Beaufort sails toward response to abandoned boat problem

Two sailboats sit tied together Wednesday while a third, seen in the foreground, rests on the bottom of the anchorage of the Beaufort River near the Downtown Marina.
Two sailboats sit tied together Wednesday while a third, seen in the foreground, rests on the bottom of the anchorage of the Beaufort River near the Downtown Marina.

An abandoned 30-foot sailboat that sank last week near the Beaufort Downtown Marina has prompted new interest in an old problem.

The boat, anchored near the marina for nearly a month, does not pose a navigational hazard, and it doesn't appear to have leaked any chemicals into the Beaufort River, according to Rick Griffin, the city's harbormaster. Nonetheless, it is a reminder to city officials that their waters shouldn't teem with derelict vessels.

"It's a growing problem and ... we'd like to address it before it becomes a big problem," said Mayor Billy Keyserling. "We can't afford to have derelict boats endangering public safety or giving people an (inaccurate) image of Beaufort."

On Tuesday, City Council instructed city manager Scott Dadson to get the state's approval to create a mooring field within city limits, where each boat would be required to tie to a mooring ball or be removed. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's Ocean and Coastal Resource Management office would have to approve the plan.A site for the mooring field hasn't been determined.

City officials have tried to crack down on derelict boats inthe past.

In 2004, the city adopted a boat and water-safety ordinance allowing the removal of anchored or grounded vessels that are unoccupied for more than seven consecutive days. Exceptions are made for those registered through the city harbormaster as a live-aboard or transient vessel.

Griffin said the ordinance is seldom enforced.

"There were never any teeth put into those ordinances in terms of enforcement," Griffin said. "(I) and my staff will be happy to go out there and find out who's there, but we need some backing from the city. Once we get that mooring field, we'll be able to control who goes in and out of there."

Councilman Mike Sutton said establishing a mooring field and requiring those anchoring there to register with Griffin could help the city keep better tabs on boat owners, who are legally responsible for removing the vessels under state law.

"I want to know who they are," Sutton said. "I want to know, as a boat owner, are you going to be responsible for your boat while you're in our area? If you're just going to anchor your boat here and take a ride up the highway and leave it here, that's not acceptable."

A state law passed two years ago charged the S.C. Department of Natural Resources with identifying and tagging abandoned vessels and, if necessary, taking their owners to court to remove them.

Sutton said about six other vessels are abandoned in waterways within city limits, which includes parts of the Beaufort River and Albergotti Creek.

It's illegal to abandon a boat on a public waterway, and violators are subject to 30 days in jail or a $500 fine, according to state law.But Sutton said state budget cuts have hindered DNR's ability to enforce the law.

"This is our backyard, but they're not being funded to help us," Sutton said. "We can't just sit back and believe that since they can't deal with it we're not going to deal with it, either."

Griffin said city officials have been unable to find the owner of the sailboat that recently sank, which doesn't surprise Dan Burger.

"Tracking down the owners of these boats can often be a very time-intensive and unfruitful process," said the spokesman for DHEC's OCRM office. "When a boat has been abandoned purposefully, all forms of identification have typically been removed, so it really becomes a matter of removal priority."

Griffin and marina staff soon will be getting help from the Beaufort Police Department, which plans to canvass the Beaufort River and other waterways next week to help identify abandoned boats.

"Our role is going to be to identify the boats that are believed to be abandoned and report that information to the (DNR)," said Deputy Police Chief Dale McDorman. "As far as I know, there is still no mechanism in place for removal. The buck starts with the owner."