Heal the Ocean field supervisor points to problems with unmanned boats washing ashore in Santa Barbara
Some people might consider two recent boat wrecks washing up on East Beach as separate, isolated incidents with nothing in common.
Others might dismiss them as nothing more than a bizarre coincidence, given that they happened just one week apart.
Both would be wrong.
According to Harry Rabin, field researcher for Heal the Ocean, they are simply the latest examples of a long pattern of unmanned boats washing ashore city and county beaches, each posing an environmental hazard by threatening to spill their fuel, oil, batteries and other toxic materials into ocean waters.
“It has happened pretty consistently over the last three years,” Mr. Rabin told the News-Press in an exclusive interview. “It used to be a seasonal thing like fires. However, with climate change weather has become unpredictable. So these landings are now happening at different times during the year.
The vast majority of these boats that wind up in the surf and on Santa Barbara shores are anchored rather than attached to a secure mooring, Mr. Rabin said. “Anchorage is free vs. mooring. Storm surges and a sandy ocean floor are a bad combination, such is the case with the boats that anchor east of the harbor in city waters and county waters.”
And the problem could get a whole lot worse, Mr. Rabin said.
“There are several derelict semi-abandoned boats” anchored off shore, he said. “Several of them are inoperable, just another disaster waiting to happen. For some reason the definition of ‘vessel’ is being ignored if these unshipworthy boats were moored prior to December of 2015 — sort of ‘grandfathered’ on the books that they do not need to be operable. This is the definition, and the rest of a ‘vessel’ can be overlooked. A bit ridiculous …”
“We live in different times since the old maritime laws from the 1800s, and (there’s an) earlier need to come off the books in my opinion,” he added. “A good example of that is when the Conception went, the insurance company did not have to worry about covering costs more than the actual value of the boat to the victims of what was clearly a lapse in the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) staying on top of modernizing ship worthiness and regulations.”
“That was 1851 Maritime Law, one that was applied to the victims of the Titanic!” Mr. Rabin noted. “Changes are needed in this backward dependence on old maritime laws that need changing. These are my opinions … not necessarily those of Heal the Ocean, for whom I am an adviser and researcher.”
To address these issues and more, a new committee made up of city of Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara County and federal officials — announced last month by Heal The Ocean Executive Director Hillary Hauser — will meet Monday, the first time they’ve met since six months ago, Mr. Rabin said.
Members include Santa Barbara Mayor Randy Rowse and representatives from the county Board of Supervisors, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, county harbor patrol, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
“The Santa Barbara Boat Task Force formed by Heal the Ocean will meet again to continue on improving the situation and stop these wrecks on our shores,” Mr. Rabin said.
The two beached boats found in mid-September seem to have spurred the task force into action.
The first was discovered Sept. 10 when extreme high tide and surf pushed what had been an anchored sailboat onto East Beach, near the foot of the Laguna Creek Channel. Mr. Rabin showed up the next day to remove toxic polluting items from the vessel, which had broken apart, and relocate them above the tideline.
Additionally, he located the vessel’s owner and had him remove 40 gallons of diesel fuel before demolition the following morning. The highest concern was further toxins such as fuel and oil entering the ocean.
However, no boat debris, nor even a single drop of fuel, oil, coolant or other liquid-based toxins made it into the sea during the entire operation, Mr. Rabin said at the time.
Heal The Ocean then removed the boat with the help of MarBorg Industries.
The owner apparently purchased the boat three to four days earlier for $20,000, Mr. Rabin said.
The boat owner was held responsible by Heal the Ocean during the cleanup effort. He and friends assisted with the cleanup of toxic materials. HTO passed on most of the cleanup bill to him.
The second beached boat was found on Sept. 17.
“We assisted as much as we could but let the city handle the removal this time as the boat literally righted itself when I was down there with the Coast Guard on Saturday. We took a look at tides and weather and saw nothing significant that could break the boat apart and send possible toxic liquids such as fuel and oil along with three batteries and other toxic materials into the ocean. So we knew we had a longer window to get the boat off the beach,” Mr. Rabin said.
The boat owner bought it for $1,000 from a homeless person, then lived on it himself in March for a month and then again in July for about six weeks, “a sad tale of those who do not have or can afford housing,” Mr. Rabin said.
Mr. Neville then left the country to live at a friend’s home in Italy, leaving the boat anchored and supposedly secured.
“A single Danforth fluke anchor held the boat to a sandy bottom at Fools Anchorage off our coast near the pier. Luckily it did not take out any pilings at the pier itself or hit other boats, but it came close.”
Mr. Rabin fairly bristled when describing his reaction to the fact that neither boat owner had insurance.
“That boat that was on East Beach and removed today could have been insured for anywhere from $100 to $400 a year,” Mr. Rabin said, noting that for another nominal amount, owners can buy tow insurance. “At a minimum, all boats in these waters should be registered, insured and operational. This last boat lacked all three.”
He grew even more heated when discussing the owner’s lack of insurance for the boat found Sept. 10. The boat owner told him he hadn’t had time to buy insurance.
Then Mr. Rabin learned that owner had a second boat anchored off East Beach.
“My response was ‘Go get it insured right now. One hundred and two dollars a year is minimal insurance costs for this boat, and $500 is maximum.’”
“I further explained ‘HTO is not here as a favor to you and any other boat owners who neglect the responsibilities of owning a vessel,” Mr. Rabin said. “Insurance, operable and registered. If you cannot have these three basic items, then do not own or go out and purchase more vessels to be used as homes. That is irresponsible, and this is what happens.”
Mr. Rabin noted Heal the Ocean doesn’t exist to bail people out from liability and that the city or county will hold boat owners responsible as well.
Besides the lack of insurance, these negligent boat owners also play fast and loose with the rules, Mr. Rabin said.
“There are games people who own derelict boats play to avoid keeping their boats out of the trash can,” he said. “They simply put them around the harbor within the required proof of operable status, then secure them back on mooring or anchorage.”
Many of them should be hauled out before they can do damage, he said.
Mr. Rabin said Heal the Ocean has seen a consistent pattern of boats washing ashore, semi-derelict boats anchored off shore and boat owners without insurance or skirting the law, anchoring their boats instead of tying them to secure mooring.