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From deep sea to deep-sixed

A Port of L.A. program is disposing of derelict boats. It's hard for some owners to say goodbye.

September 04, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

When it came time to deliver the old fishing trawler Nereid to the boat crusher, Nadine York cast her mind back to the days when her husband proudly skippered the vessel through whitecaps and blue water.

"John was a mechanic and a sailor," York said as she sifted through photos of the boat that was their home for three decades. "He transformed her into a comfortable place to raise our family."

After York's husband died in 1998, however, the Nereid languished in a Port of Los Angeles marina, its mahogany planks, oak ribs and iron nails and fasteners attacked by dry rot, worms and rust.

On a recent weekday, the classic wooden fantail trawler became one of the first vessels destroyed under a $300,000 Port of Los Angeles program designed to dispose of as many as 200 derelict boats by January and improve the quality of life for the area's 11 marina communities. Painful as it was to have the Nereid destroyed, York preferred that to having it continue to languish.

"I want her crunched down to splinters so that no one else can touch her," said York, 74, trying not to cry. "She's going to heaven so that my husband can fix her up for me."

In its final journey, the Nereid did not go quietly.

Attached by a thick rope to a towboat, the trawler pulled hard to the left -- like a leashed dog straining to run free -- for most of its 20-minute trip to Berth 194, an expanse of weedy dirt and muddy shoreline dominated by a 40-ton claw crane.

Crane operator Casey Rest throttled up his diesel engine as crews used long poles to nudge the Nereid into position just offshore.

The massive claw struck the Nereid's cabin walls with a loud crack. Then its 12-inch-long talons squeezed, ripping out a Dumpster-size load of broken glass, dangling wires and boards. Again it bit into the boat. Then again and again. In less than an hour, the Nereid was reduced to a pile of debris about 6 feet high and 20 feet wide.

Like most of the vessels marked for destruction under the program, the Nereid needed more work than its owner could afford.

Complicating matters, slip rates, which currently range from roughly $8 to $10 per foot a month, have continued to rise.

The disposal service, believed to be the only one of its kind in California, is offered free to people who agree to sign their vessel over to the port. Before disposal, fuel tanks are drained and flammable and toxic chemicals removed.

"These boats are a pollution threat," said John Holmes, the port's deputy executive director of operations. "Beyond that, when they sink, they become a mutual problem for fire and police authorities and the U.S. Coast Guard, all of whom have more important things to do with their time."

The program has gone smoothly, with one exception: Bright red identification numbers painted on boats deemed ready for the crusher have become magnets for scavengers seeking recyclables.

"We're trying to deal with that problem," Holmes said, "by making the time between cleanup, towing and destruction as quick as possible."

All of the derelict boats have stories to tell, which usually involve a love of the sea and a tinkering mind-set. Take the 44-foot-long Nereid, which was built on Terminal Island in 1916 by Japanese fishermen for deep-sea work. In the 1950s, it joined a fleet of bait boats in the port.

John York bought the vessel in 1971 at a local repair yard, then set to work. He refinished the hull, painted the high deckhouse white and added fixtures and cabinets.

The Yorks believed the boat was haunted by the ghost of a 7-year-old boy who was knocked off the deck by a large wave in 1957. "We named the ghost George, and he was always fooling around," Nadine York said. "Candles flared up. Cigar and perfume smells floated in from out of nowhere. Once, a Christmas music box that hadn't played in 10 years suddenly started playing 'Jingle Bells.' "

Told of George's pranks, Rest joshed, "My crane's haunted too. Maybe they'll wrestle."

In February 1998, the Nereid sank near Leeward Bay Marina at the northern edge of the port complex.

"John was bringing her into the marina face-first, but the current was so fast he hit the dock," York recalled. "She lost two planks and six ribs."

At the time, York's then-11-year-old grandson, Steven, asked: "Think we can fix her, Grandpa?"

In less than two months, the Nereid was seaworthy and inhabitable again.

But John York died in July of that year. Without her husband, York could not sail the vessel or maintain its seaworthiness, and it essentially became a houseboat. Over the years, paint peeled, metal rusted and planks rotted.

The Nereid sank again in early May while York was in the hospital recuperating from an aneurysm. "That time, my husband went down with the ship," York said with a laugh, "meaning an urn containing his ashes sank with it."

The urn was retrieved by a family friend, a commercial diver who also lives at Leeward Bay.

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