Mar 072014

by Naja and Arnaud Girard

The storm forecasted for Thursday of last week arrived during the night.  For those who knew of the Tug Tilly, the gusts of wind unraveling through the trees on the island meant that a few miles offshore, in the dark of night, completely exposed to the waves building against the tide, the abandoned tugboat would probably meet with the end of its voyage.

What was going to happen was no secret.  In rough seas the tug would soon start shoveling water over its stern deck.  The water would roll forward (as the bow began plunging into the waves).  It would find those large holes rusted through on the midship deck and begin to flood the boat.  With no pumps and no one aboard to call for help the boat was going to sink and that’s what it did, early Friday morning.

Of course, we had predicted Tilly’s demise in our previous article but somehow “we told you so” just doesn’t quite say it.

The cursed 81’, 150 gross ton tug is now sunk about one-half mile west of the Main Ship Channel.  It has been declared a hazard to navigation, the engine oil has leaked into the ocean, the removal costs, according to local salvor John Coffin, could reach a half-million dollars and the County might have to foot the bill (since the last known owner, Stephen Freer, appears to be a penniless homeless man).

In view of the possible cost to taxpayers, we must ask: Could anything have been done to prevent such astronomical financial exposure?

The irony is that it would have cost no more than a few hundred dollars to tow the Tilly to a protected shallow anchorage where she would have been safe. The going rate for a commercial tow varies between $150 and $300/hour.  So, why was nothing done?

The tug was abandoned on Friday, February 21st.  By Monday, February 24th at 2:30 pm every County Commissioner had been sent an email with a full report about the Tug Tilly. It was basically a draft of The Blue Paper article Derelict Tugboat Set To Cost Hundreds of Thousands to Monroe County.  The article clearly spelled out the County’s financial exposure in this situation and urged immediate action.

Commissioner Heather Caruthers sent the report to Senior Administrator of Marine Resources, Rich Jones.  But obviously no action was taken.  The Tilly sunk four days later in 35 feet of water.  This, says George Neugent, is another example of the County being “reactive” instead of “proactive”.

Was this situation so exceptional that it took the County by surprise?  Not at all.  It is a well known fact that derelict vessels sink and cost considerably more to remove once they are on the bottom.  Actually the same little blow that sunk the Tilly also brought resolution to another derelict vessel saga The Blue Paper has reported on:  the case of the 45-foot wooden sailboat sold for a few hundred dollars to Sonia Elliot and her son.  Like the Tilly, Sonia’s “bargain” was part of the Safe Harbor clean-up effort.  After nearly sinking several times it finally broke loose from the sunken sailboat it was tied to behind Wisteria Island and sunk half way to the reef.

“I am so glad that I was no longer on that boat,” says Sonia.  “Imagine waking up miles offshore in that sinking boat, not knowing where you are. That thing was a death trap.”

By some ironic twist of fate, Sonia’s boat sunk less than one-half mile south of where the Tilly went down.  But the County, which very likely will dole out exorbitant fees for wreck removal in both cases, was unable to prevent either from ending up in this very foreseeable situation.

One issue is whether or not the County should continue to accept footing the bill in cases where unscrupulous boat owners or dock owners pass on, to a proverbial “dead beat”, their responsibility for destroying an obvious derelict vessel.  In the case of the Tilly, FWC is adopting a much wider view in terms of liability than in previous cases.  Officer Dion, who is leading the investigation, has indicated he will be reviewing everything from the initial purchase of the tug to the conditions surrounding the interrupted tow.

Why is there no Bill of Sale?  Why is the boat not in the name of the supposed new owner?

And then there is the marina.  The marina filed for eviction against Stephen Freer, the alleged owner, but while the dockage was still current, marina employees towed the tug out to sea.  They gave up, several miles from Key West, because, they claim, their towboat was overheating. They abandoned the tug in unprotected waters.  Undeniably they knew the tug was unseaworthy as that was one of the arguments they had used in their complaint for eviction.  They never returned with another boat to finish the tow and blamed the whole thing on Freer who they claimed had agreed to the “favor”.

Instead of blindly going along with paying the removal costs perhaps the County will conduct its own determination as to who can be held responsible for this wreckage.

And then there is the question raised by Commissioner Neugent:  The need to be “proactive” rather than reactive.

Both Tug Tilly and Sonia’s 45-foot sailboat could have been disposed of at relatively low cost.  As soon as it was known that those boats had been abandoned shouldn’t they have been secured to safe moorings while being processed rather than being left to drift into unprotected waters where they would sink?  The problem is, no such safe moorings are available and the county’s administrators have thus far been opposed to their installation.

This conundrum was outlined in a May 2012 report that we sent to the County Commission and staff entitled:  The Making of a Derelict Vessel / Where Do Derelict Vessels Come From?.  The report follows the “careers” of derelict vessels.  It shows photos of the same derelict vessels repeatedly aground in multiple locations, running into other vessels, until, within the course of a few months, they had sunk and had to be removed at considerable expense.

The report concluded that having a few emergency moorings in strategic areas to prevent derelict vessels from roaming around free, damaging the environment and tearing themselves apart, would considerably reduce the cost of derelect vessel removal.  It was suggested that one of those moorings should be capable of securing a heavy boat like a shrimp boat or a large vessel like a Casino Boat.

While obsessed with land-based infrastructure, it seems the government is too often stuck in a frontier mentality when it comes to the ocean:   “Send the Marshal out there with his Colts to arrest the desperados.”  Perhaps the County should rely less heavily on overstretched law enforcement agencies to address problems like derelict vessels and focus on creating adequate infrastructure such as emergency moorings as well as setting up a system for emergency response.

If being secured to an emergency mooring in protected waters could have saved the Tug Tilly and Sonia’s boat from sinking, then the cost of such moorings, including installation and insurance, would appear negligible.

Video below:   TUG TILLY at sea prior to the storm

For more on Tug Tilly click here.

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