Mariner's ache grows daily

Two damaged shrimp boats. No insurance. Growing fines. Trespassers. Now what?

By EILEEN SCHULTE, Times Staff Writer
Published October 30, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - The haggard old salts lean against each other on the bank of the Anclote River, holding each other up like a couple of boozehounds after one too many beers at Rusty Bellies.

These two 70-foot-long shrimp boats, the Norther and the Sundowner, have been stuck in the sand for about two years.

Each, without the support of the other, would tip into the water. The ribs on the hulls are busted and the windows are smashed.

Although visitors may think the ghost ships add to the charm of the Sponge Docks, the city does not.

Officials want them gone and are fining their owner, Joseph Renardo, $50 for each day they remain submerged in the riverbank. He now owes about $25,000. Because he makes only $10 an hour at his job, he said, he can't come up with that kind of money.

City officials said they would not comment on the situation.

Renardo, 53, works for the city in the parks department, trimming trees and mowing grass. He also has had a fishing business for more than 20 years.

Each boat was valued at about $180,000, he said. He has owned the Sundowner for about nine years and the Norther for three.

In a good month, he could catch 10,000 pounds of shrimp.

"Everything was going well until the price of fuel went up," Renardo said.

Then came the hurricanes.

In 2005, he had the boats docked at Stock Island in the Keys because he couldn't find dock space in Tarpon Springs. Both boats were badly damaged when Hurricanes Dennis and Katrina brushed past. He said he rode out the storms on the boats, trying to protect them.

But the 22-ton vessels were not insured because Renardo could not afford the payments. He estimates the Sundowner sustained $65,000 worth of damage and the Norther suffered $40,000.

After the weather cleared, he had them towed to the Anclote River, where they now sit so deep in the silt no anchors are required.

Renardo said he found evidence - including books and clothes - that squatters have been living on the boats. Looters stole the steering wheels and all the life jackets.

Renardo said he applied for a small business disaster loan but was denied.

Although he's concerned about paying the city's fine, Renardo said he's even more worried about going to jail.

On Sept. 17, a Sheriff's Office marine patrol deputy spotted the vessels and alerted the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. That agency gave Renardo 30 days to tow away the boats.

"It's not legal to leave a vessel in the water in that condition," said Capt. Roger Young, who is with the commission.

However, "we're trying to work with the owner to have the vessels removed," he said.

If Renardo doesn't remove the boats, the matter will be turned over to the State Attorney's Office, which could decide to pursue the matter further.

Renardo said he doesn't want to abandon the boats because he has so much invested in them.

"This is much worse," Renardo said, "than going through the storms."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com.