Cast Away

A new promenade and bulkhead are taking shape in Fells Point, but an abandoned houseboat wasn't part of the beautification plan

May 21, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

The angle is particularly unsettling. Pinned by underwater pilings, the breached houseboat lunges out of the water like a mutant marlin. A rusty propane tank on the fly bridge hangs on for dear life. Torn cabin curtains blow in the wind. There is no pleasure left in this boat.

Any respectable capsized boat would be at the bottom of Patapsco's Northwest Harbor here in Fells Point. But not this 30-foot houseboat, with its name unknown and owner gone. This boat sticks out like a sore shipwreck. If it weren't so prominent, who would pay it any mind? Maryland waters are full of derelict vessels with their long-gone owners, but this wreck has been an eyesore and conversation piece for more than a year.

"Everybody comes by and asks about that boat," says Rico Barton, a retired carpenter who lives aboard his 40-foot sailboat, which often docks near the shipwrecked houseboat. He has taken his dinghy out to investigate. "It's an animal sanctuary now. All the ducks took it over. They got a nest in there and a Jacuzzi."

Beyond a fowl hangout, the protruding houseboat is also standing in the way of civic progress.

The city of Baltimore's "Union Wharf Bulkhead and Promenade" project has been well under way at the east end of Thames Street, where old piers and pilings are giving way to red brick walkways, landscaping, park benches and a new bulkhead. The $3.9-million project should be completed this month. People will be able to sit out here, have lunch, walk around the new waterfront. But a crippled, Gilligan's Island-looking houseboat isn't part of the beautification plan.

"The city knows we ought to and need to take care of this. We're working to get the boat out of there," says Tony Wallnofer, deputy operations director for the city's transportation department. Actually, three boats are down in that area, he says. A tugboat is under the houseboat, and another vessel sank in the same area.

Under labyrinthine maritime laws, responsibility for removing an abandoned boat falls to the owner. But if the city can't find the owner, then the next logical - and legal - steps aren't clear. Like abandoned cars, abandoned boats can be a hassle to remove. Although the sunken houseboat in Fells Point isn't a unique problem, city officials say they are investigating.

"Clearly, we need to take it out now that we have beautified the area," says Margaret Martin, the city's chief of transportation, engineering and construction.

No one will mourn the boat's absence. The boaters who rent slips at nearby Thames Point Apartments have lived with the shipwreck for a year.

"It would be better if it was an old antique boat. That would be cool. But it's just a fiberglass houseboat, and they're not pretty when they're floating," says Dave Schmidt aboard his 40-foot boat American Standard.

The houseboat is not a looker. But where did it come from? And how did it get jammed up on pilings, arching out of the water like some spooky boat trophy?

A check of the boat's registration number did not produce an owner. Maybe the numbers were partially scratched off - that often happens when people abandon boats. Maybe it's just another ghost boat in a town known for ghost walks - and boats. Once a Colonial factory for Baltimore schooners, modern Fells Point is still seafaring with its pleasure boats, kayaks, water taxis, Moran tugboats, the Black-Eyed Susan paddleboat and garbage-skimming boats. And where gap-toothed, cobblestoned East Thames Street expires, there is a slip of water with a shady maritime history.

Before the waterfront project, the waterway here was far from pretty. Littered with nubs of crumbled piers and pilings, a shipwrecked boat was just part of the scenery.

"It was a graveyard. People abandoned boats here," Schmidt says.

The houseboat's fate was sealed one day last spring. It had been tied up at an old piling, but a strong west wind pushed a lot of water out, and the houseboat got stuck on submerged pilings in the low tide. The bow went up, and water came in over the transom. A guy who used to live here, Schmidt says, just sat there watching his boat go down.

"Aren't you going to do anything?" Schmidt says he asked the man.

"No," he said.

The boat could have easily been retied to allow for the low tide. It could have been bailed out with its bilge pump, Schmidt says. Nothing was done. Eventually, the submerged pilings speared through the hull.

The guy with the boat hasn't been around in months, Schmidt and others at the marina say. They never caught his full name. Rico Barton also watched the boat go down that day. He thought about using his 40-foot sailboat to tow the boat out, but then the pilings ruptured the hull. A crane would have to remove it now.

Barton isn't a romantic when it comes to abandoned boats, but this vessel could have been saved. Once it's removed, the boat will be cut up with a chainsaw and scrapped, Barton imagines.

"It's all over for it," he says.

The conversation piece in this waterway of Fells Point will finally be gone. And the ducks, well, they will have to find another Jacuzzi. But until then, a new waterfront has to live with an old shipwreck.

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