The yacht Rendezvous was the only thing of real value Geoff Day ever owned, and the government may soon sell it to someone who will chop it up for scrap materials.
“It was my one pride and joy,” Mr. Day said of the sailboat, which washed ashore at Trellis Bay during Hurricane Irma. “Sadly, no more.”
Mr. Day, an artist and musician, said he owned the 34-foot Jeanneau for around six years, and had been planning “a big adventure” around the Caribbean to perform music. But now, instead of embarking upon his epic voyage, he’s fending off notices from the Virgin Islands Shipping Registry to remove his boat within one year — or else lose it.
The Rendezvous, which was uninsured, is one of hundreds of damaged vessels that are currently beached or sunk throughout the territory.
They pose nuisances and safety hazards, but removing them can be a complex process involving owners, insurers and government agencies working under outdated legislation that doesn’t always provide easy answers for how to handle potentially abandoned boats.
Report of Wreck
On Dec. 19, the VISR issued an official Report of Wreck for the Rendezvous and two other boats wrecked in Trellis Bay.
Acting VISR Director Captain Raman Bala, who serves as the receiver of wrecks, explained that these particular boats were targeted because he received a report from the lawyers of the company that owns the property there.
“We have a form for them to fill out,” he explained. “[They say], ‘These boats are on our client’s property,’ and that they want them removed because they are obstructing commerce.”
He said the registry has made several attempts to contact the boats’ owners, as the 2001 Merchant Shipping Act requires it to do within 48 hours of taking possession of a wreck.
Mr. Day, who eventually found a notice attached to his boat, said, “The first time I heard about it, someone came into [The Tamarind Club] and said, ‘Geoff, your name’s in the paper.’ But at the moment, I literally have no money. I spent all my money on tools I needed to make money.”
The government took possession of the vessels as of Dec. 19. But all that means, according to Mr. Bala, is that they eventually can be removed if they are “obstructing commerce, obstructing business, causing pollution,” or “cannot be stored.”
When the year is up and the owner hasn’t come forward, the government is legally entitled to sell the boat and keep the proceeds.
“At a later stage, if the owner wants to make claims on it, they can come to us, and after we deduct all the expenses they can have it,” Mr. Bala explained.
He also acknowledged that in a territory scrambling to rebuild and attract tourism dollars, one year is a long time to wait to remove the vessels. However, the act contains a provision that entitles the government to sell a boat valued at less than $10,000 at any time.
Mr. Bala stressed that the Report of Wreck process is not a police matter, nor would the government be assuming ownership of the boats at any time.
“We will not do anything that is improper,” he said, adding that his agency is working closely with legislators to determine the best course of action. “Our first thought is to contact the owners. If … nobody tells us, ‘Hey, hands off this boat,’ then we assume the vessel is abandoned. We don’t want to hurt anybody in the process.”
He continued, “Our intention is to have a clean environment clear of abandoned and sunken vessels so that ships can navigate safely and that people can enjoy the offerings of the beautiful Virgin Islands.”
Aragorn Dick-Read, an artist whose business, Aragorn’s Studio, is located in Trellis Bay, said he wants the wrecks gone.
“They are a total inconvenience and obviously an eyesore,” he said. “They are occupying space that we’d rather put to more attractive, artistic pieces.”
But Mr. Dick-Read wasn’t the one who made the report. Real estate consultant Edward Childs of Smiths Gore acknowledged that he is handling the situation on behalf of Quorum, Inc., the Chinese firm that owns the property, and said that he and his legal team contacted the registry to report the wrecks.
“These businesses are compromised, so we want to see those boats removed,” Mr. Childs explained. “Costs should not be borne by the landowner.”
The boats aren’t merely a matter of inconvenience, he added, but a danger in the event of another hurricane.
“I can say I just want them off the property,” he said. “But for the territory, what happens [after another hurricane]? Are they just going to end up back on shore again?”
Although Mr. Day’s boat and the two others were the first to be reported as wrecks, Mr. Bala said they probably won’t be the last.
Ultimately, he added, the registry is looking at pursuing a course of action similar to what was done with derelict cars and trucks in the territory.
“They were swiftly removed,” he said. “And we are looking at something similar to dealing with the boats.”
In a speech to the House of Assembly on Dec. 14, Health and Social Development Minister Ronnie Skelton said that 310 vehicles had been exported from the territory and that negotiations were being finalised with contractor Kausina VI to get rid of more “at little to no net cost to the government.”
According to Mr. Bala, officials have not decided who will be awarded the task of removing the boats, or who will pay.
Complicating the issue, there are several government agencies other than the VISR potentially involved in the process, including the BVI Ports Authority; the Conservation and Fisheries Department, which would assist in making sure the boats don’t leave behind any contaminants; and the Department of Disaster Management.
Under the BVI Ports Authority Act of 1990, for example, the BVIPA has the right to remove, destroy or sell any abandoned or stranded vessel that interferes with use of a harbour.
Even before Irma, derelict boats were a controversial issue in the territory. After Hurricane Earl wrecked nine boats in Baughers Bay in 2010, it took nearly six years, until February 2016, before the BVIPA hired W&W Reliable Construction and Project Management to remove the boats on a zero-dollar contract, with the company receiving revenue generated from the vessels’ scrap metal. At least some parts of the wrecks still remain, however.
A law introduced more than five years ago — the Disaster Management Act of 2011— included provisions that would give the director of VISR more power to remove derelict boats.
In 2012, then-Governor Boyd McCleary expressed support of the act, which he said “will give us the power to take action against” the boats in Baughers Bay.
The bill never passed, however. During a House of Assembly sitting in 2013, lawmakers including Health and Social Development Minister Ronnie Skelton questioned certain provisions in the bill, including its transfer of some powers from elected officials to the DDM director.
In 2014, the HOA voted to give the act a second reading — a step closer to enacting it — but also decided it should be reviewed by a select committee of the House composed of Mr. Skelton, Delores Christopher (R-D5) and then-Opposition Leader Ralph O’Neal.
Last year, another version of the law was introduced, but it too never passed.
Plans in the works
Although Mr. Bala could not provide many details, he maintained that plans are in the works at “senior levels” of government to ensure that when the next major storm comes, the territory isn’t saddled with hundreds more derelict boats. He would not rule out the possibility that this could include a requirement for vessels in the territory to carry insurance.
“There is a very serious effort from the government to close the loopholes,” he said.
Ultimately, however, the responsibility for a vessel lies with its owner, he explained, adding that owners should make sure their boat is insured.
“And you have to make sure that you can take care of it,” he said. “If you cannot take care of it, I don’t know if it is right to expect the government to take care of it.”
Mr. Day said that’s easier said than done. There is a chance the Rendezvous could sail again if he patches up the crack in the hull. However, the biggest challenge is lifting the seven-tonne vessel off the beach. Only a crane can do that, and although there are firms in the territory that perform that work, the cheapest quote Mr. Day could find was over $6,000.
“Just getting it up and in the water is a massive job,” he said.
Around the territory
At the harbour in the heart of Road Town, dozens of upside down and partially submerged boats still dot the water. On Monday of last week, the Bliss, a charter catamaran, floated upside down, and nearby were docked several other salvaged boats whose owners were attempting to fix them up.
Betetto Frett, who owns and operates the Inner Harbour Marina, admitted that he would like the sunken and wrecked vessels to be removed because he’s not currently receiving any income from them. Still, he’s confident that the owners will accept that responsibility.
“They’re waiting for insurance to kick in,” he said.
Mr. Bala agreed, saying that most of the boats still lying about the territory are not necessarily uninsured but are simply waiting for payouts.
However, Mr. Frett said he couldn’t be certain whether all the boats in his marina are insured. Some marinas require boat owners to have insurance before leasing them a slip, but his marina is not one of them.
Mr. Childs suggested that even some insured boat owners are walking away from their vessels, which he found particularly egregious.
Process takes time
However, Husky Salvage & Towing owner Kevin Rowlette pointed out that even if an insured boat owner wants to fix their vessel, it may take time.
“This is because of the number of vessels, the lack of facilities and places to take these vessels,” he explained.
And if a vessel is likely to be a write-off, further difficulties could arise.
“Vessels that are likely to be repaired are getting preferences from the boatyard,” he said.
But an East End boatyard recently launched by Autland Heavy Equipment may relieve some of the bottleneck.
“One of the salvage companies reached out to me because we own some property close to the waterside,” said Dion Crabbe, of Autland.
He soon came up with the idea to create a boatyard to repair boats and recycle the material that is left over.
Autland is currently working with insurance companies to process the vessels.
“We were hearing rumours that they were crushing boats, dumping them in the landfills,” he explained. “What they were doing wasn’t right.”
His plan involves exporting the fibreglass to dump sites in Florida and the Dominican Republic. He also plans to further expand the boatyard and alleviate some of the space shortages.
“Right now we have a situation where we’ve had many discussions with [the Ministry of Natural Resources and Labour],” he explained. “These guys are very adamant at getting these boats out of the environment.”
He said his company is working on a solution for the uninsured boats as well as the insured ones. He added that he is willing to listen to the concerns of the uninsured, but that owners need to step up.
“People aren’t being fair to the island,” he said. “All we’re saying is that we cannot leave this for the government to deal with. I know a few guys that own businesses that own these boats and I’m still seeing them in the water.”
Mr. Crabbe said he doesn’t believe that current law is strong enough and that change needs to occur, particularly in terms of shortening the length of time that owners have to remove their derelict boats. Whether that comes from a new Disaster Management Act or elsewhere doesn’t matter to him.
“At the end of the day, we need someone to go out there with a red spray [paint can] and say, ‘This boat has to go,’” he said. “The government needs to … give some stiff penalties for the guys who leave these boats.”
Shortly after dawn in Trellis Bay on a recent Saturday, resident Julien Mars was hard at work patching and varnishing his own boat, which was one of the dozens that washed ashore after Irma. It was not one of the reported wrecks, however.
“I couldn’t get started right away [after the hurricane],” he said. “But as soon as I had the money, I started fixing it up.”
Mr. Mars said he knows most of the owners of the beached boats surrounding his own. Most, like his, were uninsured, he said, but “almost all of them want to fix them up.”
Whether they’ll be able to afford that is another matter.
Mr. Day says he isn’t sure what will happen if he doesn’t come up with the funds to remove his boat.
“I imagine they’ll get something to chop it up and clear it,” Mr. Day said. “At this point, I’ve got to think, is it worth it or not?”
Mr. Bala reiterated that, though the government will do what it can, the first line of defence against these types of problems in the future is boat owners taking responsibility.
“The first thing is, every owner should have insurance, and they should maintain it,” he said. “People living in boats should take care of the environment. They should not leave the vessels here and go off somewhere and wait for someone else to take them.”
Mr. Bala added that Irma should be a wakeup call to vessel owners.
“Many people have lost their livelihoods; many people have lost their homes,” he said. “Next time … boat owners are going to keep everything in good shape. I don’t think there’s anybody who will disrespect the messages that come out.”
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 1, 2018 edition.