$104K to help clean up some nautical eyesores DHEC grant targeting abandoned vessels to make Ashley River safer

Sgt. Chad Womack with the Charleston Police Department’s marine patrol digs through items Wednesday littering the deck of a boat slated for removal. He was looking for signs of recent use, while patrolling the Ashley River for abandoned boats. Womack says boats with expired tags and unclear titles, as well as sunken craft, can be considered a safety risk.

The battered and sinking boats dotting the Ashley River at the gateway to the peninsula sit in stark contrast to the luxury vessels moored in the nearby Charleston City Marina.

The city of Charleston has received a $104,000 grant from the state’s Department of Health and Environmental Control to remove abandoned and derelict boats from the river, which cause navigation and safety hazards for other boats. The city also will provide $30,000 as the required match.

Sgt. Chad Womack, from the Charleston Police Department’s marine patrol, said most abandoned boats are found in a mile-long stretch between the West Ashley bridges and the Intracoastal Waterway.

There are about 15 boats out there ranging in size from about 23 to 40 feet, he said. He plans to use the grant money to remove about 10 of them.

The city hasn’t received any money from DHEC for boat removal since 2010, Womack said. It used the $60,000 grant it received then to remove 12 boats.

On a tour of the river earlier this week, Womack said the responsibility and expense for removing a boat fall to the owner. But it’s often impossible to figure out who owns the boats. The law requires boats to be registered, but the registration of many boats that show up in the river isn’t up to date.

“If we can identify an owner, we go after them,” he said. The department will do everything it can to identify the owners of the boats before it uses grant money to remove them, he said.

It usually costs between $2,500 and $10,000 to remove and get rid of a boat, Womack said.

Nobody was stirring on the boats during Womack’s tour. The river was quiet and peaceful with striking city views. But, he said, just because the boats are abandoned doesn’t mean they’re not occupied.

People often live in them, and use inflatable dinghies to get to shore and back. “It’s a culture,” he said. “It’s no different than living in an abandoned house.”

Standing on the deck of his boat, Womack pointed out vessels that clearly are eyesores.

Two sailboats, one leaning over and sinking in the mud, sit on the shore just to the right of the bridge from West Ashley into downtown Charleston.

But even the boat that’s still floating is in bad shape. The deck is covered with a rusty old stepladder, an umbrella, assorted plastic buckets and other debris.

Not far from it, the upper part of a mast from a large, sunken sailboat pokes out of the water.

Womack said many boats are abandoned in area in the river known as a federal anchorage. Boats are allowed to moor and anchor in that area at no cost and with few rules.

But boats also are scattered in other parts of the river, he said. It’s legal for a boat to anchor in the river as long it’s not in the navigation channel and has the proper lights.

Womack has seen a lot while patrolling the river. Last year, an abandoned boat broke loose and floated down the river in flames. And a 40-foot concrete sailboat with a double mast that he likens to a pirate ship sank not long ago.

He doesn’t plan to use grant money to remove sunken boats that aren’t getting in anybody’s way.

DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said the boats in the river don’t appear to be leaking fuel or oil. But they still are an environmental concern because they pose a threat to safe recreational use of the waterway, and they are impacting wetlands and habitats. They also degrade and shed various materials into the waterway, he said.

Robbie Freeman, managing partner of the Charleston City Marina, said the abandoned boats are a problem. “It gives the city a black eye,” he said. “When visiting yachts come here, it reflects badly on Charleston.”

The city is trying to do more about the problem, and he appreciates it, he said. In the past five years, about six abandoned boats have broken free and crashed into boats in the marina.

Freeman said when people hit hard financial times, they often abandon their old boats. “Boats don’t have any significant scrap value,” he said, “so it’s easier to abandon them.”

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.