Hundreds of Shipwrecks Threaten Florida Boaters and Cost Taxpayers Millions

Hundreds of Shipwrecks Threaten Florida Boaters and Cost Taxpayers Millions
Photo by Karli Evans

Maria Busto stands on the deck of a small boat stopped about a half-mile from the Coconut Grove shore. She grips the rail as she peers down at what remains visible of a half-sunken sailboat.

"Yep, that's Barnabas," says Busto, wearing jean shorts, sneakers, and her reddish-brown hair tied back in a bun.

As Miami's interim marinas manager, Busto oversees the hundreds of boats in Dinner Key Marina and hundreds more anchored farther out in the mooring field, where boaters pay to rent space. But Barnabas, a 32-foot coastal cruising sailboat, bobs in a remote area behind a string of manmade islands where people can throw down anchor for free. There's no property tax out here and no utilities. The Anchorage, as it's called, is the 40-acre Wild West of Miami's water neighborhoods.

The 70-something owner of Barnabas, whom Busto knows only as Neil, lived in the mooring field for years. "He was a really nice guy," Busto says. "I didn't know much about him besides that he was someone who spent his life out on the sea... Just a cool old guy."

But Neil grew ill after Hurricane Irma, so he moved his boat farther out and asked his daughter to pick him up to seek treatment. They eventually went all the way to Alaska — or at least that's what Busto heard. Nobody knows for sure.

Now, months of weather and waves have swamped his boat. It lies almost completely on its side, covered in brown slime, algae, and barnacles. The top is busted open, the sails are shredded, the railings are mangled, and the mast is inching toward the water.

There's no question: Barnabas is now a hazard. Months ago, it was deemed "derelict," an official term for boats that are wrecked, junked, sunk, grounded, or dismantled. Barnabas has been stamped with removal notices from the city and state, but it's still there, rotting away. No one has heard from Neil; Busto thinks he might have died.

Now she faces a question that bedevils Florida officials every year: What to do with the hundreds of derelict boats littering waterways from the Keys to Jacksonville to Pensacola? State officials are dealing with 370 dangerously grounded boats, plus 226 others that were collateral damage from Hurricane Irma, which wrecked nearly 3,000 boats statewide.

Busto worries it's only a matter of time before the half-sunken ship hurts someone.

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All of those sunken vessels threaten mariners and the local environment. They're also bad news for taxpayers. Many boat owners either don't have insurance or can't afford to pay to clean up their wrecks, while others such as Neil simply disappear. Each boat recovery operation can end up costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Between the high prices and legal requirements to give owners a fair chance to reclaim their property, it often takes months or years to dredge up wrecked boats. In Miami, commissioners are drafting an ordinance to streamline the legal proceedings in the wake of a string of lawsuits and bad press in recent years from boat owners who say the city demolished their vessels without due process.

"The City of Miami has so much water within its boundaries, it has the biggest problem anywhere in the county when it comes to derelict boats," says John Ricisak, a supervisor who manages the derelict vessel removal program at the county's Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources (DERM). "And it's a problem they can't really deal with at the moment."

As she stares at Barnabas, which lies in an area Ricisak calls "ground zero" for Miami's derelict boat problem, Busto says she worries it's only a matter of time before the half-sunken vessel hurts someone.

"Imagine if someone is coming through here at night in the dark and they don't see anything, and then — boom — they smack into it," she says, shuttering at the thought. "You don't even want to think about it."

click to enlarge When ships sink in Florida waters, a host of government agencies clean up the mess. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DERM
When ships sink in Florida waters, a host of government agencies clean up the mess.
Photo courtesy of DERM

Sunken boats have littered Florida's waterways for centuries. Indeed, shipwrecks are central to the history of the state's colonization.

Beginning in the 1500s, the Spanish crown instituted a flotas system, a biannual convoy of ships that traveled to the New World to bring back mountains of treasure stolen from indigenous people and lands. The flotas hauled in the steady stream of gold that ultimately made Spain a global superpower. But the ships didn't always make it back.

The Spanish treasure ships always came close to the Sunshine State because they traveled from the Caribbean up the East Coast via the Gulf Stream, a speedy, warm Atlantic current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches to the tip of Florida. When heading back south, the ships tried to avoid the Gulf Stream by hugging the coastline.

In August 1622, as Spain was embroiled in a war with the Dutch and French, two Spanish treasure fleets met in Havana to prepare to return to Spain with their loot. The New Spain fleet — which had sailed from Veracruz, Mexico — carried gold, silver, and other goods from the Far East, and the Tierra Firme fleet — which had stopped in Cartagena, Colombia; and Porto Bello, Panama — carried pearls, gold, silver, and emeralds.

The New Spain fleet left Havana first and headed to the east coast of Florida to catch the trade winds back to Spain. The Tierra Firme fleet, made up of 28 vessels, left Havana six weeks later, deep into hurricane season.

A 48-foot section of an old wooden sailing ship washed ashore, thrilling researchers.

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As the ships passed the Florida Keys, just one day into the voyage, they were hit by a massive hurricane. Eight vessels from the back of the convoy were forced onto shallow reefs and destroyed or capsized and sank. Hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of cargo was lost, as were at least 500 people.

Hurricanes caused similar wrecks in 1715 and 1733. The major losses of the Treasure Fleets ultimately spelled the demise of the Spanish Empire, which owed millions to its creditors.

"There was no radar, there were no satellites, no weather forecasting," shipwreck diver and author Michael Barnette says. "These ships knew when hurricane season started, but they were under orders from the crown. They could be deep into a journey when they realized the weather had turned bad."

To make matters worse, colonial Spain often sent crews from Havana and across the Caribbean to risk their lives to salvage wrecked treasure ships, where they worked long hours to fish precious cargo out of flooded hulls. By the 1800s, shipwreck salvage had became a profitable business.

Barnette describes it as a "colorful" industry. "What we do today with machinery, they would do with crews from the Caribbean," he says. "It was really back-breaking work."

Barnette became interested in exploring Florida's shipwrecks when he moved here from Virginia more than 20 years ago. A marine biologist by profession, he founded the Association of Underwater Explorers in 1996 and has explored a number of notable shipwrecks, mainly 19th-century steamers. He's also worked to identify new wrecks in deeper water and estimates his group has ID'ed "about 30 or 40 by now."

In 2001, they explored a wreck called the Queen of Nassau, off Islamorada. The vessel was rumored to have been carrying a cargo of Indian motorcycles. Others said it was a barge. But when Barnette reached the vessel, 230 feet below the surface, he found a distinct "warship feel to it."

Working with an archaeologist and other researchers, Barnette helped identify the wreck. It turned out to be one of the most historic ships in Canadian maritime history, the CGS Canada, which was purchased by Florida landowner Barron Collier in 1924. He had intended to turn the boat into a passenger vessel providing service from Miami to Nassau, but when the plan didn't work out, the ship ended up docked on Biscayne Bay for 18 months. It sank in 1926 after being purchased by a Mexican buyer.

Barnette is now exploring a Confederate blockade runner on the Gulf side of the state.

"Every year, I keep thinking maybe we've tapped the resources," Barnette says. "But I'm always surprised by new dives."

Earlier this year, a 48-foot section of an old wooden sailing ship washed ashore on a beach in Jacksonville, thrilling researchers, who said it could date back to the 1700s.

Marc Anthony, who owns Spanish Main Antiques in St. Augustine, told local media it was "the Holy Grail of shipwrecks."

Of course, most of the newer shipwrecks confronting Florida officials aren't nearly that infamous.

click to enlarge Owners who can no longer afford upkeep will abandon or even deliberately sink their boats. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DERM
Owners who can no longer afford upkeep will abandon or even deliberately sink their boats.
Photo courtesy of DERM

When boats sink these days, a patchwork of local and state agencies has the arduous task of figuring out who's responsible for the wreck, whether it endangers public waterways, and, if so, how to get it out of the way. Then they have to hire private salvage companies to do the dirty work of lifting the thousands of pounds of steel, wood, and fiberglass out of the water.

Until 2008, counties across Florida were charged with removing dangerous vessels from public waterways. To fund that work, local governments mainly tapped money from the fees vessel owners paid to register their boats. But by the time the recession hit, the problem had grown out of control. In South Florida, "fierce storms in 2004 and 2005 left the area clogged with dozens of abandoned, dilapidated, or sunken boats," according to a 2009 Miami Herald article.

Boats are expensive to maintain: Usually owners have to reinvest about 10 percent of a vessel's worth every year to keep it seaworthy. And unlike cars, many boats have virtually no scrap value. Sometimes people will sell a boat for as little as $1 to anyone who will take it.

So when recession-hit owners couldn't find anyone to take the money-sucking boats off their hands, many scraped the IDs off the hulls and quietly left them to sink. "People were having their homes foreclosed on, and the last thing they were worried about was their vessel," says Phil Horning, Derelict Vessel Program administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). "A lot of people couldn't afford marina slips anymore."

In 2008, the Florida Legislature appropriated $1.55 million to FWC for derelict removal and created Horning's position. In the first months of 2009, his office had identified 1,500 derelict boats around the state. In 2010, FWC launched the At-Risk Vessel Program to collaborate with local sheriffs' offices and police departments to track broken-down vessels in a statewide database.

Since 2016, the state Legislature has granted about $1 million a year for derelict boat removal. Ideally, the system lets authorities link boats to legal owners who are then required to pay for removal and disposal. Officers are also required to make every reasonable attempt to contact the registered owner of a boat, including by certified letter.

If an owner doesn't show up or can't pay, the state and county remove the vessel themselves. Owners who leave sinking boats can be charged with first-degree misdemeanors punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. The worst offenders can also face felony dumping charges that carry up to a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.

But Jason Kostowic, a sergeant with the Miami Marine Patrol, says it's "very hard to prove intent," which makes it difficult to prosecute cases under the full extent of the law.

Most often, state, county, and city agencies work together after an owner fails to fix the problem. The cost is steep: $300 to $500 per foot, sometimes more. Even smaller vessels can cost thousands of dollars to remove and dispose of — much more than they were worth originally. Those removals happen all the time. Kostowic estimates his team has removed 600 derelicts from city waterways since 2010 with the help of "marine contractor," or salvage, companies such as TowBoatU.S. Miami.

"It's like a factory. We'll go out and clean a ton, and then they'll just reappear," he says.

Kyle Queen, a captain with TowBoatU.S. Miami, works from Homestead to Aventura. "This isn't like a car — you don't just tow away a 30-foot sailboat," he says. "We have to rent a crane and a barge, we have to smash the boat, we have to take out the engines. It's a process."

click to enlarge The state Legislature grants about $1 million per year to remove abandoned boats. - PHOTO COURTESY OF DERM
The state Legislature grants about $1 million per year to remove abandoned boats.
Photo courtesy of DERM

Depending upon how long the boats have been abandoned, they might have tangled lines or other materials that make them hard to tow. Often the vessels contain pollutants, such as fuel or sewage, or are located in shallow water or sensitive environmental areas. Boat paint often contains toxic chemicals like lead and mercury. Queen says he often has to dive underneath boats, in full gear, to attach inflatable devices such as airbags to lift the vessels.

"There are times you're under there thinking, OK, so this is where I die," Queen says.

As Hurricane Irma's 85 mph winds pounded Dinner Key last year, dozens of boats were instantly turned into trash for the junkyard. Many ended up on their sides, upside down, or tossed ashore into parks or onto people's lawns. Some vessels broke loose from their mooring balls and simply disappeared. Others broke apart, their pieces splayed over pulverized docks. Many of the docks are still mangled or missing.

The Miami Herald called Dinner Key a "boat graveyard."

"It was really a sad scene," Busto says.

Across the state, Irma destroyed so many boats that Florida is still grappling with the aftermath. Florida Fish and Wildlife, the EPA, and the U.S. Coast Guard removed and stored nearly 1,000 derelict vessels after the storm at a cost of $51 million. Disposing of them cost an additional $11 million. Those numbers don't include boats whose owners contracted with private companies to have their vessels picked up — most likely hundreds more. On and around Dinner Key, 200 derelicts were removed after Irma, which cost the City of Miami $225,000.

The remaining 226 boats still littering Florida waterways are awaiting congressional approval for a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to clean them up.

Hurricane Irma highlighted Miami's failures to deal more quickly and efficiently with boats that everyone knows are derelict, DERM's Ricisak says.

"A number of the boats that wound up sunk or crashed up against people's seawalls or even in people's backyards were considered derelict well before the storm," he says. "They weren't well maintained, they weren't securely moored, and the inevitable happened."

Today dozens of similarly decaying or wrecked boats are littering local waterways — awaiting either funding or court processes to wrap up so officials can remove them. A year after Irma cleaned the slate, Miami-Dade has 38 new derelict boats, while Broward tallies 12. Dozens of other vessels have been labeled "at risk" in both counties. Monroe County has the most derelict vessels in Florida with 42.

On Dinner Key, at least six of the boats sitting in the park's anchorage area now qualify as derelict, including one lying on the shore of a small nearby island like a beached whale. Other derelict "hot spots" in Miami-Dade include Watson Island and North Bay Village.

"A number of the boats that wound up sunk... were considered derelict well before the storm."

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Some say new laws are needed to target the junk and live-aboard boats in anchorage areas. Boaters and waterfront property owners complain the vessels are an eyesore and a nuisance, if not an outright sanitation hazard.

In 2016, the state Legislature passed a measure that eliminated overnight anchoring along the Venetian Causeway and on Sunset Lake in Miami Beach and on the Middle River in Fort Lauderdale.

But Florida's boating community generally opposes limits on where they can moor and anchor and for how long. Under a state law passed in 2009, boaters can drop anchor pretty much anywhere they want for as long as they want as long as they are out of the navigational channel.

That tension between free-living boaters and state regulators makes it difficult to find consensus on how to better deal with derelicts.

"Sometimes vessels are used by people as a place to live or a place to live of last resort, and they're really not fit for human habitation," Ricisak says. "And no one has really figured out how to deal with that problem."

Once back on land, Busto roams around Dinner Key Marina on a golf cart. She stops in front of the south end of the Anchorage, where three men are hanging out. They live out on the water, she says. Many who reside in the Dinner Key Anchorage have been around for years. They come and go. They lose their boats and then get new ones. Once Busto fostered a dog for one of the men.

"They tell me when someone new is in town, when there's trouble out there," she says, comparing them to a sort of dysfunctional family. "They're my eyes and ears out there."

One man, Leo, asks if she's seen the new boat in town. She squints to gaze out into the water. "Oh, the ingenuity," she says, laughing.

A small white boat has been outfitted with a handmade wooden cover. Busto guesses someone came ashore to collect wood and then take it back out.

"Well, we know where that's ending up," she says, "in our waterways."

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Jessica Weiss