Set adrift

The plight of derelict boats and what it means for the city

Posted: Sunday, January 21, 2007

If you drove down Egan Drive in mid-December and looked out on to the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, you probably saw the Rosa Lee.

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The 33-foot fishing vessel broke loose from her mooring buoy that month near the Juneau Yacht Club, rode a strong wind and drifted all the way north into Lemon Creek Slough. There she sat, perched precariously on a gravel bed, rising and listing with the whims of the tide.

It was the third time in two years that the Rosa Lee had slipped and drifted away. The owner lives in Arizona and is unreachable, but his family towed the boat and re-anchored it near the Juneau Empire building on Channel Drive.

The Rosa Lee is still resting there, a lonely landmark amid winter whitecaps.

How long can she stay? Can boats simply anchor on state tidelands within Gastineau Channel?

As it turns out, yes. As part of what's called general allowable-use criteria, owners may anchor their boats for up to 14 days in state tidelands. Most of Gastineau Channel is under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Natural Resources. The city harbormaster's rule ends at the breakwater of each harbor.

After 14 days, boats must move at least two miles.

"In general, if they're not in anybody's way on state tidelands, we don't have any objection," said Ed Collazzi, Southeast regional manager of DNR. "We have had some discussions with the city about some additional moorage areas in order to maybe get some order to where people moor in the channel."

Here's where it gets tricky. DNR has no enforcement authority. So when a boat overstays its limit, the department's only recourse is to file a civil action trespass complaint with the state attorney general. Mostly, that's to prevent people from camping out the same spot for an extended period.

"We try not to take that step," Collazzi said. "It's time and labor consuming. There has been some talk about trying to beef up our enforcement capability in that regard."

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Natural Resources co-manage the Mendenhall Wetlands refuge. The owner of the Rosa Lee wasn't fined, because his boat didn't have any fuel aboard, wasn't dropping any debris in the water and did not block the navigable part of the waterway.

Despite its lengthy incarceration in the wetlands, it inflicted no damage to the sensitive habitat.

"The reason it was there for a while had to do with tide and high winds, rather than an unwillingness to move it," said Tom Schumacher, of Fish and Game. "In cases like this, everyone needs to be reasonable. If it's blowing 70 up the channel, you just can't move it."

How does a boat break free from its anchorage in the first place?

"One of the problems with anchorage in the winds that we've been getting is a lot of these boats are older boats and they have what's called ground tackle, which is anchor chain and rope," Juneau harbormaster Lou McCall said.

"If it's not securely anchored in a good holding area, they're going to break their ground tackle and drag anchor."

A derelict boat such as the Rosa Lee would not be allowed to moor in one of the city's harbors. McCall said he's rid the harbor of almost 70 such boats since he started as harbormaster 2 1/2 years ago.

"If you understood some of the people who own boats, you would know there are reasons why they're out there (at anchorage)," McCall said. "The harbor is not built for keeping boats that don't operate and for people who don't want to pay their bills.

"I will not accept (derelict boats) in our harbor because all of a sudden it's the city's responsibility for that vessel," he said. "And chances are, we're not getting paid. And chances are, it might sink."

This winter's early snow was a particularly dangerous time for boats. Two feet of waterlogged powder can easily push a vessel below the waterline. It can also cause on-board devices - like the raw water sea strainers that cool engines - to expand and bring in an unwanted deluge.

A derelict boat sank near the harbormaster's office this winter as a result of the first heavy snowfall. The boat was high and dry on a Friday. Early Monday morning, it sank.

"We still haven't been able to get a hold of the guy," McCall said. "We don't know where he's at."

The city was stuck with the bill, almost $15,000. It cost $8,000 in diving fees, $2,800 to destroy the boat, and more to keep it afloat, pump it out, hire a contractor to tow it away, lift it out of the water and pay for landfill and Hazmat fees.

"If a vessel sinks that we have impounded and we're waiting to coordinate the effort to have it removed from the harbor and destroyed, it's our responsibility, and (the Coast Guard) can fine us," McCall said.

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