Dock owners, marinas best beware of rescue efforts

Dock owners, marinas best beware of rescue efforts

Abandoned Vessels, Part II

As ugly as is the issue of abandoned boats, understanding process and protocol while trying to adhere to sometimes gray-area statutes and laws can really muddy the waters. Nothing about unclaimed boats is easy. Nothing is cut and dried.

For instance, there appears to be no real line of delineation as to who becomes liable for an abandoned boat that drifts onto another’s property which, in most cases, is a dock. A dock-owning Good Samaritan may feel inclined to tie the boat down to prevent further damage to neighboring docks. But, when said gesture is made, barring identification of the rightful owner, that vessel becomes the responsibility of the one who tied it down.

The easiest way to absolve one’s responsibility for an abandoned boat is to alert the Florida FWC Division of Law Enforcement. But even then, a quick fix is rare.

“You can report it to the FWC and ask them to remove it,” said Howard Sutter, Board Certified by the State of Florida as a specialist in Admiralty and Maritime Law. “But, I think the basic result is that you get the privilege of having the boat put on a list for future removal. Legislature has not funded this need well. Wreck removal is a difficult and expensive task.”

Should an individual envision some diamond in the abandoned-boat rough and decide to keep it, measures can be taken.

“First, you report it to a law enforcement agency,” said Sutter. “They collect a fee for beginning an investigation under Section 705.103, Florida Statutes, and determine the owner of the vessel. If the vessel is not claimed, law enforcement may transfer it to the finder with a bill of sale and evidence of the investigation.” The finder then applies to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to have the title put into his or her name.

“Unless the boat has floated up in my client’s backyard,” said Sutter. “I have a hard time imagining any reason for an individual to mess with it. If you take responsibility for one of these boats in any way and cause a pollution event in the process, you will be a very unhappy camper. Individuals who step into this quagmire run a huge risk of liability, and for those intrepid fools who might try to do this work themselves, that risk includes serious personal injury. Sunken vessels are heavy, slimy, barnacle-encrusted threats to life and limb.”

There are also the confounding dilemmas associated with abandoned boats at marinas.

One of several Florida statutes that addresses abandoned vessels is Florida Statute 328.17. According to Sutter, this purports to give marinas and dock owners the ability to acquire a title to a vessel for purpose of “removal.”

“That may be their intent,” Sutter explained. “However, the effect of the statute is to give title non-judicially to a vessel by virtue of imposing a lien for dockage (including wreck removal). That means they are attempting to ‘establish a claim’ against the vessel itself.”

If the marina comes to Sutter well in advance, there are things he is able to do within their contracts that will reduce the risks and costs when a tenant skips out on payment.

Another mitigating factor with those who become flight risks are the lofty costs involved even when proper protocol is initially followed with boats of lost cause. Not long ago, lightening popped a boat docked at a private residence on the Cedar River. The strike was so severe, the boat sank. The cost to have the boat pulled up and removed was so extensive that the owner opted to leave it submerged at the side of his dock.

Because of the time and money he’s lost removing worthless boats over the years, it takes $5,000 just to get the attention of Sadler Point Marina owner Brooks Busey. That may sound like a lot, Busey noted. “But, I’ve never once come out ahead on a removal project.”

“I’ve dealt with about 12 such vessels in the 15 years I’ve been here and it is a huge mess,” Busey said. “It takes a lot of time, energy and money. Honestly, I avoid that kind of work. I lose money dealing with those boats.”

Not only does Busey need one slip for the boat itself, but an additional slip is required next to it for the dumpster.

Like each piece of the puzzle that preceded it, there’s nothing cheap or easy about a boat’s removal. Some have sunk and are suctioned into the mud. Wooden boats are easier to chop up than fiberglass boats. Big equipment and machines, like cranes, are often necessary. The vessel must be stripped of anything of value and there must be a thorough clean-up of anything potentially hazardous. The reality is that what began as a singular glimmer in one’s eye ends up a barnacled, rotten and water-logged pile in a city dump.

Glamorous, isn’t it?

In the end, while abandoning the vessel seems like a problem solved for the hapless boat owner, it will continue to be nothing but an even bigger problem for undeserving others.

“Just a young fella that didn’t know any better,” Busey mused, speaking generally of the whole problem. “He thought he’d take advantage of a good deal on a boat, but didn’t think it through beyond that.”

By Doug Milne
Resident Community News

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