Mike Stacy, who operates the marina under a contract with the Augusta Ports Authority, said he gave notice to three boat owners that they were in violation of their agreement with the marina and need to correct problems with their vessels.
“We are not going to let the owners of these poor-looking boats cause us more problems,” Stacy said. “We are notifying the owners that they need to maintain their property.”
Marina officials said heavy rains contributed to the two sinkings – a 22-foot deck boat at the Riverwalk Marina and a 30-foot houseboat that was tied to a wooden dock downstream at the Riverfront Marina Warehouse.
Marina manager Johnny Christian said the smaller boat’s sinking was “an act of God” because it was swamped by heavy rains as it sat in a marina slip.
“It was fine the day before when he parked it there,” he said.
The houseboat was another matter.
Stacy said he had towed it out of the Riverwalk Marina about a month ago after the owner fell more than six months behind on rental fees. He finally got in touch with the person he thought was the owner, but it turned out the boat belonged to a deceased friend of the man.
“He didn’t have the proper paperwork to transfer ownership to us,” he said.
Stacy said it was tied to the dock while he was trying to figure out how to claim it as an abandoned vessel and sell it for back rent.
He said the sinking was unfortunate, but his men had worked for three days to refloat the vessel and pull it out of the water.
“We spent three days trying to get this boat out, and we probably could have done it in one if we had all the equipment,” Stacy said.
He said the incident has prompted him to revamp marina policies on unseaworthy vessels and to establish an emergency response plan with the proper equipment to take care of problems.
Ports Authority member Frank Carl said that towing the abandoned boat away wasn’t a good solution, but marina operators don’t have many options.
“We are going to have to work on a policy for that,” he said. “I don’t think you should just tow it away from the slip and tie it up.”
The houseboat is a good example of issues that officials have been dealing with at city marinas for years. The problem is that the Ports Authority “doesn’t have any teeth” to enforce rules and regulations when boat owners aren’t willing, Carl said.
“If the tenant is going to be uncooperative, it takes a long time to get them out,” he said.
In addition, the Savannah River is subject to the authority of several other state and federal agencies, none of which seem interested in abandoned boats, he said.
“It appears that if it is possible to pass the buck, they do,” Carl said.
Carl said he thinks the city needs new ordinances that would give officials more latitude to act in these situations. Discussions about such ordinances have been going on for years, he said.
“We’ve been talking about ordinances that would be effective for regulating the marina, but we haven’t made much progress, not more than just talking about it,” Carl said.
Any ordinance should give the marina the power to pull a boat out of the water if an owner can’t maintain it properly or can’t pay slip fees, he said.
Other marina operators, however, say the laws are already on the books but that good policies are needed to back them up.
“The problem is a lot of marinas let stuff get too far along before they do something,” said Curtis Justice, the general manager at Tradewinds Marina on Thurmond Lake. “At 90 days, we can take possession of the boat or put a lien against it.”
As for guarding against poorly maintained vessels, the best strategy is not letting them in the marina to begin with, he said. Tradewinds, which has more than 200 vessels in rental slips, has a policy against renting to older boats with steel or wooden hulls because they are much harder to maintain and more likely to sink.
“We try to keep the junk out. That’s the biggest preventative measure we make,” Justice said. “If somebody has a junky, inoperable boat, we will run them off.”
Justice said Augusta’s marina would be wise in the long run to adopt similar policies.
“Down there they just have a lot of junk they need to get rid of,” he said.
Tonya Bonitatibus, of Savannah Riverkeeper, agrees.
She said the number of boats in poor condition at the Augusta Marina naturally leads to situations like the houseboat that sank Monday. Another boat that was being repaired sank in a Riverwalk Marina slip last year.
Bonitatibus said if officials don’t crack down on boat owners they can expect more sunken and derelict boats to deal with in the future.
“It is imperative that any marina ensure that vessels docked there are adequately cared for and are adequately accounted for,” she said. “Current evidence suggests that might not be the case.”
Stacy said he is working to improve the situation. He said a Georgia Department of Natural Resources officer told him how to declare the houseboat an abandoned vessel so it can be disposed of.
“There were a lot more of these old boats here when the city used to run the marina,” he said. There were a lot fewer paying customers, too.
Stacy said his company has made a lot of improvements and repairs to facilities and recently purchased a large trailer capable of pulling houseboats out of the river so that marina customers could remove their boats for maintenance and storage.
The trailer got its first use last week with the sunken boat, which he was able to refloat and remove Wednesday.
“I agree, I don’t want to look at an ugly boat,” he said. “We are taking it seriously, and we don’t want this to happen again.”