Derelict boats a sticky issue for cities

Derelict boats — hard to police— are eyesores to some, but are history or home to their owners.
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GULFPORT — When Eric Finkler bought his 1905 steel-hulled sardine trawler in 2008 with all the money he had — $40,000 — he never intended for the vessel to wind up moored for several years in Boca Ciega Bay.

It's now an eyesore to most of the city's officials and high-end property owners residing on shore.

But, to Finkler, it's a point of pride. He sees a piece of history being brought back to life.

He's been working on it ever since he bought it, slapping a new ⅜-inch thick steel hull on it a few years ago. The lime-green antique looks like an old jalopy at risk of sinking — its broken mast and engine strapped to the deck, birds comfortably soaking up the sun.

What most people don't know is that Finkler put a newer Cummins turbo diesel engine in the belly of the ship not long ago. While it may not be very pretty, he's preparing to move it to a dry dock in Tampa for other major repairs.

While he may be trying get his boat going, however slowly, many owners of vessels indefinitely moored on Boca Ciega Bay are not. The problem isn't new. Until a recent push in November by Gulfport officials to rid their town of several partly submerged, sunken, beached or abandoned boats, roughly 45 to 50 vessels sat in Boca Ciega Bay .

St. Petersburg, which shares Boca Ciega Bay with Gulfport, is one of five cities in the state taking part in a pilot program to fast track the removal of boats, which presents a dicey issue in itself. Declaring a boat derelict isn't so easy, as it turns out.

Boat owners who tend to do the bare minimum in maintenance are often very simply squatters, using their boat as a floating crash pad. They camp out for extended periods in waterways where they can live off the grid and not be bothered.

Other boats are used as floating storage units. Either way, many boats tend to be unregistered, untitled and change hands often, eluding local and state law enforcement.

As long as a boat is floating, it's hard for officials to haul it off, even if it has broken free of its mooring and winds up beached on someone's multimillion dollar property.

This is where the problem starts.

"I understand the public's concern," said Officer Randy Bibler of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But much of the public doesn't understand how the process has to be handled."

Gulfport's marine patrol officer, Sgt. Robert Burkhart, echoed Bibler's statements on the issue.

"You just can't go in and tow them out," Burkhart said. "This is not a fast process at all. It's almost like being evicted. There are certified letters that have to be sent and unfortunately there's nothing against the law in this state of being an at-risk vessel."

What many in Gulfport would like to see is the derelict boats leaving to make room for transient boaters who come in from sailing trips to take in the town via the eight free boat slips or the dinghy dock and eat at the waterfront restaurants. Those visitors also pay mooring field fees, taking advantage of marina perks like showers, fuel and pump-out service.

Gulfport resident Grant Bond created a Facebook group with more than 100 members called CADIB — Citizens Against Derelict and Illegal Boats. While the page is hyperlocal, and sometimes hypercritical of local officials for not doing enough, it's packed with pictures of vessels in every imaginable unseaworthy condition.

Bond lives in a house on the water with his family, just around the bend from Gulfport's municipal marina. From his boat dock, prior to taking a reporter on a tour of the bay, he pointed to several boats he said he hadn't seen move in years.

The floating storage boats are what bother him the most.

"It's an ongoing issue," Bond said. "During storm season, we're always waiting for the next crop of boats to wash ashore."

Asked if he's happy about the Gulfport's recent action to haul out some boats, he said "I wouldn't say I'm satisfied, but it's gotten better."

In St. Petersburg, Officer Mike Robertson heads up the marine unit and its two patrol boats. The city has 300 linear miles of responsibility. There are plenty of places to tuck a boat away and no laws preventing a boat owner from anchoring in state waters for as long as they want.

"It's something that affects the whole state of Florida," he said in the waters near Tierra Verde, looking at two boats that were half sunken. "We've always been able to regulate live-aboard vessels. But the state can't regulate anchored non-liveaboard boats."

However, since 2009 St. Petersburg has been one of five locations in the state in the Anchoring and Mooring Pilot Program, overseen by the fish and wildlife commission. Also in the program are the cities of St. Augustine and Sarasota, and Monroe and Martin counties.

At the end of the program, which is due to expire in July, state authorities are supposed to come up with legislation that will restrict anchoring that local governments will enforce or allow local governments to come up with their own ordinances.

Robertson is hopeful legislators will come up with a solution.

"Before the pilot program, we had around 80-90 storage boats alone in St. Petersburg waterways," he said. "Now we have maybe 15-20, so for us the program has been a huge success. But I would like to see the state severely restrict or eliminate altogether the storing of boats on the waterways."

St. Petersburg typically gives owners 10 days to bring their boats into compliance once cited. Gulfport allows 30 days.

Finkler, the owner of the 110-year-old trawler in Gulfport's mooring field, is conscious of the issue. He keeps the boat registered annually.

His dream? To make his ship into a refrigerated shipping container, ferrying around dairy products like milk and ice cream throughout the Caribbean.

Editor's note: This article was amended to reflection the following Gulfport resident Grant Bond created a Facebook group with more than 100 members called CADIB — Citizens Against Derelict and Illegal Boats. His name was misspelled in an article in the Feb. 3 St. Pete Times section. correction

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