Officials are looking for as many as four boats that disappeared from the public dock at the Augusta Riverfront Marina in the past few days, but whether the culprit is a vandal or rising water remains unclear.
Savannah Riverkeeper Tonya Bonitatibus said six boats went missing from their spots on the dock in the past four days. One was found Thursday tangled in trees on the riverbank half a mile downstream, and another was found inexplicably tied to the marina warehouse dock.
Bonitatibus said that four remain at large and that she fears they might have floated through the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, because the buoy cable that acts as a barrier for boaters was broken.
On Thursday, Bonitatibus, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were on the river searching for the boats and looking for possible structural damage to the dam in case the wandering watercraft crashed into the pillars.
Bonitatibus said she doubts the boats drifted away by accident because she found pieces of cut rope and sliced chain on the dock. On Thursday, there were at least two knots still attached to the dock where rope was cut from the base.
“I think there’s clear evidence of foul play because there was a very significant chain cut, and there’s ropes that were definitely cut loose,” she said. “Those ropes didn’t just break.”
Marina dockmaster Steve Daly questions that theory completely, however. Daly said only two boats, not six, were tied to the public dock during the past week.
Daly said he believes the two boats – whose owners were unpaying squatters who long surpassed the 48-hour docking limit – drifted away because of shoddy tying jobs after the river rose six feet Sunday.
“Neither one of those fellows have been down here taking care of their boat, and they didn’t realize the river was coming up,” Daly said. “They had ropes coming across the dock, one had his boat tied to the fence and it was not tied right at all.”
Gene Gilbert, whose 41-foot 1960 Chris-Craft Constellation is still missing, said he noticed the boat was gone when he stopped to check on it Thursday morning. He said that the knot was still attached to the dock but that the rope had clearly been cut.
He drove to the Fifth Street Marina to check whether it had been moved and then met Bonitatibus at the lock and dam to check for evidence the boat had drifted downstream.
“I just hope it’s not at the bottom of the river,” Gilbert said.
Daly said Gilbert’s boat had been at the public dock since May, even though boat owners are permitted to keep their vessels on the public dock for only 48 hours. Daly said the boat found on the bank Thursday, owned by Terry Hill, had been squatting on the public dock for three weeks.
Bonitatibus said the owner of the boat found mysteriously tied to the Marina warehouse dock is in jail. Besides Hill’s boat that was found and Gilbert’s that has been confirmed missing, Bonitatibus said she has not been able to identify the owners of the remaining three missing boats.
Daly said that’s because they don’t exist.
“There were only two on the public dock, and they were basically there illegally,” Daly said regarding Hill and Gilbert.
Daly said the public dock is available for boaters who want to house their boats temporarily while they eat downtown or see the city.
Boaters staying more than 48 hours must rent a slip with the marina on the private dock or in the warehouse. Daly said that the city, not the marina, is responsible for maintaining the 200 feet of public dock but that it has been neglected for some time.
Bonitatibus said she is certain the boats were there last week and noticed two were gone Monday. When Gilbert called her about his missing boat Thursday, she knew there was a problem.
“When (Gilbert’s) boat went missing, I said ‘Wait a minute, something is not right,’ ” she said. “There were six boats at the official Augusta marina on rented dock space, and they were moved to the public dock for nonpayment; now they’re gone.”
Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Calvin Chew could not provide information about the incident Thursday.
Chrissy Alford, the recreation chief ranger for the Corps of Engineers, said her main concern is whether any drifting boat has caused structural damage to the dam or Sand Bar Ferry bridge along its journey.
Although the dam controls the water level of the river that reaches downtown, Alford said she is not yet overly worried about any damage affecting water levels.
“I’m mainly concerned about the structural damage to the dam or any of these bridges (the boats) could have hit,” Alford said.