Boat ‘turn-in’ program aims to keep derelict boats out of Suncoast waterways

ABC7 Good Morning Suncoast - Weekdays at 6am
Published: Mar. 27, 2023 at 8:09 AM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - Local authorities are hoping owners of wrecked and derelict boats will take advantage of a program to get the potentially dangerous vessels out of Suncoast waterways.

They once cruised through the water bringing joy to those aboard, but these so-called “ghost boats” are ending their lives abandoned in our local waters.

These vessels are dangerous if left out too long and authorities say it’s important to remove them before they become deadly.

“You know there are a lot of things on board boats such fuels, diesel, gasoline, oils, engine oils, and hydraulic fluids,” says Senior Captain Travis Franklin with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

It’s not just what they leak. If these vessels sink just below the surface, boaters may not be able to see them until its too late.

But the state is now working on a solution.

Ron Dixon with the Sarasota Police marine patrol unit, says a voluntary turn-in vessel program, or VTIP, can help keep these boats from becoming hazards. “The state has actually earmarked millions of dollars to get derelict vessels removed,” he told ABC7. “You can actually turn it into the state of Florida before it becomes derelict.”

The program started last September, and the hope is to make it easier -- and cheaper -- to get rid of a boat before it’s too late.

“Our new vessel turn in program is an opportunity for those new vessel owners that no longer have the means, desire, or ability to take care of those at-risk vessels and turn them over to the state free of charge for removal,” Franklin said. “That’s before they become derelict. Our experience tells us that vessels that are removed while they are still floating before they sink cost less to remove and there are fewer environmental and natural resource concern.”

The turn-in program is only eligible for at-risk vessels, not derelict vessels and the program is a big step. Authorities also stress that just because a ship is in bad shape, it doesn’t mean it’s up for grabs. Although it may look fun to explore an abandoned boat, it’s important to realize someone out there still owns it. As soon as you board the vessel it’s trespassing, and if you take stuff off of it. that’s theft.

This isn’t always an easy process and tracking down the owners can be tough. Registration records help, but not all transactions are recorded.

“Florida being a titled state everything has to be registered to a certain owner. There is a history of the owners of these vessels. What we do is track them down and find out what’s going on with it. Usually, the registered owner is not the current owner. These vessels have been sold three and four times over since the original owners,” Dixon said.

So far, six vessels are out of the water thanks to the program. Still, progress is slowed since many of the same resources are needed for Hurricane Ian response and recovery. “Derelict vessels are a year-round event or occurrence. They don’t know seasons,” Franklin said.

Currently none of the vessels in the turn in program are in Sarasota or Manatee counties, but that’s expected to change soon. The FWC hopes that with further publicity, more eligible at-risk owners will take advantage of the program.

It is important to note that leaving a vessel in a derelict condition on waters of the state is a misdemeanor and requires repayment of all the removal costs. In order to help authorities out, please report any vessels that you see in bad shape.