Gateway: News

Derelict boats are costly headache for police, marinas

A boat named “The Fugitive” was pulled out of the water by Gig Harbor police after nearly sinking at the Gig Harbor Marina.
A boat named “The Fugitive” was pulled out of the water by Gig Harbor police after nearly sinking at the Gig Harbor Marina. Courtesy

They are sometimes abandoned, they may be falling apart, and if they sink they can pollute the harbor.

Derelict boats and their owners can have devastating effects on the environmental health of of local waterways, become a manpower strain on local police departments and even cause a negative economic ripple on marina owners.

But the Gig Harbor Police Department is cracking down on the issue, with an aim on cleaning up the Gig Harbor waterway and saving both local marinas and the city money and time.

“The primary culprit, quite often, is old wooden boats,” said Ron Roark, owner of Gig Harbor Marina and Boatyard. “They require a tremendous amount of maintenance and a lot of love and attention. People have a romantic idea that buy these boats but then they don’t have the money to maintain them or the energy.”

The laws dealing with derelict and abandoned boats changed recently, giving law enforcement officials more control over the issue, Gig Harbor Police Chief Kelly Busey said.

The underwater land, called bedlands, it is owned by the state and controlled by the Department of Natural Resources. The DNR has set state law that says boaters can anchor in one location for no more than 30 consecutive days or no more than 90 days in any “floating” 365-day period.

According to the law, in the “area” means a five-mile radius. Until just a couple years ago Gig Harbor was bifurcated, meaning half of the harbor was city controlled and the other half was controlled by Pierce County. This created an issue for local marinas, Roark said, because derelict boat owners would move their boat right before the legal deadline from the Gig Harbor side of the water to the county side, where it would sit and become a hazard.

“The derelict boat guys, knowing (Chief) Busey was going to enforce (the law), would park and anchor on the other side,” Roark said. “We had a lot of boats over there.”

For years Pierce County did not push on the derelict boat issue. Busey said discussions between the city and county led to an interlocal agreement in 2012 which allowed Gig Harbor police to enforce derelict and abandoned boat laws on both sides of the harbor.

Right away, police identified 14 derelict boats and had to seize at least one vessel.


The last thing city police want to do is seize a person’s boat that has been labeled by authorities as derelict or abandoned. The process is costly to both the city and local marinas, while also being a tedious, drawn-out procedure.

“The seizure process is lengthy,” Busey said. “That’s where we start running into money and costs. We have to post on the boat, we have to run an advertisement in the legals. Then we have to mail certify and a whole bunch of other things before we have to claim the boat.”

Then there is a hearing procedure where the owner can attest against the boat. Then the city has to pay moorage on it somewhere if it is not taking up a spot on the city dock.

One good example of how much of a headache derelict boats can be for cities like Gig Harbor is the story of “The Fugitive,” an old wooden boat that was seized by police and saved from sinking in the harbor.

A boat named “The Fugitive” was pulled out of the water by Gig Harbor police after nearly sinking at the Gig Harbor Marina. Gig Harbor Police Department Courtesy

The story of “The Fugitive” began when Gig Harbor police noticed an old wooden boat had been anchored on the city dock for months. The owner was warned about becoming derelict from local authorities, but Busey said he was “given the runaround” by the owner.

“So we started the seizure process,” the chief said.

After placing a notice on the boat, law enforcement is required by law to place a legal ad in the local newspaper stating their intent to seize the owner’s boat from the dock within a 10-day window of time. The department missed that window.

“So to do it right we started over,” Busey said. “We told the (owner) that we screwed up. But we did it right the second time.”

It seemed like the city was going to successfully remove the boat, but 10 days before seizure day, police realized the boat was sinking.

“It was unattended and we couldn’t find the owner,” Busey said. “Our police boat arrived just in time. Five more minutes and it would have been in the harbor.”

Police dewatered the vessel and towed it to Gig Harbor Marina and Boatyard.

“Having these boats moored here costs me money,” Roark said. “I charge the city about $86 a day, the regular (rate) to moor here. But it costs me an estimated $2,000 a day.”

Roark said while derelict boats sit in his marina, he loses rental space and space which could be used for boat maintenance and repairs.

“We have to call our clients and push back their dates,” Roark said. “Because we just don’t have the room.”

“The Fugitive” sat at the marina for weeks, raking up costs for the city. Then the city had to bid for a contractor that would remove the boat, dispose of the pollutants in it and destroy the vessel.

“That came to about $7,000,” Busey said. “The yard bill came to $4,500. So we are into this for over $12,000.”

Roark said the story of “The Fugitive” is a classic case of problem boats in his and nearby marinas.

Although it costs police a lot of money upfront, the city can apply to the state to have up to 90 percent of the costs reimbursed.

“We are their agent to clean up their land,” Busey said. “The other 10 percent can be services in kind.”

Although if money spent from the police department is refunded, it goes to the city’s general fund and not back into the department’s budget.


Roark said since the city has taken over enforcement of problem boats, he has seen less of a problem in the area.

“I think it’s been a tremendous success,” Roark said of the effort. “I think there is more awareness about it.”

Roark also tries to help prevent boats from becoming derelict or abandoned by talking with boat owners about the costs of owning and maintaining a boat.

“If I see a boat that is potentially hazardous to the marina or the harbor, I will notify the owner,” Roark said. “A majority of the boats I evict from my marina are boats that are becoming dangerous.”

After the initial crackdown, police have found a way to log each boat that is anchored in the harbor and to work with owners before their boats become issues.

“It’s been way better,” Busey said. “Right now there are no derelicts. There are a few boats that are close but we have been keeping track.”

Danielle Chastaine: 253-358-4155, @gateway_danie


The legal definition of a derelict boat is “when the vessel’s owner is known and can be located, and exerts control of a vessel that:

  • Has been moored, anchored or otherwise left in the waters of the state or on public property contray to rules adopted by an authorized public entity
  • Has been left on private property without authorization of the owner
  • Has been left for a period of seven consecutive days and is sunk or in danger of sinking, is obstructing a waterway or is endgaring life or property.”

The legal definition of an abandoned vessel according to county code is “a vessel that has been left, moored or anchored in the same area without the express consent or contrary to the rules of the owner, manager or lessee of the aquatic lands below or on which the vessel is located for either a period of more than 30 consecutive days or for more than a total of 90 days in any 365 day period, and the vessels owner is:

  • Not known or cannot be located
  • Known and located but is unwilling to take control of the vessel.