Removal begins of 39 boats sunken, damaged during Irma
By TERRY DICKSON | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: September 28, 2017
ST. MARYS, GA. (Tribune News Service) — If it had been a normal task, officials in St. Marys could have said “Six down, 33 to go.”
But when you’re pulling sunken boats off the bottom, it’s six up and an estimated 33 to go of the vessels Tropical Storm Irma sank or grounded with its winds and storm surge.
The U.S. Coast Guard is overseeing an operation that has turned the waterfront into a spectacle with two big cranes — one on a big barge — that hoists the boats to the surface or out of the marsh and onto a flatbed truck that hauls them to a dump site at the closed airport.
“The first was a 33-foot trawler,” Mayor John Morrissey said. “It was completely submerged. You couldn’t see it.”
But someone knew where it had been and, once it was found, divers rigged it and the crane lifted it out. It took 5 1/2 hours to get that boat out. It’s painstaking work with the Camden County Sheriff’s Office helping with traffic control on the closed eastern end of St. Marys Street as spectators come to watch as an average of three boats are hauled out a day.
“This is the biggest traffic jam we’ve had in St. Marys in a while,” said Becky Myers, coordinator of Main Street Development.
She and Morrissey were watching the sixth boat lifted out, a once white sailing vessel turned brown from lying in the mud completely under water. It was lifted twice, once from beneath the water onto the barge that carried it to the waterfront. The crane lifted it again and set it on the bottom.
Two workers stepped from another boat onto the muddy deck of the sailboat, loosened the crane’s hooks from the rigging and another worker came aboard and hooked the rigging to the cables of a crane sitting in St. Marys Street. The third worker then cut away the rigging to the mast and let it fall and then used bolt cutters to sever anything else that could hold it.
Ultimately, it was lifted out of the water again and the crane operator paused holding its keel just above the surface as muddy water streamed from a long, gaping hole in the bottom. Once the water stopped, he lifted it onto a flatbed where it was painted with #6 fore and aft and hauled away.
The sailboat had been tied up at some of the westernmost docks, but all the boats along the waterfront are now out including one that Irma tossed halfway out of the water pointed toward Osborne Street.
Myers finds herself coordinating more than development. She’s keeping track of the boats and trying to track down the owners.
“We’re at 39, I believe,” she said of the derelict boats. “We’re trying to identify all the owners.”
Morrissey said the Coast Guard is working on the ones in the navigable water, but removing those in the marsh may fall back on the owners’ insurance.
The Coast Guard will monitor those removals, however, to ensure that any environmental issues, such as fuel leaks, are properly handled, Morrissey said.
Meanwhile, St. Marys is going ahead with its annual Rock Shrimp Festival on Oct. 7. Because of the ongoing work, at least part of St. Marys Street will be out of play, but there there will still be a parade,vendors will still be along Osborne Street and the train will still run for the coinciding Railroad Days.
As the National Park Service continues working on Cumberland Island National Seashore, one stumbling block to its reopening, the damage to the docks that serve the island ferry, may be sidestepped. Morrissey said the city’s dock at the former Gillman Boathouse property, called the Gateway, was not heavily damaged.
“The city, the Lang family and the National Park service will work to establish the Gateway dock as the dockage for the Cumberland ferry until such time as the Park Service can bring their docks on line,” Morrissey said.
Lang’s Seafood owns and operates the ferries that carry passengers to Cumberland.