Some of those disposing of their boats are in the same bind as overstretched homeowners: they face steep payments on an asset that is diminishing in value and decide not to continue. They either default on the debt or take bolder measures.
Marina and maritime officials around the country say they believe, however, that most of the abandoned vessels cluttering their waters are fully paid for. They are expensive-to-maintain toys that have lost their appeal.
The owners cannot sell them, because the secondhand market is overwhelmed. They cannot afford to spend hundreds of dollars a month mooring and maintaining them. And they do not have the thousands of dollars required to properly dispose of them.
When Brian A. Lewis of Seattle tried to sell his boat, Jubilee, no one would pay his asking price of $28,500. Mr. Lewis told the police that maintaining the boat caused “extreme anxiety,” which led him to him drill a two-inch hole in Jubilee’s hull last March.
The boat sank in Puget Sound, and Mr. Lewis told his insurance company it was an accident. His scheme came undone when the state, seeking to prevent environmental damage, raised Jubilee. Mr. Lewis pleaded guilty last week to insurance fraud.
While there are no reliable national statistics on boating fraud, Todd Schwede, an insurance investigator in San Diego, said the number of suspicious cases he was handling had roughly tripled in the last year, to around 70.
In many cases, he said, the boater is following this logic: “I am overinsured on this boat. If I make it go away so no one will find it, the insurance company will give me enough to cover the debt and I’ll make something on the deal as well.”
Lt. David Dipre, who coordinates Florida’s derelict vessel program, said the handful of owners he had managed to track down were guilty more of negligence than fraud. “They say, ‘I had a dream of sailing around the world, I just never got around to it.’ Then they have some bad times and they leave it to someone else to clean up the mess,” Lieutenant Dipre said.
Florida officials say they are moving more aggressively to track down owners and are also starting to unclog the local inlets, harbors, swamps and rivers. The state appropriated funds to remove 118 derelicts this summer, up from only a handful last year.
In South Carolina, four government investigators started canvassing the state’s waterways in January. They quickly identified 150 likely derelicts.
“There are a lot more than we thought there would be,” said Lt. Robert McCullough of the state Department of Natural Resources. “There were a few boats that have always been there, and now all of a sudden they’ve added up and added up.”
In January, it became illegal in South Carolina to abandon a boat on a public waterway. Violators can be fined $5,000 and jailed for 30 days.
“We never needed a law before,” said Gary Santos, a Mount Pleasant councilman.