The “Flying Fifty” has become a familiar sight to patrons of the Snook Inn on Marco Island.
Listing on a sand bar just a few hundred yards offshore, the abandoned 70-foot sailboat’s deck and long mast lean toward the popular eatery’s outdoor bar and patio.
It has been there so long that T-shirts reading, “What’s with the boat that’s not afloat?” can be purchased in the restaurant’s small gift shop.
Thanks to an $80,000 grant from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, the “Flying Fifty” is one of 12 derelict vessels that will be pulled from Collier County waters in the next few weeks.
The Coastal Zone Management Department also contributed $20,000 to the project.
The vessels are eyesores but removal is also important for safety and environmental reasons, said FWC Officer David Barrett.
“For one, it is a hazard to navigation,” he said. “There is no lighting on a derelict vessel and if you’re unfamiliar with the area you might not see it at night.
“There is also environmental damage, as boats are made of wood and fiberglass and filled with resins and toxic chemicals that can damage seagrass and disrupt natural life.”
Workers from a private contractor began removing vessels Thursday morning and by noon had righted a 28-foot sailboat that was entangled in mangroves along Blue Hill Bay, near Goodland.
They pressure washed the hull’s interior and pumped excess water out into the bay.
Like most derelict vessels, the boat had been stripped of its motor, mast, rudder and any equipment with value, either by the boat’s owner or by looters.
Sgt. Dave Bruening of the Collier Sheriff’s Department Marine Unit said the boats are usually located after boaters or nearby homeowners complain about them.
His unit makes an effort to keep boaters away from the derelict vessels for safety reasons, but looting is common. He said the problem could be worse.
“Anytime a boat is abandoned it is a problem,” he said. “But we are lucky in relation to neighboring counties. Monroe and Lee both have a lot more derelict boats than we do, but with the downturn in the economy we might start to see more.”
Removing abandoned vessels from Collier waters has been a bigger priority recently, said FWC Lieutenant Mitts Mravic.
Mravic heads a five-man unit that operates out of the sheriff department’s Marco substation.
Mravic said strengthening interagency partnerships with the sheriff’s department, Marco and Naples police and the Coast Guard has helped.
“Two years ago we really started to put together a better program locally,” he said. “With just five full-time officers, we can’t cover the entire county but with the partnerships we now have we can get the job done no problem.”
In two years, 80 derelict vessels have been identified and 60 of those have already been removed, said Barrett.
The “Flying Fifty” is the biggest boat that will be removed in coming weeks, at a cost of $40,000.
The boat had been moored in the river with too little line broke loose and ended up stuck on a shoal in November 2007.
Many derelict vessels are abandoned after similar accidents, said Barrett. Others are willfully abandoned when upkeep or repairs become too expensive.
“They sometimes try to take registration numbers off of them and do whatever they can to hide the boat’s identity,” he said.
That makes removal a time-consuming process. Once a vessel is identified, the FWC gives the owner 30 days to take care of the problem. If the owner refuses, he can be prosecuted and charged for restitution if the state foots the bill.
About 80 percent of abandoned boats are ultimately removed by their owners.
“The key is to determine if there is an owner, then give that owner a chance to move it on their own,” said Barrett. “It’s somebody’s property, even if they have abandoned it.”