April 10, 2019

File
Monroe County accounts for about 40 percent of derelict vessels in the Florida's coastal waters. The state is considering navigational tests to identify boats at risk of sinking.

File Monroe County accounts for about 40 percent of derelict vessels in the Florida's coastal waters. The state is considering navigational tests to identify boats at risk of sinking.

KEY LARGO — The Florida Keys lead the way in one regrettable regard: Monroe County alone accounts for about 40 percent of derelict vessels in the Florida’s coastal waters.

“Derelict vessels are showing up all over,” said Capt. David Dipre of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, despite an extensive removal effort after Hurricane Irma in 2017 that pulled about 1,700 destroyed boats from Keys waters.

“We ask ourselves all the time, where are they coming from? We have two officers working full-time on derelict vessels and they’re overwhelmed,” Dipre said at an April 3 comment session on boats at risk of sinking.

The open meeting at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center in Key Largo was held specifically to gather opinions on how to define whether an “at-risk” boat can move under its own power, by motor or sail.

“If we can prompt owners to repair their boats and bring them into compliance before they sink and are not at risk, and continually maintain them, it’s really better for everybody,” said Capt. Gary Klein of FWC’s Waterway Management division.

“Non-compliance would be very expensive” for the owner of an at-risk boat, Klein said. “It’s in their best interests to get it repaired or out of the water.”

Florida has 35 coastal counties, and the Keys are the biggest trouble spot for boats that sink and become abandoned derelicts, he said.

The at-risk program seeks to find boats incapable of moving to safety in the approach of a strong storm. Inspections are made only of vessels anchored offshore — not at a dock or marina — and have obvious signs of being in poor condition.

Warning signs include a boat partially sunk or listing because of taking on water, having open hatches intended to be closed to prevent water intrusion, or breaking loose from a mooring.

The state at-risk law also requires moored boats to “have an effective means of propulsion for safe navigation.” However, the law’s definition of being able to move lacks specifics.

About 15 boaters and residents attending the Key Largo meeting were asked to use their smartphones or a paper ballot to indicate what they consider a reasonable navigational test for boats longer than 16 feet. A Key West meeting April 2 drew about 30 people.

A powerboat considered at risk, for example, may be asked to travel a quarter- or half-mile in a straight line and return, and do so “in a reasonable time frame.” A majority of the Key Largo group considered 10 minutes a reasonable time.

For sailboats without a functional motor, factors including current wind conditions would be taken into account.

The survey included 17 questions relating to at-risk vessels. Information from the meetings will be reviewed before FWC staff takes a proposal to the agency’s board members.

“I don’t want to get people in trouble. I want to keep them from getting in trouble,” Dipre said. “Officer discretion is always taken into account. On a case-by-case basis, that’s how we enforce the law. We try to do the right thing.”

Vessels obviously maintained in good condition likely will not be asked to prove their navigational ability, the FWC officers said.

“Most everyone is in compliance,” Dipre said. But some owners of “sorrowful” boats “couldn’t be convinced that there wasn’t some life left in their boat. That may take them down a slippery slope.”

For more information, go to the FWC website at myfwc.com/boating and scroll down to “Derelict Vessels.”

kwadlow@keysnews.com