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'Ark of Eden' a devilish problem

The odd voyage of the 44-foot sailboat Ark of Eden ended earlier this year in a rainstorm.

The concrete-hulled boat tipped on its side and sank in a shallow channel at Anclote River Park, just north of the Pinellas-Pasco county line.

For months, the murky tide has moved in and out of the 32,000-pound boat as though it were a natural part of the shore.

Now the state is entangled in a court fight to remove the barnacle-covered vessel from the river. The county is seeking a $37,500 state grant to move it and possibly turn it into an artificial reef elsewhere.

The Ark of Eden is just one of hundreds of abandoned boats cluttering channels and rivers around the state. And, unlike junked cars, which are easily removed, the boat demonstrates the difficulties government agencies have removing wrecked boats from public waterways.

"You can be sued for taking someone's boat," said Capt. Leo Isambert with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tampa. "We have to make sure we're not taking someone's property just because it's an eyesore."

At the center of the Ark's fate is the boat's onetime captain, John Saxer.

The Largo eccentric once lived on the boat while researching his theory that Tarpon Springs is the site of the Bible's Garden of Eden.

He contends he was not the boat's owner when it sank. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office claims otherwise.

Saxer has thrown down his anchor and is prepared for battle.

"I'm going to fight this all the way to the Supreme Court," said Saxer, a 55-year-old bicycle repairman and bartender who works in Tarpon Springs.

Pasco County Judge Marc Salton has scheduled a hearing Jan. 12.

Until then, fishermen say the boat has turned into a good fishing spot.

To Pasco County Parks and Recreation Director Rick Buckman, "it's just a big concrete hull of a boat."

"We haven't gotten the okay to do anything with it."

Docking room scarcer

The number of boats trashed in Florida waters has grown after eight hurricanes pummeled the state in recent years and boaters were pushed out of a dwindling number of marinas.

The problem is compounded by a boom in boat ownership that has outpaced population growth. Florida has more registered boats than any other state, hitting a record 1-million last year.

As for Saxer, he said he bought the Ark, a homemade boat built in the 1970s, in 1998 for $2,500 from a man who never produced a title, only a bill of sale.

Saxer lived on the boat for a while with his dog.

"I was doing a lot of research," said Saxer, who says he is an archeologist who had a vision once that Tarpon Springs was the original Eden. "I needed a boat as an office."

Though he loved the boat, Saxer said he sold it in December to a woman named Debbie Downing and her boyfriend after Saxer moved into a Largo mobile home. Downing could not be reached for comment.

The boat soon sank.

Saxer says it took on water after a rainstorm. "An accident," he said. "An act of God."

An incident report suggests Pasco County sheriff's deputies asked Saxer several times to remove the boat. Some items on the boat came off and floated toward the Progress Energy Anclote Power Plant.

Saxer was jailed in July when he failed to make a court appearance. He was released on $500 bail and has pleaded not guilty to boat abandonment, a first-degree misdemeanor.

In many cases where boats are abandoned, governments are unable to prove ownership.

Saxer's public defender, Susan Gardner, told the judge recently that the two sides "are trying to reach some sort of agreement" because of the boat's questionable ownership.

Assistant State Attorney Matt Ryan said no title has been found proving ownership and there is no vehicle identification number.

He'd like it back

Saxer says local governments should be going after people who purposely abandon their boats.

But he said he's not one of them. He said he was trying to save the money to remove the sunken boat that wasn't really his when he was arrested.

He still hopes to someday repair the boat and make it float but said it will take money and time.

"It's not a one-man job," Saxer said. "I'm not Atlas. I'm not a Greek God. I'm broke."

Melanie Ave can be reached at (727) 893-8813 or mave@sptimes.com.

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