Martin County to remove 14 abandoned vessels

Dec 3, 2008

Treasure Coast Palm--December 2, 2008

By Ed Killer

STUART – The night of Oct. 27, Stuart boaters Bill and Jane Sprague’s lives flashed before their very eyes.

It was a little after dark near Hell’s Gate in the St. Lucie River when the Sprague’s 18-foot center console fiberglass-hulled fishing boat struck an unseen object floating just below the water’s surface.

The force was hard enough to launch his boat out of the water, coming down hard on its bow. The Spragues were thrown into the steering wheel and to the deck hard enough to cause minor injuries

Immediately, Sprague’s thoughts turned to the object. Was it another boat operating without running lights? Was anyone else hurt – or worse?

Sprague’s spotlight discovered the obstruction – a 40-foot by five-foot section of a boat’s hull complete with its steel deck railing and some electrical wiring. Sprague recognized the offending chunk as having broken off an abandoned 60-foot vessel that had been stranded since July on the sandbar in front of the entrance to the Manatee Pocket.

Boats left behind by owners who cannot afford to care for them properly or remove them have become a pricey problem for Florida taxpayers. Last Tuesday, the County Commission approved transferring $34,000 from reserve funds to pay for the removal of 14 abandoned and deteriorating vessels from county waters. The total cost to remove the county inventory of broken boats is estimated to run $52,500, said Kathy Roberts, environmental compliance and enforcement administrator with Martin County.

According to Roberts siad the 14 vessels listed on a waterway survey completed the week of Nov. 10-14 are the only vessels in county waters that are deemed a problem at the present time.

“All represent varying degrees of hazard,” she said, “but all are of critical importance to remove. “

Although the FWC Office of Boating and Waterways policy states that state or county officials are to make every attempt to have the owner pay for removal costs, owners almost never do.

Phil Owen, senior associate planner with Martin County’s Growth Management Department, the office that handles abandoned and derelict boats, said attempts to bring cases to court are often futile since many of the owners can’t pay even when ordered by a judge. In 13 years in his position, Owen estimates that 100 boats have been removed from county waters and the county has been reimbursed by an insurance company for one.

Boats left behind following hurricane damage are eligible for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance as was the case following 2004 when 45 boats were taken out of county waters. Owen said FEMA reimbursement took almost two years. An FWC grant was available to counties. However, Owen said budget cuts have put some grants in jeopardy and the FWC fund used to take as long as 16 months.

The wide, inviting waters of Martin County have long welcomed the visiting boater. Easy access to the land via numerous waterfront parks and marinas and relaxed rules about anchoring and mooring have made it a beloved destination for traveling cruisers.

But an increased population of transient boat traffic has brought more boaters with limited means. In recent years, a proliferation of abandoned vessels has strained county coffers as officials struggle to remove unwanted boats from area waterways before they become hazards to navigation and public and environmental safety.

Some years, Roberts said, the county may not have any boats slated for removal, so the requisition for funding is often not in place until a case arises. Funds for boat removal in 2008 were spent by February, so a new budget cycle that began Oct. 1 was needed to make the planned removals possible. Roberts said the case of the 60-footer near the Crossroads became problematic in September and became the impetus to pursue funds for its removal more aggressively.

“There just isn’t adequate funding for counties to remove the number of abandoned and derelict vessels there are in state waters,” said Lt. Steve Sheridan, Martin County law enforcement supervisor for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Removal of derelict boats is a statewide problem.”

The vessel near Sandsprit Park began to break apart in September because of strong tides, said Sgt. Bruce Newbold, supervisor of the marine unit for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office. Newbold said deputies towed several chunks of the boat to Sandsprit Park to be hauled away to the dump.

Vessels will not be removed quickly unless deemed a hazard to navigation. Even then, the appropriation of money can cause months to pass before an abandoned vessel is removed. As for the acquired funding, Owen hopes the bid process will close quickly and the work will begin before any other boaters suffer injuries or damage.

The Spragues received more than $1,500 of damage to their outboard motor. Sprague has contacted numerous officials to begin a change in policy to prevent incidents like his from occurring again.

“We could have been killed,” Sprague said. “It’s nice to know that if you can’t afford to manage your boat responsibly you can just walk away from it so the taxpayers will clean it up.”



60-foot aground wooden powerboat: $5,000

Jensen Beach Causeway

25-foot sunken powerboat: $3,000

25-foot sunken sailboat: $3,000

20-foot sunken boat hull: $1,500

20-foot powerboat aground: $2,500

17-foot powerboat aground: $2,000

32-foot powerboat aground: $5,000

Willoughby Creek

27-foot sailboat aground: $2,500

North Fork of St. Lucie River

38-foot sunken sailboat: $7,000

Pendarvis Cove

38-foot sunken sailboat: $6,500

38-foot sunken sailboat: $5,000

24-foot sunken powerboat: $3,000

Sunken debris: $1,5000

35-foot sunken sailboat: $5,000

Total cost: $52,500


A vessel left on public property in a wrecked, inoperative or partially dismantled condition is considered abandoned if it has no identifiable owner or has no intrinsic value to the rightful owner.


Any vessel in violation of the Florida Statutes can be deemed a “derelict vessel.” If any vessel in a wrecked, junked or substantially dismantled condition is left upon any public waters or at any port or docked at private property without the property owner’s consent, it can be declared a derelict vessel. Vessels entirely on land are not considered derelict. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission determines a vessel to be derelict after all available means to have the rightful owner remove the vessel have failed.