CLAIBORNE -- Somebody's busted dream lay nose down on its starboard side in the muck at the head of Tilghman Creek, stripped of everything, even its name and registration numbers. The bow pulpit was twisted from the deck, and barnacles coated the stern.
The Columbia 24 sailboat lying in the Talbot County creek is among hundreds of vessels abandoned in guts and marshes all over the Chesapeake Bay when the boats, or their owners, wear out.
In most cases, the craft aren't a threat to the environment because the owners remove engines and gas cans before leaving them. The wooden ones rot into the mud and the fiberglass ones last forever. But they all tend to attract others, until a bay tributary becomes a boat graveyard.
Abandoned boats are "a blight on the landscape," says Ann Swanson of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.
"It's no different than if you're on a city street where there's a lot of litter around," she says. "You think it's already trashed, so you throw another piece of litter."
Maryland spends about $300,000 a year to clear abandoned and derelict boats from its part of the bay. Many of them are in Anne Arundel County -- Rockhold Creek in the south and Bodkin Creek in the north, says Debbie O'Dea, who runs the abandoned boat program for Maryland Natural Resources Police.
"We've taken 31 [boats] this fiscal year, the majority of them in Anne Arundel County," she says. "Rockhold Creek is a problem. We removed six boats there last winter, and there will be more next year."
Somerset County crews removed "somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 boats," abandoned pilings, and crab shanties from the waters around Smith Island last year, says Melvin Cusick, director of the county's public works department's roads and waterways division.
"Most of them were old workboats, and most were so deteriorated -- they were wooden hulls -- that once [the crews] started taking them out, they fell apart," he says.
Smith Island watermen customarily strip a worn workboat of its engine and other parts, tow it up a marsh or a gut, and leave it. Recreational boaters, who dreamed of carefree days on the Chesapeake Bay, often discover that owning a boat is more expensive than they anticipated.
Slip rentals run at least $1,000 a year. Add the fees for hauling and storing boats over the winter, and launching them in the spring. The maintenance costs are endless: lines here, cleats there, engine tune-ups and repairs.
Under Maryland law, a boat is deemed abandoned if it has been left illegally on public property for a minimum of 30 days, on private property for 180 days, or if it is found adrift in state waters. The state can take custody of an abandoned boat within 15 days of notifying the owners or advertising in a local newspaper to find the owners.
Abandonment is a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $1,000 and six months in jail on the first offense, and double that on the second. O'Dea says the department lists 200 to 250 abandoned boats on its database, but officers rarely pursue such cases without a complaint.
"Throughout Chesapeake Bay, there are hundreds of boats in that condition," says Lt. Randy Witter. "If we went after every boat we see, it would be a logistical nightmare. If it's an environmental hazard or a hazard to navigation, we'll go after it."
In August, investigators told the owner of a 30-foot Cris Craft that sank in Love Cove off Stony Creek at least three years ago that he had one month to get the boat out of the water. When he didn't, the state charged him with abandonment.
District Judge Essom V. Ricks Jr. convicted the owner, Kenneth Bisesi of Glen Burnie, sentenced him to six months and fined him $500, then suspended the sentence and ordered him to pay the cost of removal. The bill was $14,000.
Bisesi insists he sold the boat five years ago, but couldn't prove it because he didn't keep a notarized bill of sale, and the new owner never transferred the registration.
"There's no way I can pay $14,000," he says. "That's ridiculous. I guess I'll have to do six months. I told my parole officer, next time you come, bring the handcuffs, 'cause I can't pay this."
Natural resources officials say owners who no longer can afford to keep their boats should sell them -- and keep a notarized bill of sale -- or give them to a charitable organization and take a tax deduction.
In Talbot County, the sailboat in Tilghman Creek must have been in decent shape when it was tied to a crumbling piling and deserted, the hatch covers left open to catch the rain. Now, full of brown water and mud, sails gone, cabin stripped of fixtures, deck cleats green and corroded, it would cost more than it's worth to make it seaworthy again.
Working from a 16-foot runabout, Preston Hartge of Smith Marine in Galesville, the company with the contract to take the Columbia out of Tilghman Creek, positions wide straps under the stern and clamps them to a tether that leads to the chain of a huge crane on a barge the size of a football field.
Using hand signals, Hartge communicates with crane operator Edgar Bryan. The crane motor roars and slowly the boat starts to right itself. Hartge signals a halt, repositions the straps, and calls for more from Steve McClaughlin, his crew member.
The operation resumes. Suddenly, a resounding crack echoes along the banks of the creek. The mud is giving up its treasure.
Twice more, Hartge would reposition the straps, wait for water to drain, then hook up a pump to empty more water from the cabin before the crane finally lifts the tubby boat from the water and swings it to the back of the barge where it will lie on its side.
"It's a nice little boat," says McClaughlin. "Somebody could've done something with it."