Ditched and dangerous: Abandoned boats put mariners, swimmers, wildlife in jeopardy

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — On the North Landing River about a mile and a half north of Pungo Ferry Road sits a boat graveyard. Time and water keep passing but the weathered vessels sit, anchored by neglect.

It’s where about a dozen boats have gone to die.

“What you really have is generational boat abandonment, so that’s been happening for years and years. I would say decades, even,” said Mike Provost, owner and founder of Virginia Maritime Solutions. He has made it his mission to get shipwrecks out of local waters.

You can’t just tow them away. It takes heavy machinery and plenty of logistics.

“A lot of those boats are to the point where they have to be taken out with a barge and an excavator and a backhoe,” Provost said.

It’s a big operation that costs big bucks. Provost launched a GoFundMe campaign to remove a 36-foot cabin cruiser left to rot in First Landing State Park, and the goal is $18,000 for lifting out the wreckage, putting it on a barge and disposing of it.

“I’m very appreciative of all the donations received to date. We’re still a long way from the target,” he said.

As of Monday night, the GoFundMe had collected about $1,700.

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There’s a wave of reasons why boat owners run out of steam when it comes to upkeep. They’re expensive, but it runs deeper than that. Essentially they can’t be recycled. A fiberglass boat lasts about 40 years before it’s no longer useful.

“You can’t sell it,” Provost said. “If you don’t have thousands of dollars, you can get it disposed of. So what do you do with it? That’s the dilemma.”

Not all of the abandoned boats are obvious. An aluminum railing that looks like the handle to a lawnmower juts out of the water about a hundred yards away from Dockside Restaurant. It’s attached to a submerged boat that’s estimated to be 20 feet long. It’s in a sensitive habitat for sea creatures and waterfowl, and the Chesapeake Bay foundation set up an oyster bed nearby.

“That boat specifically would have to be taken out with an excavator or a backhoe, so that’s gonna create a big mess,” Provost said. “You’re gonna have fiberglass debris, and potentially fluids, oils, greases, etc. that escape during that process. It could really put that oyster habitat in jeopardy.”

Another abandoned boat right next to Dockside has been there for years, sitting about 10 feet away from the restaurant’s outdoor dining area.

“The deck and the upper structure has actually separated from the hull, and it’s off-kilter about 45 degrees. So that is gonna be a monster of a removal and disposal project, unfortunately,” Provost said.

Even for waterways wholly within city limits, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission is the agency responsible for enforcement.

Virginia Beach Department of Public Works spokesperson Drew Lankford gave this statement: “All navigable Virginia waterways are primarily the responsibility of the VMRC and related agencies with the Commonwealth – not the City. For that reason, City/Public Works vessels are not used to patrol local waters and tow in abandoned boats. There may be an occasional circumstance where Public Works has been contacted about towing an abandoned boat for some particular reason, but that very rarely happens and would depend on the particular case.”

VMRC spokesperson Rachael Peabody said in a Monday afternoon email the agency’s “marine police are investigating or processing charges for about one abandoned or derelict vessel per month.”

Determining ownership can be a major obstacle.

“Many vessels have had the identifying markers removed specifically to evade enforcement. In other cases, our enforcement officers may be able to locate the owner but find that the owners are not physically or financially capable of removing the vessel,” Peabody said.

Violations under the statute are a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in jail, a fine of up to $2,500, or both.

Peabody credited Provost and “the hard work of Virginia Maritime Solutions” for initiating the plan to remove the boat in First Landing State Park.

She said: “VMRC has long struggled with the constant problem of abandoned and derelict vessels” and mentioned the Virginia Abandoned and Derelict Vessels Work Group facilitated by Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University with support from the Virginia Coastal Zone Management Program. (The work group) is taking a partnership approach to coordinating an examination of the issues surrounding recreational, commercial, and “legacy” ADVs in VA, focusing on potential solutions.”

VMRC says it will look into the abandoned boats 10 On Your Side featured in this investigation.

The Marine Habitat and Waterways Improvement Fund provides some money to clean up abandoned and derelict vessels (ADVs), and in Virginia, it’s administered by the Department of Wildlife Resources.

VMRC says it will investigate all reports of ADVs and encourages people to call 757-247-2265.

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