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A vast problem: Coast guard floats a new solution to problem of abandoned boats

Derelict boats big problem

The Canadian government's inventory of wrecked, abandoned or hazardous boats includes a U.S. warship, a derelict floating McDonald's known as the McBarge, a human-smuggling ship and an old BC Ferries vessel rotting on the Fraser River. 

But the most problematic aren't the well-known vessels with colourful histories — it's the fleet of mystery craft that have dogged the Canadian Coast Guard and Transport Canada for years.

The inventory has more than 1,700 entries, about 70 per cent of them in B.C., ranging from abandoned dinghies to yachts and fishing vessels. Many have opaque ownership, testing the skills of coast guard investigators. Some are of unknown origin. Others, said one wharf keeper, may have been abandoned by owners who took to the water during the "COVID era" but found themselves unable to keep up with expenses. 

Now there's new impetus to putting owners' names to the vessels. 

In late June, the coast guard imposed its first fine under the Wrecked, Abandoned or Hazardous Vessels Act, a 2019 law that empowers authorities to penalize owners of boats that are hazardous to marine environments and public safety.

The owner of a wrecked cabin cruiser, the Akoo, which had washed ashore on Vancouver Island was fined $15,000 after being targeted by a coast guard compliance and enforcement program established in April, said Paul Barrett, the agency's superintendent of compliance and enforcement.

Barrett said the vessel was anchored in Cadboro Bay in Victoria before wind washed it ashore on a popular beach and owner Ryan Brackenbury failed to establish a salvage plan.

"We're less worried about eyesores. What we're worried about with this act in particular is hazards," Barrett said.

He said the Akoo had been a problem for months having drifted ashore, discharging pollution as its hull deteriorated.

Barrett said he didn't know Brackenbury's personal circumstances, but court records and social media posts show struggles with homelessness, keeping the Akoo afloat, and a history of run-ins with the law. 

Brackenbury, 43, said in an interview that he believes his boat was deliberately cut loose, calling the fine a "vindictive" move by the coast guard that he plans to appeal. 

"It's not even my boat, like it's not registered to me," he said. "They can't really prove that it's mine."

Brackenbury said he proposed a way of removing the Akoo from the beach, but the coast guard didn't accept his plan. 

He said he's studying social work at Camosun College, living off disability payments and living aboard boats is his only option, because he is unable to afford a rental home. 

"I've had my name on the BC Housing thing for a couple years now and I haven't had any luck," Brackenbury said. "So, you know, this (living on boats) is the best option." 

Barrett said the challenge when they receive a report of an abandoned vessel is "just trying to determine ownership, which takes a fair amount of investigative skills." 

Some vessels require registration, but records might not always reflect a current and accurate chain of ownership, while smaller boats that end up abandoned don't require registration. 

"If a vessel's been left for a really long time, the registries might have lapsed and might not be valid anymore," Barrett said.  

Some vessels on the inventory of wrecked and abandoned vessels have well-documented histories, including the MV Sun Sea, intercepted off Vancouver Island after smuggling 492 Sri Lankan migrants in 2010. 

Also listed is the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski, a U.S. warship that sank south of Prince Rupert in 1946 that prompted a multimillion-dollar cleanup effort when it began leaking oil a decade ago. 

Then there's the Queen of Sidney, a former BC Ferries vessel sold off in 2002 that now sits abandoned on the Fraser River near Mission, east of Vancouver. 

Transport Canada keeps a bulletin board of "vessels of concern," but the few entries on the list show the federal government is trying to find their owners before removing or disposing of the watercraft.

Nico Preston, a wharf keeper, or wharfinger, with the Capital Regional District on Mayne Island, said there are many reasons vessels end up abandoned. 

"I imagine there are going to be a lot of abandoned boats from kind of the COVID era, where a lot of people got into boating and then had lost interest or became unable to keep up with the costs of keeping a boat on the water," Preston said. "Then there’s also limited moorage available. It's difficult to find a place to dock a boat that's protected. You know, there's only so many protected harbours in British Columbia." 

He said the so-called live-aboard community, those who drop anchor in open waters near shorelines and live on their boats, gets unfairly blamed for problematic vessels. Many abandoned boats are unoccupied and may be from defunct fishing operations or owned by companies that have gone bankrupt, he said.  

Preston said his views are "very nuanced" because he's known a wide range of people who "ply the seas." 

"Some vessels that you think might be neglected are in fact cared for within someone's means, whereas the luxury yacht hasn't moved in five years, (that) kind of thing," he said. 

John Roe, a longtime mariner in Victoria, started the Dead Boats Society after helping seize and dispose of "numerous" problematic vessels over the years. 

He said many boats end up abandoned due to "urban pressures," with marina space in short supply. 

"The prices have gone up exponentially. I can't afford to keep a boat in the marina myself, so none of my boats are in the water right now," he said. "There's no economical way to dispose of these things. There just isn't."

Roe said his work to clean up waterways that began in the late 1990s has been supported by heavy industry, and it's a positive step that the coast guard has tools to deal with hazardous boats tainting marine environments. 

"We can govern what happens, both municipally and provincially, and federally what happens in our water," Roe said. "So, we just need to say, 'your rotten old boat's got to go.'" 



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