Derelict Tugboat Set To Cost Hundreds of Thousands to Monroe County

“My phone’s about to die!  I am drifting southwest of Key West! I need to get off this boat before it’s too late!” 

Using the last few minutes of airtime left on his cell phone Stephen Freer would explain how the dock master at a Stock Island marina had towed him and his 150-ton dilapidated tugboat out to sea and how he had left him there, miles from shore, with no radio, no pumps, no steering or propulsion, and no food or water.

Stephen, 66, is retired and lives on $ 800/month social security and until that afternoon had never been on a boat at sea before.  He’d used all of his savings to buy into this great Craig’s List “bargain”: a 1943 tugboat called “Tilly”.

It could be just a matter of days before the tug crashes and sinks somewhere on the reef.  Incredibly enough it could’ve been a lot worse:  the same people who sold the Tilly to Stephen also tried to “donate” a gigantic steel barge as a bonus.  The barge is only kept afloat thanks to continuous pumping.  When we first met with Stephen he was seriously debating whether or not to add the barge to his collection.

As insane as this story may sound it has actually become a common scenario on Stock Island.  With the rapid gentrification of Safe Harbor (Stock Island) some unscrupulous dock and boat owners have resorted to callous practices to evacuate, at no cost, the old fleet left over from yesteryear and the Keys’ shrimping era.  They “generously give away” these floating marvels of rust and rot to any willing homeless person or unsuspecting amateur.

Over four months ago The Blue Paper reported on the case of Sonia Eliott.  She too was given a great deal:  a 45- foot wooden sailboat that had been abandoned for six years at a Stock Island boatyard.  The only condition was that she had to take the boat away as soon as it had been lowered into the water.

“It started to sink right away,” said Sonia, “I pleaded with them to haul it back out, so we could try to fix it, but they said that was not the deal.”

Somehow Sonia, who works at a laundromat in Key West, and her son, who’s handicapped, managed to get towed all the way to the Wisteria Island anchorage where the US Coast Guard and fellow mariners have had to rescue them twice from sinking.  Now abandoned, the boat waits to sink to the bottom and to be disposed of at the county’s expense.

Arguably, that cost could seem nominal in comparison with what it will cost to dispose of the enormous Tug Tilly.  A lesser boat, the “Lady Luck” casino boat, which grounded during Hurricane Wilma cost around $500,000 for disposal.

Last Monday, the 81’ Tug Tilly was still rolling from side to side in the swells a few miles south of Fort Zach, all alone, with no lights, no bilge pump and an inadequate anchor.  Tilly had been idle at the dock for so many years that the barnacles that cover her hull are about a foot thick, so ample in fact that mangroves have now taken root at the waterline.  Quite a sight!  The cabin was once red with an enormous black smokestack but everywhere the rust has exploded through the metal and spread like dark cancerous flowers.

The only thing that looked new was a bizarre gizmo at the stern of the tug – some sort of giant bracket made of 2X4’s which supported a miniscule outboard engine that no longer had a cover; the strange contraption was completely shattered and every passing wave submerged the little motor.

According to Stephen, this absurd apparatus was what was supposed to keep the dock owner out of trouble.  How so?  “Well, you see,” says Stephen, “they believe that if they can claim the boat has propulsion, it’s not a derelict and so they didn’t actually abandon a derelict boat out at sea.”  According to Florida law any person who stores, leaves or abandons a vessel in a substantially dismantled condition is criminally liable under the “derelict vessel” statute. Stephen claims that the marina was so eager to get rid of him they installed the engine at their own expense. “But look at the size of it,” says Stephen, “that would only move a ten foot dinghy.”

There’s a good reason dock owners are tempted to “give away” abandoned or derelict boats:  The cost of destruction can be astronomical. Last year dock owner Eric Dickstein had two abandoned shrimp boats sink at his dock on Stock Island.  The boats weren’t his.  Dickstein says FWC arrested him anyway just for having a sunken derelict vessel at his dock.  The key element was the fact that Dickstein had moved and re-moored the two boats, thereby making himself the last person who had been in control before they sunk. It cost him over $100,000 to have the two sunken shrimp boats removed and disposed of.

It will be interesting to see if the same rationale will be applied against the dock master of Stock Island Marina Village for towing the Tilly to sea and leaving her there.  After all, wasn’t the marina the last one in control of the Tilly?

To be fair, it is not hard to see how Stephen and his tugboat were enough to drive the owners of the marina out of their minds. On January 25, 2014, the day of the Stock Island Marina Village grand opening celebration, he crashed the dock’s cocktail party by having a group of Haitian fishermen tow his tug and wonderful world of rust right up to the dock where more than likely the fancy guests felt like getting a tetanus shot after just looking at it.

The marina called the police only to discover, to their horror, that they had signed a dockage agreement with Stephen for his 81-foot “yacht” two days earlier.  Of course they had had no idea what this “yacht” looked like.  “Tilly is a yacht to me,” explains Stephen, “my yacht.”  If Pirates of the Caribbean had a tugboat, it would be Tilly.

So far, in these cases, the FWC has concentrated on going after the unfortunate people who got lured into a “great deal” and assumed ownership of a derelict vessel.  “That is just bad judgment on the part of those people,” Captain David Dipre of FWC told The Blue Paper.  He says they should have known better than to buy a derelict vessel.

But that could change.  We interviewed Phil Horning, Tallahassee based FWC Statewide Derelict Vessel Planner.

“If someone can prove,” said Horning, “that the seller of the boat knew the boat was derelict and was going to be stored as a derelict vessel on the waters of the state, the judge might hold the seller liable.”  In other words the seller could be held liable as an accomplice to the crime of storing a derelict vessel on state waters.  That could certainly help to curb the practice.

Will the county continue to pick up the tab?  There are a considerable amount of derelict vessels sinking or ready to sink in Safe Harbor.  Not the least of which is a 150-foot yacht called the “Platinum” which belongs to the same people who sold Stephen the Tilly.  Platinum was formerly one of the largest most luxurious yachts on the market, but today requires regular salvage intervention just to stay afloat.  Under the current trend, if Stock Island continues pushing to sea all of its burned out hulks and derelicts, the cost to the county could be astronomical.

Many proactive solutions have been proposed to help curb the derelict vessel problem.  For example, making sellers liable when they conveniently transfer derelicts to proverbial “dead beats”, creating emergency moorings to process these boats before they run aground or sink, providing immediate response rather than waiting months while costs and environmental damages escalate when and if the vessel is allowed to sink.  But, like so many practical ideas, these remain lost in the bureaucratic maze.

Meanwhile, for the past week, the US Coast Guard has been issuing radio broadcast warnings about the Tug Tilly being precariously anchored and abandoned halfway between Fort Zach and Sand Key.  What will happen when the weather picks up and the 150-ton iron lady crashes onto the reef blowing holes in her rusty bottom?  Who is going to pay for the removal, and what about the blow to the reef?

Will our government finally be able to react to an obvious crisis before its too late?  Stay tuned.

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UPDATE:  Tug Tilly has sunk.   Click here for subsequent coverage on the Tug Tilly