The Derelict Dilemma

By Ryck Lydecker

The cost of removing derelict vessels from our waterways, even abandoned commercial vessels, often comes out of recreational boaters' pockets.

Photo of the abandoned boat Exodus Exodus, removed in 2008, is one of 10 abandoned, derelict or trespassing vessels taken out of small bays on Puget Sound. Five were removed by owners while the Derelict Vessel Program paid for the other five. (Photo: Washington State DNR)

With the exchange (right) by radio in 1940, the 76-foot Monterey sardine seiner Western Flyer headed on a 4,000-mile expedition to the Gulf of California carrying novelist John Steinbeck and his marine biologist buddy, Ed Ricketts. The resulting co-authored book, The Sea of Cortez, published the following year, is noted today as "a useful work of travel literature [and a] pioneering work of intertidal ecology," according to Steinbeck scholar Richard Astro of Drexel University.

Today the port that saw Western Flyer launched in 1937, Tacoma, Washington, celebrates the vessel's history and role in a seminal work of nonfiction in an exhibit at the Foss Waterway Seaport. But in the spring of 2013, Western Flyer herself, renamed the Gemini, lay 80 miles to the north, near La Conner, Washington, again collecting "bugs" and other marine growth, but this time all over her hull, deck, and superstructure as she lay underwater in the Swinomish Channel. Since raised, with a new owner and reportedly headed for restoration and return to California, the ship came close to becoming one of the 140 or so derelict vessels scattered about the backwaters of the Evergreen State, creating potential pollution and navigation hazards, not to mention putting financial pressure on its modest Derelict Vessel Removal Program. Established in 2002, the program has successfully removed 495 vessels, both commercial and recreational, in the decade since.

Washington's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) operates the program using $3 of the annual fee that boaters pay to register a recreational boat in Washington, which generates about $800,000 annually. But the state has roughly 45 derelicts over 100 feet in length in its database — hardly "recreational" by most definitions — and disposing of any one of these vessels could sink the budget, according to DNR. To add insult to injury, commercial vessels — roughly 45 of the current derelict backlog — pay nothing into the removal program, although a law change enacted last July aims to fix that and make other improvements in the program.

"Recreational boaters foot the bill for the smaller commercial, or formerly commercial, vessels that we remove," reports Melissa Ferris, who manages the program for DNR. "But the line is blurred because if the vessel is not an active commercial vessel, it's required to be registered as recreational, and most of the vessels that we remove are not active commercial vessels. In 2012, the agency spent $188,364 on what I'd consider commercial vessels and about $560,000 on recreational vessels. That includes former military vessels and other commercial vessels that were most recently registered as recreational vessels."

Two years ago a former Alaskan crabber, the 140-foot Deep Sea, put the derelict problem in perspective. Over the previous eight or so years, the vessel, built in 1947, had a succession of owners and in the process went from iconic "Deadliest Catch" status to becoming one of the costliest headaches in the derelict vessel program's history. Abandoned by its most recent owner, whose plans to scrap the vessel fell through, the ship lay at anchor in a Whidbey Island cove when it caught fire and sank in May of 2012, spilling thousands of gallons of diesel fuel into prime shellfish beds. It cost the government some $3 million to remediate the environmental damage and finally scrap the vessel.

Photo of abandoned boat Deep SeaDeep Sea was lifted to the surface last June. Yellow booming surrounds the vessel to contain any hazardous liquids that leaked out after raising. (Photo: Washington State DNR)

But Whose Pockets?

While the Western Flyer's literary pedigree ultimately may save her from similar ignominy, the two vessels illustrate a nagging problem seen in other states nationwide: what to do with larger commercial vessels that are abandoned and derelict? And more to the point, who foots the bill when an owner can't or won't pay, or can't be found at all? At present only a handful of states set aside money for derelict vessel removal. In Maryland, for example, the state's Waterway Improvement Fund is used for dredging, aids to navigation, pumpouts, and a variety of other purposes in addition to derelict vessel removal. A one-time, five-percent excise tax levied when a boat is purchased and titled in the state goes into the fund, and the tax does apply to commercial as well as to recreational boats. The fund provides grants of up to $50,000 to local jurisdictions for removing abandoned vessels.

Back in 1997, California created the Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund that provides money to public agencies to dispose of abandoned, wrecked, or dismantled vessels (or other navigation hazards) from navigable waterways. The money comes from recreational boat registrations through the Harbors and Watercraft Revolving Fund, although the grants require agencies to provide a 10-percent match. In January 2010, California added a pilot Vessel Turn-In Program that allows boat owners to surrender an unwanted recreational vessel to participating local agencies for disposal. It costs the state, on average, $4,400 to dispose of an abandoned boat. But under the voluntary turn-in program, the cost dropped to $1,700, and it proved so successful that in August of last year the General Assembly passed legislation, supported by the Recreational Boaters of California, that made it permanent.

In Massachusetts, the Abandoned Vessel Trust Fund gets partial funding from the state's general legislative appropriations but also raises additional money for the program by selling once-abandoned vessels to the public. Two years ago Florida began an aggressive intervention program to help prevent any boat, commercial or recreational, from going derelict in the first place. That, with other removal efforts, has cut the nautical junk pile from some 1,500 vessels to about 950 today, only about two percent of which are commercial vessels. Boat registration fees contribute to that program, along with some funds from the state's two public navigation districts. Volunteer organizations such as Palm Beach County's nonprofit Lagoon Keepers even help pay for removals. In fact, last September Lagoon Keepers marked its 190th successful removal, a sunken 33-foot sailboat.

Photo of abandoned boat removal in FloridaPalm Beach County, Florida's volunteer Lagoon Keepers has removed 190 abandoned and derelict vessels. (Photo: Lagoon Keepers)

Back in Washington state, the derelict law that went into effect in July 2013 gives officials authority to board known derelicts, or vessels presumed abandoned, to take pre-emptive measures against spills, going adrift, sinking, and like hazards. It also requires owners of vessels 65 feet and up and older than 40 years, to have the boat inspected by a qualified surveyor before transferring ownership. In addition, the law called on DNR to create a work group to delve deeper into the state's derelict problem and recommend additional solutions.

One person the agency called upon for advice is Capt. Roger Slade, who operates BoatUS Vessel Assist Port Townsend, and he has seen his share of problems with derelict and abandoned commercial vessels. As a Derelict Vessel Program contractor since it started, Slade has assisted in removal of around 30 vessels, about half of them commercial vessels. "Those tend to be more expensive removal projects and much riskier," Slade notes, "because these older commercial vessels involve hazardous materials like asbestos and lead paint, not to mention oil and diesel fuel aboard. So, proportionately, it costs a lot more money to handle them than recreational boats. A vessel like Deep Sea can really tap the fund."

Picking Up The Tab

If there's any good news in the Deep Sea story, it's that relatively little of the removal money came out of the recreational boater-generated derelict vessel fund, according to Peter Schrappen, government affairs director of the Northwest Marine Trade Association in Seattle. "A special appropriation of $3 million from the legislature paid for that, and we've had federal money to take care of two other huge commercial vessel headaches, but these situations also helped us get more teeth into Washington's derelict vessel laws."

His organization, as well as the Recreational Boating Association of Washington, helped convince the legislature to sharpen those teeth. "Boaters already pay $3 into the Derelict Vessel Program every time they register. We helped the Department of Natural Resources to make the case that this money is needed to continue to chip away at the backlog of derelict vessels in the state," adds Schrappen, who's also serving on the work group. "The real sticking point remains that commercial and ex-military vessels are drains on this fund. They don't pay a dime into the derelict vessel program. But that's going to change because written into the new law is direction to devise a framework to have these freeloaders pony up."

Under the amended law, the work group was to make its report to the legislature by December 15. At press time, the committee had yet to complete its tasks. (As details become available, they will be posted at 

Postscript: As we go to press, Gemini nee Western Flyer lay hauled out at Port Townsend, Washington, for restoration. An article in the Peninsula Daily News last October reported that the current owner, a Salinas, California businessman, plans to restore Western Flyer and take her to Salinas, Steinbeck's hometown. The newspaper's David G. Sellars described her as "a barnacle-encrusted derelict that's about a million dollars away from floating in saltwater again."

Ryck Lydecker recently retired after almost 18 years as part of the BoatUS Government Affairs and magazine teams.

— Published: February/March 2014

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