Removing derelict boats from South Carolina waterways is no simple task. Just ask Hilton Head Island resident Russell Patterson, who has been at it for about three months.
After watching people use Broad Creek as a dumping ground for their abandoned boats — and realizing that state and local agencies didn’t have the funding to remove them — Patterson took matters into his own hands.
As a part of the task, Russell and a group of friends have tried on four separate occasions to raise Nanna, a 30-feet boat that sunk in Broad Creek more than two years ago, to no avail. Now, they’ll have to wait two more months for a professional diving crew to take a stab at it.
Still, Patterson remains optimistic.
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“We feel confident that we’re on the right path,” he said. “... Hopefully, people — as they’re driving over the bridge or riding down the Broad Creek — will be able to see a big different in the next four, five, six months.”
Officials agree that South Carolina has an ongoing problem with derelict boats. The state is among 19 of the 30 U.S. coastal states without a funding mechanism for the removal of abandoned or derelict boats, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And Beaufort County — which is 50 percent water and wetlands — is stuck directly in the middle of it.
In early October, officers at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources began investigating boats anchored in waterways across Beaufort County, including 30 boats in the Broad Creek.
As of Wednesday, eight boats in the creek were officially deemed abandoned, according to DNR investigator Michael Brock. Officials at DNR spent 90 days searching for their owners, but were unable to locate them.
Now, due to a lack of state and local funding, it’s up to Patterson and his friends to actually remove the boats from the waterway.
“Unfortunately, they have to clean up the mess of their fellow citizens who left their boats for other people to deal with,” Brock said. “But it’s impressive to see a group of private citizens step up and care enough about the waterways to do this.”
Patterson has raised $14,500 in private donations so far for the removal and demolition of the boats, but does not expect that to cover it all.
The cost of removing an abandoned boat from a waterway can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars depending on the size of the boat and where it’s located.
Throughout the coming months, he plans to acquire titles for all the abandoned vessels, demolish those in bad shape and try to sell those that can be salvaged.
Patterson is not sure how many of the boats are worth selling, but any money collected from boat sales would go back to the cleanup effort, he said.
“We’re not trying to make any money. We’re just trying to get them out of the creek and into the hands of responsible owners,” Russell said.
‘There is no ugly boat law’
The Town of Hilton Head Island may have the best chance at preventing the problem from getting any worse in the future.
John Gobel, supervisor of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office environmental crimes unit, said he constantly gets complaints from citizens about “unsightly” boats in county waterways.
“Naturally, if you’re a homeowner — especially if you’re a homeowner on a waterfront lot — it has to be aggravating for someone to be able to basically park a very unsightly vessel in front of your home and there’s nothing you can do about it,” he said.
As Gobel sees it, the real issue is not the boats actually deemed abandoned but those parked in the waterways that are not.
“Right now there is no law to address the real problem, which is not abandoned derelict boats, it’s the boats that are owned by people who just park them wherever the want and leave them there,” he said. “Even though it may not run, it may not have a motor and it may not even have a sail, it’s lighted and properly registered, so it’s legal.
“... Because there is no ugly boat law.”
One option to address these “unsightly” boats is for a municipality or county to create an anchoring ordinance, in which boat owners would have to acquire a permit and possibly pay a fee before anchoring in a waterway under it’s jurisdiction, according to Gobel.
Therefore, the town would have more ability to regulate boats before they became a hazard to navigation and the environment.
Although the Town of Hilton Head Island doesn’t have jurisdiction over most waterways, it could impose an ordinance in the Broad Creek because Hilton Head lies on both sides of the creek, Gobel said.
Town leaders, however, have never discussed the prospect.
In the meantime, Patterson and his group of friends are making strides little by little. If all goes well, the first two boats will be removed from the Broad Creek on Saturday.
Want to help clean up the Broad Creek?
Donations can made to the Hilton Head Reef Foundation through The Community Foundation of the Lowcountry or by mailing a check to the Hilton Head Reef foundation, c/o Russell P Patterson, P.O. Box 8047, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
If you have any questions, you can contact Russell Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org