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An abandoned ship barrels down the Sacramento River. Who is responsible?

Fire crews recover wayward boat near confluence of rivers in Sacramento

What was reported as a possible boat in distress near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers in December 2016 proved to be a derelict sailboat. Sacramento and West Sacramento fire crews freed the boat and towed it to Discovery Park.
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What was reported as a possible boat in distress near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers in December 2016 proved to be a derelict sailboat. Sacramento and West Sacramento fire crews freed the boat and towed it to Discovery Park.

On July 22, a former shrimping boat drifted down the Sacramento River with nobody aboard – 138 tons of uncontrolled steel riding the current.

The Saint Joseph got caught on a log before it could crash into private docks at the Sacramento Yacht Club or Stan’s Marina. Its wild ride was the latest adventure by a derelict boat on the Sacramento River, where abandoned vessels are a persistent hazard.

For years, the Saint Joseph had been moored to a dock under Sacramento’s Pioneer Bridge. It had last been fixed up in 2009 for the Sea Scouts Program – a part of the Boy Scouts – before it was taken by Global Seven Oceanic LLC to be scrapped. But the now-defunct organization never dismantled the ship.

Instead, it ended up back on the Sacramento River, where it became a hangout for homeless people.

As time passed, the boat became more decrepit. Nate Eckler, who had fixed up the St. Joseph in 2009 for the Sea Scouts, said the last time he spied the vessel it was covered in raw sewage and exposed wiring. There were signs of fires throughout, indicating that drugs had been cooked on board.

Three public safety organizations – the Sacramento Police Department, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department and the Coast Guard auxiliary – came out on the river when the boat was reported loose. But it was Eckler and another private citizen who ended up towing the St. Joseph after it was stopped by the log.

The Saint Joseph is far from the only abandoned boat on the Sacramento River. As these boats sit, their condition worsens, making them harder to remove.

Peter Pelkofer, senior counsel for the State Lands Commission’s Abandoned Vessel Program, estimated there are around 200 abandoned boats on the water throughout the Delta area and Stockton. However, he stressed that it is difficult to pinpoint an exact number at any given time.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “We eliminate them and they seem to pop up like mushrooms.”

In the area that the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office patrols – roughly 80 miles over the Sacramento River – there are about 10 of these abandoned vessels, said Sgt. Sam Machado of Yolo County’s boat patrol, which works alongside agencies in Sacramento County and the cities of Sacramento and West Sacramento, among others.

Nobody is eager to take responsibility for these floating junk piles.

According to both Eckler and Sgt. Matthew Davis of Yolo County, the St. Joseph is owned by the State Lands Commission. However, Jennifer Lucchesi, an officer with the commission, and Pelkofer said that is not the case.

“The ship is not under the control of the commission, but as an abandoned vessel on state sovereign waters, commission staff were attempting to remove it,” Luchessi said.

Throughout California, public and local agencies have removed 745 vessels as part of the state’s Abandoned Watercraft Abatement Fund, according to information officer Adeline Yee at the California State Parks Department. However, this statistic only includes recreational boats, as commercial boats are not covered by the fund. The total cost of removing these boats was $3.337 million dollars, for an average of $4,488 per vessel.

According to Pelkofer, the State Lands Commission is not entitled to grants from the Department of Boating and Waterways – a division of the State Parks – so it works with local agencies to remove the boats.

Not one of the three local law enforcement agencies near where the Saint Joseph went adrift – the Sacramento Police Department, the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department and the West Sacramento Police Department – said the boat was under its jurisdiction.

“It’s a keystone cop thing. Everyone has a little bit of responsibility, but nobody has the ultimate responsibility,” said Yolo County Supervisor Oscar Villegas. “Depending on the side of the river the boat was on and where it was tied up, you have lots of problems. At the end of the day, it’s still the same waterway. Someone has to step up, even if there’s some liability, to do the right thing.”

While the State Lands Commission said it attempts to remove boats as quickly as they can, boats like the Saint Joseph can often molder for a long time.

According to Yee, there are several reasons for this. The boats can be so damaged that they sink, forcing workers to temporarily patch the hulls before pumping the water out. These patched vessels often need to be towed a great distance to a marina to be hauled out, an expensive procedure. In cases like the Saint Joseph, squatters leave hazardous materials on board, so agencies must take special precautions and spend more money to avoid polluting the water.

Yet leaving the boats on the water is dangerous. According to Yee, vessels can sink just below the surface, making them difficult to see. Other boats, like the Saint Joseph, can break off their moorings and float downstream, presenting a danger for people and property on the river.

Since the Saint Joseph incident, Villegas said he has had several meetings with local law enforcement, figuring out ways to get people to handle their boats before there’s a problem, holding law enforcement accountable and keeping the Sacramento River safe.

“I think once it’s not an imminent danger, folks are much more willing to be a part of the solution,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping is going to come from this experience.”

Jacob Sweet: 916-321-1052, @_jacobsweet

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