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Castaways Land in Playa del Rey

Boats moored off Dockweiler beach have been getting swept onto the sand. Owners complain about Marina del Rey's dock fees.

February 01, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

All ashore that's going ashore.

That's the hope of authorities in Playa del Rey who are trying to stem the tide of runaway sailboats washing up on Dockweiler State Beach.

Fourteen boats have landed on the beach in the last year. And now officials fear that half a dozen others that are anchored a few hundred yards offshore could be swept onto the sand in the next big storm.

The boats -- mostly single-masted, 30-foot fiberglass pleasure craft -- are moored in the ocean near the south entrance to Marina del Rey and the mouth of Ballona Creek.

Boaters say their makeshift anchorage avoids escalating dock costs at the 5,000-slip marina. They claim dock operators are systematically weeding out small boats and "live-aboard" craft in favor of larger, more luxurious yachts.

The ocean anchorage is partially shielded from the open sea by a breakwater. But unattended boats left there are at risk of dragging their anchors and drifting toward the beach in windy weather or heavy surf, according to officials, who deny that the marina discriminates against small boats.

Six of the wayward sailboats have been retrieved from the beach and refloated by their owners. Five other heavily damaged craft have been removed and scrapped by Los Angeles County workers. But three sailboats have just sat there on the beach for months.

When beach operators levied a $22.50-per-day beach "storage" fee, their owners abandoned them, ignoring deadlines issued for their removal, authorities said.

Now officials plan to auction two of the boats at a Feb. 15 lien sale. If they go unclaimed, they will be demolished after Feb. 25. The status of the third boat -- whose keel was apparently sheared off when it crashed ashore -- is still being investigated by the county.

The planned sale rankles Frank Martini, owner of a 27-foot sailboat stuck on the beach. He said his vessel, the Terralee, drifted ashore Nov. 11 after waterborne vandals tampered with its two anchor lines.

"The county is holding it hostage," said Martini, who said he arranged for a San Pedro company to refloat his boat before being told he would have to pay the county as much as $20,000 in fees and costs in order for it to be released. His boat is worth about $15,000, he said.

Martini, a Playa del Rey businessman, said he docked his boat for 25 years in a small $287-per-month Marina del Rey slip before being evicted last fall. He said he was offered a 40-foot slip as a replacement but that its $1,200 monthly fee was too expensive.

When he could find no small-boat slip to rent, he said, he dropped anchor off the beach after getting permission from sheriff's deputies. After his boat washed ashore, thieves looted the boat, taking its motor and other furnishings. Someone painted graffiti on its fiberglass hull, Martini said.

For their part, officials say they have tried to protect the boats. They used tractors to drag the beached vessels away from the pounding surf and erected temporary fencing around them to dissuade vandals.

Officials are scouring maritime laws in hopes of finding a way to force boat owners to leave the impromptu breakwater anchorage. Because the boats are moored just outside the Marina del Rey boundary, marina dockage rules do not apply.

"We're looking into ways we may be able to amend an existing ordinance to prevent them from anchoring in that area. We've made inquiries with the Coast Guard as to what can be done," said Deputy Paul Carvalho, who does harbor patrol work from the Sheriff's Department's Marina Station.

"There are some ordinances that might pertain to them as a hazard to navigation, especially those not displaying an anchor light at night. We've left notices on vessels that if they're not brought into compliance, we have the option of towing it away."

Carvalho said most of the ocean-anchored boats are left unattended.

"We always caution them that you anchor that at your own risk. Many are probably not anchored properly. When they slip anchor or break loose, they'll wash up on shore if we don't get there in time."

Dusty Crane, a spokeswoman for the county's Department of Beaches and Harbors, denied that small pleasure boats are being squeezed out of the county-owned marina.

She speculated that some of those anchored offshore were refused slip rental because they did not meet such marina requirements such as being seaworthy or having proper sanitary systems for owners wanting to live aboard them.

"There are slips available in the marina. The fees range from $12 to $20 a linear foot per month. A 25-footer would cost about $300 a month to dock. That's reasonable," she said.

Crane said that regulations allow the quick demolition of abandoned boats valued at less than $300. But the removal of vessels worth more than that takes 60 days.

If owners of the beached boats want to claim them, they must reimburse the county for hauling the craft to higher ground and for storing them.

A notice on one of the boats indicates that its retrieval from the surf line cost the county $4,366 in equipment and labor costs.

Beachfront resident Hil Anderson said boats started washing up in front of his Ocean Front Walk duplex during a Sept. 19 windstorm.

"We joke it's the new tourist attraction. We don't pay attention to them any more. They don't interfere with our appreciation of the view," said Anderson, a writer.

"I've seen a couple of owners come down and salvage what they could. They're probably people who don't have a ton of money."

Beach visitor Bill Niederberger, a retired postman, who lives in Santa Monica, was not surprised to see the abandoned boats.

Said Niederberger: "When you own a boat, it's not the initial cost that gets you, it's the upkeep."

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