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  1. Tampa

Remember that derelict boat off the Howard Frankland Bridge? It's still there.

Tampa neighbors Elaine Prevatt, left, and Arnold Hubbard sit in the back yards of their coastal properties, in front of the unwelcome visitor to their neighborhood. The Moonraker II is a derelict boat stuck on a sandbar just off the Tampa entrance of the northbound Howard Frankland Bridge, obstructing their view of Tampa Bay. The owner says he can’t afford to fix, salvage or move it. So it’s been sitting there for seven months while the residents of Mariner Street wait for government agencies to figure out who is responsible for removing it. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jun. 14

TAMPA — For months, Arnold Hubbard sighed about the boat.

It was an eyesore bobbing precariously off the northbound exit of the Howard Frankland Bridge — and blocking the view from his private dock along a street of waterfront houses. The abandoned, white, wooden fishing boat with Moonraker II stamped across it was in bad condition and getting worse.

Hubbard, 61, tried to do something about it. He called the mayor's office and the Tampa Port Authority. He reported it to the state. Neighbors grumbled, too. Down Mariner Street, Elaine Prevatt complained that she could see the boat from every window in her house. The Moonraker II had taken on so much water, she said, it "looks like a swimming pool."

Months passed. They watched the boat drift, threatening to block access to the channel. It grew filthy and became covered with algae. Pieces of it came off and floated onto the beach. Now it is listing to port.

"How can this be allowed to continue?" Hubbard said. "We shouldn't be able to treat our waterways this way."

And what will happen now that storm season has arrived?

It has been more than seven months since the half-sunken vessel was abandoned, annoying homeowners and perplexing drivers approaching Tampa. But someone may finally do something about it: The responsibility and cost of moving it now falls on Hillsborough County.

When it will be moved, though, is still unknown.

• • •

The owner, Joey Sirmans, 45, says the boat ended up in this awkward position due to a series of unfortunate events.

His father bought the boat for him for $20,000 as a family project, Sirmans said, but passed away soon after. He decided to take the boat to Jean Street Shipyard in Tampa to repair it but didn't realize he needed approval to pass under bridges. He left it anchored in deep water overnight, and said when he came back parts were missing, the anchor unmoored and the boat drifting into the shallows.

Sirmans said he reported the boat break-in. Tampa police say they have no record of that report.

The marina says it didn't want the Moonraker II anyway.

"We don't take boats that don't float," Jean Street owner John Brotherton said. "A lot of people will bring in a boat, and you never see them again. It's how people get rid of boats."

Behind the scenes, the wheels of bureaucracy turned slowly. The first order of business was trying to compel the boat's owner to take responsibility.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took Sirmans to court. In November he was fined $106 and given a warning for mooring a boat at risk of becoming derelict. Then in April he was charged with unlawful abandonment of a vessel and fined $298. He was also fined $123 for not having navigation lights.

Still, the Moonraker II stayed.

Sirmans said he tried to pump out the water and get the boat back to deep water, but each time he returned, it was in worse condition. Vandals had broken the windows, he said, and picked over the boat.

He soon lost hope of resurrecting the Moonraker II. He runs a tree service business and has nine kids. He said he doesn't have the money to pay for a costly removal, which could run tens of thousands of dollars.

No marina was willing to accept the boat in its deteriorating condition without a significant retainer anyway. The gift became a millstone hanging from his neck.

"What are some suggestions? Can we take it out somewhere and sink it?" Sirmans said. "I don't want to make people mad at me."

It's probably too late to avoid that.

• • •

Something finally happened on May 10. The wildlife commission signed off on paperwork allowing Hillsborough County to remove the boat.

But even that takes time. Hillsborough's manager of safety and special enforcement, Robin Caton, said he has requested estimates from commercial salvage companies to compare costs. Then he will apply for a grant from the wildlife commission to cover 75 percent of the expense.

Salvaging a derelict boat — especially those with wooden hulls — requires a lot of work and money: The vessel has to be raised from its sunken state, towed, lifted onto the ground and then physically torn apart. During the whole process, the salvage company must not spill a drop of oil. It can cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to north of $20,000.

"I hope that within the next two months we'll have this gone," Caton said. "I know that sounds like a long time, but if we are going to do a (state) grant, we have to follow that process."

It's a problem that Caton is familiar with. "There's a statewide problem with derelict boats," Caton said. The county usually removes seven to 10 boats a year.

After the boat is taken care of, Sirmans will be billed for the cost, the commission said. If he doesn't pay within 30 days, the punishment is severe: He will lose his right to title any boats or vehicles in Florida.

"I don't know what to do," he said. "It was an accident, and I don't feel I've done anything malicious."

Hubbard was pleased when a Tampa Bay Times reporter told him that a resolution may be near.

"A boat is just like a car," he said. "You have some responsibility to deal with it."

Contact Kavitha Surana at ksurana@tampabay.com or 727-893-8149. Follow @Ksurana6.

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