Derelict vessels draining coffers

Blanketed by the night, a boat skulks up to a pier along The City’s waterfront. Its operators throw a rope around one of the metal ties on the pier. Then they walk away, and don’t come back.

And as simple as that, another boat has been abandoned, and another costly problem has been hoisted onto one of the marinas, harbors and piers that dot the coastline that edges The City and the Peninsula.

Several dozen boats are abandoned in the Bay each year, many grounded or scuttled in the channels of the Sacramento River Delta and the shallow inlets of the South Bay. Others are tied up to a pier, anchored off shore, or simply sink in their slips.

All boats have vessel IDs and individual names, but frequently their owners scratch those off in hopes of escaping the $200-to-$400-per-foot cost to dispose of the boats themselves, explained Chris Lauritzen, boardmember of the state’s Abandoned Vessel Advisory Committee. 

The result is an expensive and time-consuming problem for harbormasters and law enforcement agencies throughout the Bay Area. San Mateo and San Francisco waterfront officials say the problem has proved persistent and costly.

San Francisco Port Wharfinger Hedley Prince says The City’s Port finds about 10 recreational or commercial boats abandoned on its property each year.

“We have 7.5 miles of waterfront, so they can tie the boat to one of our piers and go away without anyone seeing them,” he said. “Sometimes the boats sink, and [the owners] don’t have the money to get them raised up and fixed, so they walk away and we get left holding the bag.”

San Mateo County Harbormaster Robert Johnson, who oversees the Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay and the Oyster Point Marina in South San Francisco, said they currently have seven abandoned boats at each facility. He said he’s worried the problem will get worse as the recession drags on.

Grants from the California Department of Boating and Waterways help pay for some of the removal, but California only has $500,000 to hand out for boat disposal across the state, so much of the cost for disposal has to come out of Johnson’s operating budget. And that has repercussions.

“Through attrition we’ve had to downsize staff,” he said.

The San Francisco Marina has seen an uptick in people behind in rent, but so far the delinquencies have only resulted in a handful of abandonments, said Harbormastor Larry White.

For South Beach Harbor, it’s been a “constant problem,” and currently they have two abandoned boats they’re trying to get rid of, said Harbormaster James Walter.

The problem was critical at Clipper Cove, the waterway between Treasure and Yerba Buena islands, until new legislation allowed the Treasure Island Authority to begin tagging and removing boats. They removed about seven sunken boats in the channel, said authority Executive Director Mirian Saez.

“I think a lot of people couldn’t afford it anymore so they just anchored their boat out there and it would get loose and sink, and we’d have to spend a good amount of money disposing of them,” she said.

Johnson said he’s worried the expensive problem will get worse before it gets better.

“At Oyster Point I put 30 vessels in dumpsters in the last five to seven years,” said Johnson. “I’d say there’s potential for a lot more to be abandoned with the economy.”

Program may curb scuttling

A statewide pilot program that would allow boat owners to turn over their vessels without penalty may help reduce the cost of the problem for waterfront agencies, said California Department of Boating and Waterways spokeswoman Gloria Sandoval.

As it stands, boat owners are responsible for paying to dispose of their own boats, once the vessels are at the end of their lives.

So when a boat owner doesn’t have the $200 to $400 per vessel-foot needed for disposal, they often sink or ground the boat — creating far more costs for waterfront agencies, who must then pay to lift the boat out of the water, on top of the costs for demolition and removal.

The pilot program would solve this problem by allowing the boat owner to turn over his boat for disposal to a law enforcement agency or a harbormaster, saving time and cost, said Chris Lauritzen, boardmember of the state’s Abandoned Vessel Advisory Committee. 

“That’s where we need to be because it just costs too much money to take care of that boat when it’s sunk,” Lauritzen said. “We want it when it’s still floating.”

The new program is expected to be funded in the 2010-2011 state budget, and will launch once that budget passes.

Pier pileup

$200-$400: The cost, per vessel foot,  of disposing of a boat

$500,000: Total amount of money in the California Department of Boating and Waterways boat disposal fund

$150,000: Money for pilot program that will allow boat owners to turn their vessels over rather than abandon them

3,838: Registered vessels in San Francisco County, 2009

1,975: Expired vessel registrations in San Francisco County

Registered vessels in California, 2009

Source: California Department of Boating and Waterways

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