Abandoned Boats Make Final Voyage

January 01, 1995|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Eastern Shore Bureau of The Sun

WENONA -- In times when crabs and oysters were plentiful and its captain was young, and maybe even content with a waterman's life, this work boat could have been one of the prettiest on the bay.

Now it lies unrecognizable as a heap of mud-covered boards in the back of a dump truck headed for the Somerset County landfill.

For lack of money or because the boats and their owners wear out at the same time, so many vessels are abandoned around the Chesapeake Bay that the state Department of Natural Resources has assigned a team of three men to work full time removing them.

DNR officials estimate that more than 1,000 boats of all kinds and sizes make up the derelict fleet. Of that number, the crew has targeted about 200 vessels that pose immediate hazards to navigation and the environment. They're concentrating in the Deal Island area.

There, as elsewhere, some of the old boats are submerged and endanger sailors. Many more are out of the way in shallow "graveyards" where their only crews are an occasional marsh mouse or a gangly heron stopping by for a rest.

In a tradition followed by generations of watermen, a work boat too dilapidated to repair is pointed into a narrow tributary or gut in a marsh and left to rot.

The practice is so prevalent among some watermen that the expression "shoved up a gut" has taken on a broader meaning of being discarded or no longer useful.

"You hear people say they feel like they've been shoved up a gut," said Grant "Hon" Lawson, a retired watermen and a Crisfield raconteur. "It's part of our language."

As the bay's commercial seafood industry declined over the last few decades and watermen began looking for jobs on land, the number of abandoned work boats increased so much that boat graveyards are common sites near bay-side villages.

Mr. Lawson said many watermen have a hard time making enough money for their families, let alone keeping a 30-year-old wooden boat in good condition.

"A boat can take only so much twisting and nailing," he said. "Before long, there's nothing left to nail to and the owner doesn't have the money to get somebody to haul it away. What else is he going to do? It's all economics."

Few counties offer boat owners a way to get rid of their unwanted vessels. The DNR will help, but seldom gets requests.

"In all honesty, most people ready to dispose of a boat will not call us," said Robert Maddox, a DNR Marine Services section chief based in Cambridge. "They tend to do it surreptitiously."

By law, a boat owner can be fined $1,000 for abandoning a vessel. Not many scofflaw boat captains are brought to court, Mr. Maddox said, because it is difficult to identify the owner of the boat, particularly if the boat has been abandoned for several years.

When registration numbers can be found on a boat, efforts are made to identify its last owner through state records. If the owner is found, the state tries to recover the removal costs -- about $1,000 per boat. But in most cases, taxpayers end up paying the cost because the owners cannot be tracked or are no longer alive.

Watermen aren't the only ones walking away from their broken-down vessels. While most of the derelict boats on the Eastern Shore were used commercially, hundreds of pleasure boats have been abandoned on the western side of the bay.

Mr. Maddox said the removal crew, which was formed in August, worked in Talbot and Queen Anne's counties in the fall and should be moving to the Western Shore region early this year after it finishes hauling away several dozen old boats from Deal Island in Somerset County.

In previous years, the DNR used private contractors or its own construction crew to get rid of the boats. But with the number growing, state officials decided a full-time team devoted solely to removing boats and large floating debris would be more efficient.

Even though many of the old vessels are deep in the marshes, and seemingly out of anyone's way, strong winds coupled with high tides can float the debris into open waters. More than 183,000 vessels are registered in Maryland and thousands of others routinely use state waters.

The crew uses several small boats to locate the derelict vessels and an 80-foot steel barge equipped with a 25-ton excavator to lift the wrecks out of the mud and water.

Crew's work is slow

The work is often slow and erratic because many of the old boats are in water too shallow at low tide to get the barge in place.

And even when they think they are making progress, the crew learns that other abandoned boats have been located.

"I'm not going to say for every one we take up another is put back, but you feel it's that way," said Robert Orme, who oversees the crew.

By the time the boats are hauled onto the barge and taken to land, they are little more than a heap of rotted timbers and barnacle-encrusted planks.

Engines and other metal parts are separated from the wood, and the debris is delivered to the local landfill.

Aside from their aesthetic appeal to artists and photographers, the boats have little historical significance. But state archaeologists say they want to hear from the DNR if anything curious is uncovered during the removal process.

'A common form of shipwrecks'

"Derelicts are a common form of shipwrecks in America," said Bruce F. Thompson, assistant state underwater archaeologist. Historians are interested in locating boat graveyards, he said, even if the visible wrecks are not very old.

"There's a chance older boats will be beneath the wrecks because some graveyards have been used for a long time," he said. "Some of these places could be illustrative to the public."

Once the removal program takes care of the backlog of abandoned boats, DNR officials hope to keep the crew intact to address immediate concerns.

"In three to four years," Mr. Maddox said, "we want to be responding to boats that were abandoned over the last weekend rather than over 15 years ago."

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