Washed up: Where do abandoned vessels go after discovery?

abandoned vessel washes ashore on a la jolla beach

Derelict or deserted, every time an empty vessel washes ashore in La Jolla, it spurs questions about what happens next.

The next destination for abandoned boats on the shoreline depends on a few factors, including why the boat washed up in the first place, but all such vessels are “a problem,” according to San Diego lifeguard Lt. Rick Strobel.

Federal responsibility

A majority of the empty boats found on the oceanfront beach are used to bring undocumented people illegally into the country, Strobel said. “That’s a federal issue.”

Indicators that a vessel is a nexus to human smuggling include the presence of blue fuel barrels on board; life jackets discarded in the boat or on the beach; food wrappers or boat names in Spanish signifying the boat may have originated in Mexico, he said. 

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol personnel seized a boat on Marine Street Beach in January.

“If there is a known nexus to smuggling, federal authorities will take over the removal of the vessel,” Strobel said.

Noting he has limited knowledge of what federal officials will do next, Strobel added the boats are often kept for evidence and in occasional cases will then be sold.

Private and city responsibility

Other vessels are abandoned temporarily, as maybe the owners “just misjudge where they’re at” or succumb to harsh ocean conditions or become caught in the surf, Strobel said.

The owners usually have insurance in these cases and take care of the vessel’s removal themselves.

But in the instances in which derelict vessels are truly abandoned by their private owners, it’s usually because some “people are not good mariners; they end up on the beach and there’s no clear chain of title for who owns the boat,” Strobel said. “In that case, people usually don’t have the means to remove the vessels.”

That then becomes the city of San Diego’s responsibility, he said, citing municipal codes that afford the city the authority to remove abandoned boats. 

In a case just a few days ago in which an intoxicated man allowed his demasted sailboat to run aground at La Jolla Shores at 2 a.m.

The man “could not provide proof of ownership of the boat in any way,” Strobel said, nor did he remove the 15 gallons of hazardous materials he had on board as directed. 

Though lifeguards attempted to have the man remove the vessel, he was unable, Strobel said, and so the city stepped in.

“It was a hazard to swimmers, … an attractive nuisance and an environmental concern because it was on the beach in the marine preserve,” he said.

In nearly all cases of city-removed boats, the vessels are taken to private property and destroyed.

The boats aren’t in condition to be resold, Strobel said, though the city is exploring ways to do this in the very rare cases a vessel does have value.

“We want to respect the public trust and not use taxpayers’ money to destroy something that can be sold,” he said.

Funding 

“Derelict boats and abandoned boats are a financial hardship for the city,” Strobel said.

Where available, the city applies for California funding under two programs: The Surrendered and Abandoned Vessel Exchange (SAVE) grant and the Vessel Turn-In Program (VTIP).

“The state recognizes that there are issues with people abandoning boats and [that] it becomes a financial hardship for the jurisdictions where the vessels are abandoned,” Strobel said.

SAVE funding is for city agencies to defray the cost of removal of a vessel; VTIP is given to private owners through the city departments to aid people who want to voluntarily turn in their derelict boats but don’t know how.

A contractor was called to salvage and remove an abandoned vessel on Windansea Beach in April.

The state usually gives out about $2.2 million in grant money to the various jurisdictions that apply for the funding, Strobel said, adding San Diego regularly applies for grants and has received $150,000 this year to help pay for abandoned vessels that are left on beaches and in Mission Bay.

Strobel also commends the mechanized beach equipment team through the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, which uses its heavy equipment to quickly remove abandoned boats (or, in one recent case, the remains of a whale that washed up) “when time is of the essence … to mitigate hazards.”

“It’s a difficult issue that the city spends a lot of money on and resources,” he said.

Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.
Picture of Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto

Elisabeth Frausto has been reporting on and writing about La Jolla since 2019. With dozens of local and state journalism awards to her name, Elisabeth knows the industry as well as she knows her community. When she’s not covering all things 92037, you’ll find her with coffee in hand staring at the sea.

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