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Quartermaster’s quiet waters are marred by forgotten boats

Dan Brown has lived above Quartermaster for more than 30 years, giving him a bird’s eye view of a growing problem on the bay — the number of boats illegally moored to unregistered buoys.  - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Dan Brown has lived above Quartermaster for more than 30 years, giving him a bird’s eye view of a growing problem on the bay — the number of boats illegally moored to unregistered buoys.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Last month a loose sailboat washed ashore in inner Quartermaster Harbor, and as the tide ebbed, the boat began to tip. The sailboat’s mast came within feet of power lines along Quartermaster Drive before local authorities were able to stabilize the boat, averting a potential accident.

The sailboat’s owner was nowhere to be found and never claimed the boat, which was towed away to be salvaged when the tide came in.

Though it may have been the first time Vashon Island Fire & Rescue got involved in a derelict boat situation, local boaters say the situation is hardly unusual: Many boats in Quartermaster Harbor are abandoned or neglected, and it’s not uncommon for them to get loose.

Dan Brown, who has lived on inner Quartermaster for over 30 years, says he has seen some boats float seemingly untouched in the harbor for years. Standing on his deck perched above the water one rainy afternoon, Brown surveyed the variety of vessels moored to buoys beyond the Quartermaster Marina. Some are well-maintained, he said. But many are ignored for years, either neglected or forgotten by their owners.

“All you’ve got to do is look at them to see that no one is taking care of them,” he said.

Now, state officials appear to be taking note.

The state Department of Natural Resources has identified Quartermaster as one of several harbors it plans to better manage, enforcing often-ignored rules around boat moorings. A bill has just been filed in the Legislature that would make it easier for state and local officials to deal with derelict boats. And even the King County Sheriff’s Office is growing increasingly concerned.

“The boats are sinking; the boats are blowing up onto the beach. It’s a mess,” said Sgt. James Knauss, supervisor of the Sheriff’s Office marine unit.

There are currently 30 boats in the harbor that the county has deemed derelict and marked for removal. All of them are illegally moored, Knauss said, and many are considered dangerous.

“People have been anchored for two or three years. We give them citations, and they don’t do anything. … We don’t want these people to have hardships; we just want them to follow the rules.”

At issue is a host of problems these wayward or neglected boats cause, from polluting the harbor to sinking or floating away, creating a hazard to other boats.

Brown, a retired electrical engineer, said he sees neglected boats every time he takes his 27-foot yacht out on the harbor. Pointing to a small sailboat moored near the marina, Brown commented on how the boat looked fine from a distance, but not up close.

“If you look at it closer, there are bird droppings everywhere,” he said.

Battered by the elements and covered in bird feces, seaweed, barnacles and mold, neglected boats become floating rafts of debris at risk of sinking or breaking loose from their unmaintained anchor lines, he said.

“I doubt many are intentionally abandoning them,” Brown said. “You get a boat, it’s not that expensive, and it’s a place to put it for free. Then you realize its really hard to maintain a boat on a buoy. … It takes a lot of work to maintain a boat.”

At least once a year, Brown said, he sees a boat break loose, often following a storm. He or a friend will often tow the free-floating boats to safety before they become a problem. “I’ve helped save many boats,” he said.

Under Washington state law, it is illegal to anchor or moor a boat on state-owned aquatic lands for more than 30 days without a permit from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

While there are well over 60 boats moored in Quartermaster Harbor, according to DNR records, only about five of them are legally permitted to be there.

Knauss says the marine unit in the Sheriff’s Office is aware of the illegal moorages and has wanted to clean up Quartermaster Harbor for some time. However, the money to do so simply isn’t available.

Though the county keeps a long list of derelict vessels it would like to dispose of, according to DNR only two boats have been removed from Quartermaster Harbor since July of 2009. Two boats are currently impounded by the county, and two more have been recovered and will be impounded once a mandatory 30-day waiting period is up.

Most problem boats remain where they are, Knauss said, as DNR’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program has limited funds to reimburse the county for disposing of boats — a costly proposition.

“There’s no way the community can absorb 30 boats,” Knauss said. “We wait for the state’s derelict vessel program to have money. As it’s available we take the worst of the worst off the water.”

Knauss said the county periodically fines the owners of these illegally moored boats, but usually to no avail.

Perhaps most troublesome to the county, though, is that some of these illegal boats are homes to live-aboards that Knauss says are polluting the harbor.

Knauss estimated that about 15 people live on boats in Quartermaster Harbor. He said many of their vessels lack restrooms, meaning they dispose of human waste and other trash in the water.

“The water quality in Quartermaster Harbor is feeling the impact of all this,” he said.

Brown believes it’s general knowledge among boat owners that rules regarding boat moorage are not enforced in the harbor and even those who know they technically should register their mooring buoy with DNR don’t see the need to do so.

And while Brown, who keeps his boat at the Quartermaster Yacht Club, would like to see some of the worst boats removed, he knows that enforcement of rules would likely mean that many people who maintain their boats but simply haven’t registered their mooring buoys would find themselves in trouble.

“Half of my friends would lose the place they keep their boat,” he said, laughing.

According the DNR officials, though, the status quo in Quartermaster is going to change.

Melissa Ferris, manager of DNR’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program, said derelict boats in Quartermaster are a concern to the state, as they can become floating hazards to health and safety. She said the boats in danger of sinking are of particular concern to DNR.

“When they sink they almost always have some sort of of fuel or solvent on board that can get into the environment. They become a physical obstacle to other boats. … They damage the habitat. They can roll around on the bottom and keep doing damage once they sink,” she said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a 2007 survey it conducted of Quartermaster’s deepest waters discovered at least nine boats littering the bottom of the bay, some of which were flagged as a danger to navigation.

Just recently, Ferris noted, two boats created problems in Quartermaster. A few weeks ago, she said, a large catamaran began to sink and had to be recovered by the sheriff’s office. And during a recent storm, a concrete sailboat got loose and was similarly recovered, as it threatened to drift into surrounding boats.

“When concrete sailboats break loose, they’re like giant sledgehammers,” she said.

Jane Chavey, a spokeswoman for DNR, said Quartermaster is next on the list of bays the agency hopes to begin better managing.

“Since it has a large residential community all around it and it has marinas and lots of public use and access, it is an important one,” she said.

In addition to derelict boats, DNR’s aquatic division plans to address the multitude of unregistered and unused buoys in the harbor, Chavey said.

“There are a lot of buoys that are abandoned, and they’re no longer serving a purpose,” she said.

This spring, Chavey said, DNR representatives plan to visit Vashon, where they will hold meetings with Islanders to educate them about state aquatic regulations and hear about the community’s concerns. Officials hope that by talking with Vashon residents and learning more about how the harbor is used, they can develop a plan to bring the boats in the harbor into regulation. Such efforts were recently used to clean up Mystery Bay on Marrowstone Island, Chavey said.

“We’ll pull the community together to get their ideas to get a solution to our management,” she said. “We want to work with the community and have everyone understand what we’re trying to do there to be good stewards of the harbor.”

Ultimately, Chavey said, Vashon boat owners will be held responsible for registering their buoys as well as making sure their boats and anchorages comply with state regulations.

“We want to make sure that the buoys that are out there are designed in a way that protects the sea floor,” she said.

Chavey said she hopes a lack of funds doesn’t impede the planned efforts to clean up Quartermaster.

“I don’t think money is going to be an issue, but one never knows. These are lean times. We’ll work with the community, and we’ll figure out a solution to that.”

Though meeting times have yet to be scheduled and DNR is still in the early stages of reaching out to Islanders, one thing is certain: Tighter regulation is in store for the harbor.

“It’s not like all of the sudden everything will change,” Chavey said, “but gradually things will change.”

Lawmakers seek tougher state laws governing derelict vessels

A bill introduced in the Legislature last week would make it easier for state officials to remove derelict boats and could dissuade boat owners from letting their vessels become a hazard.

Under current state law, boat owners with illegally moored boats could face up to $500 in fines. In addition, someone who knowingly lets his or her boat become a hazard could face a misdemeanor charge.

Melissa Ferris, manager of Department of Natural Resource’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program, said the new bill, sponsored by Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island) and Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), would amend the program and strengthen these laws.

The bill would enable the state to more easily charge boat owners with misdemeanors, as the law would be expanded to include boats that become emergencies when they suddenly pose a hazard by breaking loose, sinking or breaking up.

“It makes the statute as it exists a little bit stronger,” Ferris said. “I think it will act somewhat as a deterrent, and it will allow us to have another tool in our toolbox when we are removing vessels.”

The bill would also strengthen some local agencies’ abilities to deal with derelict boats by relieving them of liability when removing them.

“That’s something you see a lot in the emergency field,” Ferris said. “It would basically grant them the same immunity as an emergency responder. It basically covers them for trying to do the right thing.”

Ferris said she hopes the liability immunity will encourage more agencies, be it city governments or park districts, to participate in the boat removal process.

Fitzgibbon, a newly elected lawmaker who represents Vashon, said the amendments would give state and local agencies more options for cleaning up derelict boats without costing taxpayers.

“There are a lot of places where it would make sense to have more tools for cleaning them up,” he said.

He added that tighter rules could also dissuade people from abandoning their boats in the first place.

However, the bill, if passed, likely wouldn’t change how derelict vessels are handled on Vashon. Sgt. James Knauss, supervisor of the King County Sheriff’s Office’s marine unit, said the county generally isn’t concerned about liability when removing abandoned boats from Quartermaster Harbor.

The limiting factor in removing boats, he said, is money. And the bill would add no money to the Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

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