Who Floats a Boat?

By J'Amy Brown   |   June 13, 2019

Q: Months ago, a number of vessels washed ashore on Montecito beaches, and there they still sit. Who’s responsible for ridding our beach of this gnarly debris? 

A. Wouldn’t it be grand if beached boats could just be stuffed into glass bottles? Well, no such luck! It seems, unless it’s toxic or dangerous, there aren’t too many folks willing to salvage beached craft crud. Looking for answers has been a multi-port, information-gathering adventure. 

Montecito Fire’s Public Information Officer Jackie Jenkins (805-969-7762) is always my first stop. She said when it comes to unmoored vessels, Montecito Fire generally responds only if there are life safety concerns. That’s certainly not the case with this long-stranded Hammond’s Beach debris pile, so Jackie referred me to the Sheriff Department’s Christie Idol (805-684-4561), who heads the Sheriff’s Coastal Patrol Bureau. She appears to be the right person to report this kind of issue, but she was on vacation, so, with the wind at my back, I sailed on. 

Next port: Das Williams’ First District office where Kadie McShirley (805-568-2186) said she was aware of the Hammond’s beach debris issue. She gave me the benefit of her own fact-finding, noting Carpinteria Sheriff Bureau Chief, Sheriff Butch Arnoldi, was recently made aware of the issue but a removal plan was not yet solidified. She then referred me to County Public Works’ Brad Spencer (805-568-5300). As Public Works Resource and Recovery guru, Spencer has dealt with a number of washed up vessels in Montecito. Spencer said the debris at Hammond’s Beach had scattered itself near a creek outlet and the protected Hammond’s Meadow archeological site. Because of the locale, getting the required heavy machinery into the area could potentially impact the fragile, protected, adjacent historic meadow. Spencer referred me back to the Sheriff’s Department, where Commander Darin Fotheringham offered some general procedure points regarding unmoored vessels: 

If a member of the public sees a vessel in distress or in the process or running aground, 911 should be notified as there may be persons in distress. If an abandoned vessel is located on the beach, law enforcement should be notified. They will ensure there are no persons in distress and they will try to locate the owner. If any fuels or other hazmat items are located, Coast Guard will respond and remove those items to protect the environment

If a vessel runs aground on the beach, it is the responsibility of the owner to remove the vessel. The owner will be informed of their responsibility to remove the vessel. If the owner cannot be located, a notice will be posted informing the owner of their responsibility to remove the vessel within a certain timeframe. If a vessel is a public hazard it can be removed sooner than the posting dates.

Responsibility for removing abandoned debris depends on the location of the vessel. Any jurisdiction, such as city, county, federal, state, parks and/or private property owners could be called on to respond, depending on the whereabouts of the debris. Vessels washing ashore in Montecito’s beaches generally fall under the Sheriff’s jurisdiction. The Sheriff coordinates with County Public Works or private vendors to remove a vessel if it is deemed a hazard. Generally emergency removal involves intact vessels that are in the surf and could move with the tides. Smaller broken pieces generally fall under the classification of trash on the beach and do not qualify as a public safety issue. 

With the major public response agencies like Fire, Sheriff, and Public Works paddling away, what about a private / community response? Could the debris be removed by a “done-in-a-day” project by Bucket Brigade or Heal the Ocean’s beach team? County Public Works Spencer says, unfortunately, the answer is probably “no.” He explained that due to the sensitive nature of the Hammond’s archeological site, any clean-up, especially the removal of a sand-covered engine, would need to be permitted and managed by professionals with proper archeological and excavation know-how.

Removal By Sea

With that in mind, I contacted Channel Islands Restoration, currently working with County Parks to restore the Hammond’s Meadow public open space. Channel Islands Restoration is fully versed in environmental issues and well equipped to handle sensitive sites. With beach debris removal not part their permitted project, they were not too encouraging that they could remove the trash. However, not wanting to cast me adrift, they referred me to Captain Brian Cunningham (805-644-2762) of Towboatus Ventura. He suggested a towboat might be able to wrench the debris off the beach from the ocean side of Hammond’s Beach. While that would avoid any archeological damage, it could be expensive. 

That left me with one final question as to whether Montecito Community Foundation would fund a grant for beached debris removal. I did not pursue the question with them, but if the community shows interest, and the project does not cost a pirate’s ransom, MCF might open their treasure chest to cover the cost for private salvage or a public agency grant. Finally, if the MCF’s funding does not materialize, both Cunningham and Spencer offered a less immediate solution. These seasoned salts assured me the ocean has a way of healing itself, and, in time, they said, sand, sea and shore may eliminate the debris in their own natural way – for free! 

So, after many ports-of-calls, I fear my answer – leaving nature to float the broken boat – may not have provided the life preserver you were reaching for. But, in the meantime, another solution has popped up: some clever soul has put a flap over the castaway derelict hull, awarding himself affordable, beachfront housing in Montecito. As they say, one man’s trash is another’s treasure! 


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