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.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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


Key West The Newspaper [The Blue Paper] encourages spirited, open debate in comments on our stories. We do ask that you refrain from profanity, personal attacks and remarks that are off point. Please join the conversation!

17 comments on “Derelict Tugboat Set To Cost Hundreds of Thousands to Monroe County

  1. The people responsible for Mr. Freer’s predicament should be held criminally and civilly responsible. Knowingly taking advantage of a neophyte and placing him, other boaters, and the environment at risk is inexcusable. Strapping on that ridiculous outboard clearly shows intent.

    This man could have lost his life.

    • I’m sorry but what neophyte (new boater – I assume this is your reference and not that of religious conversion). Purchases a 81 ft tug boat? Are you kidding me?
      I guess everyone gets a trophy at your kids sports event also?

  2. So let’s see – a person of their own accord purchases for their first sea vessel a 81 ft tug in non seaworthy condition – intentionally lies to a marina regarding the vessel – cannot afford the vessel repairs nor the dock fees. The Captain/owner of the vessel then agrees to accept private help at no cost and agrees to the assistance (author of article has not attempted to research) and now someone else is to blame for this persons bad decisions? I could do a Direct TV commercial based on this.
    Yes the situation is horrible and I do not wish this upon anyone, but at what point is the decision maker held accountable? At what point did the owner/Captain say NO?
    The reality of what occurred is not found in this article. While I feel sorry for the Captain/owner his initial bad decision came when he purchased a vessel from a boat yard and was instructed it would have to be moved immediately upon closing.
    The author should at least do a little research via the Sheriff department and see what police reports involve the owner/Captain.

    • I see GMP… so the millions of people duped and taken advantage of in the mortgage scams got what they deserved? the retiree who has their life savings stolen by a grifter is just crap out of luck? The single mom who pays her last dollar to buy a car only to end up with a lemon is just supposed to make lemonade?
      Your position is that if you can take advantage of someone, you should? Who sells a dilapidated boat to an old man who rides up on a bicycle, and who has never set foot on a boat in his life? And has the nerve to strap on that ridiculous motor call it powered, and tow the guy out and leave him? I guess the fact that you refer to Mr. Freer as a “captain” tells us all we need to know about you.

      Let me guess… you’re either a banker, or work at safe harbor, which is it??

      • Daves,
        I am neither a banker or work at the marina in question.
        I was a public servant for over 25 years of my life and have now been fortunate enough to retire.
        I agree that there are many unscrupulous people in the world willing to sell a “lemon”. They should be held accountable.
        I refers to the him as Captain/owner, that is how you refer to the owner of a yacht, boat, or sea vessel.
        Yet there is something to be applied here which you refuse to acknowledge, and yet I value you to consider. Based upon the story and information found in it. A man with little or no boat, sea, or marine knowledge, purchased a vessel of considerable size (81ft) a vessel this size would generally require a crew to operate. The Captain/owner then lied or mislead a marina about the actual vessel and had someone push the non sea worthy vessel over to the private marina.
        I do agree with you emphatically regarding the “lemon” type sale which occurred, but was it a Lemmon? Was the vessel sold as is for a potential scrap resale?
        Regardless, at some point each person is responsible for their own actions which lead to other events. Based upon your theory, a crack addict who commits a violent crime should be innocent and the crack dealer should be held accountable for what the person did.
        There are bad people in this world and we must all be diligent and aware of their presence.
        I feel sorry for the Captain/owner of the vessel and of course wish him the best, yet I feel the grave mistake started when the purchase was made.

    • For the record: the author visited the marina TWICE and attempted to speak with marina personnel but was told they were “too busy” by office staff. He left his card and asked that they call him because he was writing a story. Contact was never made. Yes, the marina staff called the Sheriff in an apparent attempt to have a civil matter dealt with by police force. (Freer had paid prepaid the dockage in full prior to arriving at the dock.)

      • Good morning and thank you for the statement.
        But If you never spoke to marina personnel, how do you know the Captain paid dockage in full? This would indicate the only validation is the Captain.
        Moreover regarding the Sheriff, were there police reports filed and what were they. This would be an easy open records request based on the Captains name.
        When was this video made? Statements have been made that the Captain was seen at the college on two occasions last week.
        If the Captain was towed out to sea and abandoned as stated, why was Law Enforcement not notified of this criminal act. Why would the Captain not file a criminal complaint out against these individuals?
        In the video, the statement is made that you must call the coast guard – did they? What was the result? What were their findings?
        As I have stated prior, I feel sorry for the Captain and a sad loss to a beautiful vessel, but your reporting and coverage is lacking fact or seems to be leaning rather than factually reporting.
        The sad part of this whole story is now the vessel has sank.

        • Moreover, I am interested as to why the video appears to be edited?
          What was the outcome with the coast guard?
          When was the video taken and by whom?
          What has the Blue Paper done to assist this Captain? You must have some beneficial contacts who could assist him?
          Are you simply using this man as everyone else has for their own benefit?

          • The author/owner of The Blue Paper rescued the man after he was abandoned and brought him safely to land and informed the Coast Guard and the County Commission. The author/owner of the Blue Paper paid for and installed anchor lights on the vessel so that no one would run into it and get hurt. That was a second trip to the vessel. The Sheriff can not evict someone without a Court order. We have seen the dockage agreement and the eviction papers. We don’t know any “beneficial contacts” that would provide the man with dockage and/or repair the tug for him. The video was filmed during the rescue of the man by the author. We edited out the name of the dockmaster who Freer says abandoned him out there [just to be nice]. And yes the vessel is now sunk and will cost someone [will it be the taxpayers?] a whole lot of money… and we mean a WHOLE lot of money.

  3. Good morning and thank you for both posting my questions and responding. Many people complain or assume that a different opinion will be edited from review and not posted. Thank you for supporting the 1st amendment.
    In regards to your above response;
    What day and time was this event recorded?
    Were you contacted by the Captain?
    Thank you for returning to the vessel a second time and assuming civic responsibility for a possible navigation hazard. I am surprised the Coast Guard would not assist more. When did you return to the vessel?
    What was the Coast Guard response when you notified them?
    Why did the Captain not contact the Coast Guard? If he did, why did they not respond?
    Regarding the Sheriff Department, your article advises or implies a crime was committed, this has nothing to do with eviction, so why was the crime not documented?
    I understand the editing of other parties and respect the privacy issue.
    This is last post regarding the issue and article and I thank the editor and staff for allowing me the opportunity to comment.
    Thank you.

  4. The tow/rescue occurred on Friday February 21, 2014. Stephen Freer called The Blue Paper. Arnaud returned to the vessel out of concern for other mariners, knowing that the Tilly had no anchor lights and was not adequately anchored in the vicinity of the channel. The Coast Guard was immediately notified, while onscene. They immediately began issuing Notice to Mariners warning on VHF Radio channel 16 and apparently contacted Freer. The crime is being investigated at this time by FWC officers.

  5. Arnaud, thank you for your patience with GMP. When his cold assertion that it was all simply Freer’s fault, a nice 1%er/libertarian position, was challenged, he assumed the position of being your Grand Inquisitor, trying to find something you did wrong. Your actions on the face of it were generous, technically and legally skilled, and compassionate. GMP is, I suspect, one of those do-nothing “public servants” drawing a generous pension of our tax money after a career of shuffling papers onto someone else’s desk while we the public stewed.

    • Good Morning Mr Boettger.
      In re reading my comments, I feel I thanked the editor and staff for posting and replying to my comments. I once again thank them for their response.
      In regards to your personal attack on me, I feel it strays from the point of the article.
      I sir very simply asked questions regarding the event so as to better understand the event in detail.
      As to your characterization of me personally sir:
      No I am by no means a 1 %er
      I maintain no definitive political affiliation.
      I served in two branches of the US Armed forces and served as a public servant in the lowest ranks while standing in harms way on a daily basis.
      My retirement is anything but generous.
      I will not personally attack you sir, but it is rather frustrating as I realize that you are one of the people whom I enlisted and stood in harms way for, to preserve your right to free speech. To allow you to disrespect me in a public forum.
      I would prefer sir that you stick to the facts rather than slander another persons opinion.

      Respectfully,
      GMP

  6. The towboat master who took the tug Tilly away from safe harbor to leave the leaking vessel with no means of propulsion or working VFH radio with crew aboard should spend time in JAIL! I understand all the problems that is happing because the tug Tilly is sitting on the bottom of the ocean and the destruction to the sea life taking place. But the bigger problem is that someone life was put at real risk and the master of the towboat should be brought up on charges.

    Maritime law is clear about dock to dock towage. Or when a vessel is being moved from one place to another. It’s not the same as salvage towing where a vessel that was under its own power became disable at sea and is in need of assistance to return it to a safe harbor. You just can’t take a vessel and put it into danger with out being responsible for it.

    The tow master who picks up a tow at a dock to take it to another dock assumes a lot of responsibility. To take the vessel, in this case, tug Tilly from the dock on Stock Island to the mooring field inside of Key West Harbor.

    The tow master did not complete the tow.

    Instead he stranded tug Tilly and left the crew in danger by abandoning the disabled vessel that was taking on water with no lights, no propulsion or steering, no working VHF for the tug Tilly to call for help. The tow master did not call the U.S. Coast Guard to report the dire situation. He did not stand by the tug Tilly until he could arrange another vessel to take over his tow and to ensure the tug Tilly’s crew was safe. The tow master did know the tug Tilly was taking on water before he got underway with the tow from Stock Island, so he should have carried pumps to keep the tow afloat. The tow vessel overheating engine did not relive his duty to safety complete the tow to Key West mooring field.

    This is a criminal act! It’s time that the Coast Guard charges the so call captain of the vessel who towed the tug Tilly and set it adrift.

Leave a Reply