Vandals sank a boat that was to be used as part of a divers' underwater park at Auke Village Recreation Area.
Since acquiring the Arctic Tern this past winter, the Alaska Artificial Reef Society has readied the derelict 70-foot ferrocement-hulled motorsailor for sinking at the 40-acre underwater park off the shores of Auke Rec.
But between Thursday night and Friday morning, vandals opened the vessel's seacock valves and flooded the boat, sinking it prematurely and in a different location than the group had intended.
"I'm very upset," said Larry Musarra, co-president of AARS. "We put a lot of work into this, a lot of sweat. And now we have to clean up after someone because they wanted to have a little thrill. We have to do more work. It kind of ruins it for a lot of people."
Scuba divers and AARS volunteers on Saturday cleaned up and burned debris that had washed up on shore. They also surveyed the location and status of the sunken boat.
AARS had intended to sink the Arctic Tern late this summer at a depth of about 70 feet. The boat is now at a depth of about 27 feet at low tide, shallower than the Rikki Tikki, a 48-foot motorsailor the organization sank in October 2003.
The Rikki Tikki was the first permitted artificial reef in Alaska.
"They cheated a lot of people out of a nice dive, a different kind of dive, which we had already set up and organized. And they cheated a lot of people who could have watched it sink," said Musarra.
AARS co-president Su Lachelt was contacted by the U.S. Forest Service on Friday afternoon regarding debris found on the beach at Auke Rec and was told the Arctic Tern had been sunk.
"There had been some revelers down here that had to be broken up during the night, so I put the machinery in motion after that, called the Coast Guard and all the agencies," she said Saturday morning at Auke Rec.
The Arctic Tern had been anchored at Auke Rec for the last couple of months as AARS waited for state and federal agencies to approve the permits necessary to sink the boat as an artificial reef at the underwater park.
Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Dave Zuniga said he could not comment on the situation because it is an open joint investigation between the Forest Service and Alaska State Troopers.
He would not elaborate on what type of crime it could be classified as or what penalties could be levied against those responsible. The troopers were unavailable for comment by press time.
Lachelt said the group has had problems over the last several weeks with people partying on the Arctic Tern and threatening to vandalize it or destroy it.
She said the group boarded up the boat weeks ago and posted no-trespassing signs after finding empty beer bottles and cans inside the boat.
Lachelt said she reported her concerns to the Juneau police.
"It's kind of taken the fun out of it," she said. "Somebody goes on a piece of private property that's posted as private property. It's boarded up and secured. They take it upon themselves to break in to the private property, vandalize it. It deprived all of us of what the underwater park was scheduled to be."
AARS said the Arctic Tern is unsafe for divers at this point. It could be a navigational obstruction and should be avoided until further notice, the group said.
"We definitely have to do more dives on it to clean it up and make it safe," said Lachelt.
AARS members are not sure of the extent of the vandalization, but they suspect that the boat had been lit on fire before it sank.
"There's a little bit of charred wood and stuff around the area. I couldn't tell where it was on the boat, but the seacocks were open," said John Lachelt, who surveyed the boat Saturday morning. "Somebody purposely sank the thing. I don't know if they set fire to it and wanted to put it out or what the deal was. I'm without words."
John Lachelt said volunteers had spent hundreds of hours cleaning the boat, removing fuel tanks and other hazardous materials, towing it to Auke Rec, and submitting the permit paperwork. He said volunteers have spent hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets.
"It's just a real level of frustration," said John Lachelt. "It's underwater, but we're probably going to have to pick it up and move it, but that is going to be really hard to do. It's a lot of work. It's doable, it's just something we didn't need."
Su Lachelt said she is not sure what the next step will be. She will talk to the agencies involved, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Forest Service, state Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Environmental Conservation, the city Parks and Recreation Department, and others.
Despite the setback, John Lachelt said the group is not deterred from the long-term goal of the underwater park.
"The artificial reef projects are a worthwhile thing," he said. "Despite a few setbacks here and there, I think ultimately we'll succeed in our goals of making it better and providing a better place for the community to come out and play and enjoy, and bring in more critters. It will be beneficial for everything and everybody."
Eric Morrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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