a clipboard, two bottles of water.

And a new can of fluorescent orange spray paint.

"The first one's right up here," he told another officer, George Wells. He slowed his boat, turned past a skinny spit of sand. "It's been out here forever."

Huddled against a dark stand of mangroves, an old mullet skiff seemed to be sinking. Its homemade hull had rotted. Barnacles blanketed both sides.

Saltzgaver pulled alongside the 26-foot wooden boat and grabbed his paint can. Stretching toward the skiff, he sprayed on a code: DV1115. DV means Derelict Vessel.

"I want to make sure they can see it," Saltzgaver said, "now that a contractor is finally coming."

• • •

Saltzgaver has patrolled Tampa Bay for 27 years, helping rescue stranded boaters, inspecting safety gear, tracking illicit grouper.

In March, he and nine other officers across the state signed up for newly created jobs.

They troll Florida's waterways tracking abandoned boats.

"We've always had a problem around here with derelict vessels," Saltzgaver said. They block boat channels, become navigation hazards, damage other boats and docks. And they pollute the water, leaking gas and oil.

"We just never had any money to do anything about it."

An estimated 1,500 abandoned boats litter the state's waters, from a 13-foot dinghy upturned in Hurricane Hole to a 68-foot trawler beached in Tarpon Springs.

Sometimes, the owner gets too sick or old to go out on the water. Sometimes the boat does. Sometimes the owner dies and wills the boat to someone who doesn't want it. Sometimes the boat gets tossed in a storm.

Surely someone once loved that little cabin cruiser, fished in that johnboat, sailed into the sunset beneath that now-broken mast.

Saltzgaver doesn't want to know the stories. He just wants to get the boats out of the water.

• • •

Last year, Florida paid to haul a total of eight boats from its waters.

This year, legislators decided so many broken vessels were clogging the state's waterways, they had to do something. While cutting funding for countless other programs, lawmakers set aside $1.5 million for Florida's first statewide boat removal project.

Contractors already have carted off 45 vessels from throughout Florida. Another 110 are scheduled for June.

Around Tampa Bay, dozens — maybe hundreds — of derelict vessels litter the inlets. So far, officers have spray-painted orange numbers on 25, tagging them for removal: two shrimp trawlers in Tarpon Springs, a cabin cruiser in the Anclote River, a runabout in Double Branch Creek. Hurricane Hole, near Bay Pines VA hospital, hosts the area's largest collection: six boats. Masters Bayou, where Saltzgaver was patrolling, has four.

And those are just the vessels whose cases have been resolved. Officers are investigating more than 200 other boats statewide, said Phil Horning of Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "With more cases coming on board daily."

When Saltzgaver started his new job, he already knew of several abandoned boats from his years on the water. Other boaters and helicopter pilots started showing him more.

In the last three months, he has found more than a dozen new derelict vessels — plus plenty of things he never expected: homeless people living in strangers' houseboats, growing vegetables on the algae-covered decks; mangy dogs barking from below; a man with a saw.

• • •

Ridding the waters of dying boats seems simple. But the process can be frustrating.

First, officers have to prove a boat has been abandoned. They chart barnacle growth, sea-worthiness, algae cover — then watch for a while, to make sure no one comes for it. They try to find an identification number on the craft. Vessels built before 1973 didn't have to have license numbers. Often owners scrape off the numbers so they can't be tracked.

If the officers can get an owner's name, they have to find that person. People move, die, say they sold their boat long ago. If Saltzgaver or another officer can prove ownership, they give the person five days to remove the vessel. "But we always grant extensions," he said. "I've been working with one guy for months."

Depending on the boat's size, abandoning a vessel in a public waterway can be considered a first-degree misdemeanor or felony dumping. If the owner refuses to remove the boat, or officers can't find the owner, they hire a contractor to haul away the wreck. They salvage what they can and take the rest to a dump.

Smaller boats cost about $600 to remove. Large barges can cost up to $100,000 — and add another $25,000 if it's swamped. "Most of these boats aren't worth trying to salvage," Saltzgaver said. "It costs more to remove them than they're worth."

• • •

As the sun climbed that Tuesday, Saltzgaver steered further up the inlet. He cruised past Galati Yacht Sales, then curved toward a large, weed-choked lot, empty except for crumpled trailers, rimmed with broken boat slips.

"Riviera Harbor in Tampa Bay," said a sign. Saltzgaver shook his head.

"It used to be real nice in here, a place where retirees could afford a double-wide with a dock," he said. "Then developers came in and ran out the residents, wanting to put in condos. The market collapsed, and look at it now."

The trailers had been torn open; pink and yellow insulation spilled from the mangled sides. Beer cans and bottles glinted in the scrubby grass. More than a dozen boats bumped against the blackened moorings, their owners having abandoned them as they left. Where else, Saltzgaver asked, can you find another mobile home park on the water?

He painted orange numbers on a two-masted boat with blue sails, then tagged a small motorboat. Beyond that, he showed the other officer, was some sort of vessel — "I can't tell what kind" — completely submerged. Beneath the murky water, its bow was barely visible.

Saltzgaver stared at the sunken boat, then put down his can of spray paint. No way to mark it.

"I still got to check that sailboat on the other side," he said, turning back toward the bridge.

• • •

Most people, the officer said, want to do the right thing. When he tells them they have to remove their boat, they say they want to. They really do.

But if you can't afford the upkeep on a boat, how can you afford to have it carted away?

Saltzgaver tries to give people a chance to do the right thing on their own. "As long as I can tell they're trying," he said. Every owner who removes a boat means one less salvage fee the taxpayers have to foot.

One sailboat owner the officer tracked down lives in Uruguay now. The man is hoping to get someone to salvage his boat off St. Petersburg and bring it to South America. Another guy Saltzgaver found left his new 30-foot sailboat on the shore in Hillsborough County. "He had a $30,000 lien he couldn't pay," the officer said. "Now some bank in Vermont wants it back."

On the Tampa side of the bridge, squat palmettos and towering pines line a scraggly coast. Apartments once filled the broad beach. Now it, too, is a field of weeds — another victim of condo-builders gone bust.

A lone sailboat lay on its starboard side.

Saltzgaver has been visiting the remains of the 23-foot craft all spring. He traced the 1972 Challenger sailboat to a man who lives in Westshore.

The man agreed the boat had to go. Every few weeks, Saltzgaver said, someone comes out here with a saw and hauls away another chunk of the boat. "Imagine trying to chop up a fiberglass boat this big," said the officer, "trying to carry it off, piece by piece."

• • •

The sailboat belongs to Jack Kessler, 76, a retired advertising man. He bought it last October from someone who needed to get rid of it in a hurry.

"What I did, I guess, was buy somebody else's problem," Kessler said.

Last fall, Kessler's son and his girlfriend were out in the boat when it ran aground. They couldn't get it unstuck, so they left it behind for a day or two. When they got back, scavengers had cut off the metal mast and stripped the boat of anything valuable.

It's Kessler's son who goes out from time to time with a generator and an electric saw to cut up the boat and haul the parts away. A few more low tides and he'll be done.

"The officer has been very patient," Kessler said. "I assured him we'll get it out of there."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8848.

how to help

Abandoned boats

If you know of an abandoned boat that should be removed from a public waterway, please note the exact location, then call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission toll-free at 1-888-404-3922.

Removing abandoned boats takes persistence, detective work 05/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2009 11:25am]

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