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    Sunken boats spoil river view

    Tarpon Springs police say derelict craft increasingly mar the Anclote River. Owners can be prosecuted.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 3, 2000


    TARPON SPRINGS -- As the tour boat slowly glided down the Anclote River one afternoon last week, the tourists on the top deck did not take in the view of the Sponge Docks on the south bank.

    Instead, their attention was focused on the blue-collar north shore, in particular on the Miss Meghan, a shrimp boat that has sunk, still tied to its dock.

    Although the spectacle of the Miss Meghan, tilted and half-submerged, might draw tourists' attention, it's not the kind of attention some people in Tarpon Springs want.

    Nor is the Miss Meghan, which has been wallowing on its side for months, the only boat stuck in the river.

    There's also the Joshua II, a 35-foot sailboat that rests untied on a shallow berth, with half its hull poking up and its sails tilted at an awkward angle. And there's the 15-foot boat that has been splayed on some rocks near the Anclote River Bridge for years.

    Finally, until two weeks ago, there was an old and battered wooden boat that sat beached and listing on a sandbar in the river.

    Tarpon Springs police Capt. Robert Kochen considers that a trend, and it's a trend that police want to turn around.

    "This has just recently become a problem," Kochen said. "I guess when it rains, it pours."

    In addition to being an eyesore, Kochen said, sunken boats are a potential danger should they dislodge and drift into the channel.

    The police department called the sunken boats to the attention of the state's marine enforcement patrol, and it has tried to identify and find the boats' owners.

    If no owner can be found, the state marine unit marks a boat as abandoned and derelict. Once marked, the county can pay a private salvage company to remove abandoned boats. That was the fate of the April Grace, which recently was removed. The 15-foot boat on the rocks near the bridge has been marked and is now slated for removal.

    That leaves the Miss Meghan and the Joshua II,which lies sideways just off the dock for the Landing at Tarpon Springs, also just west of the Anclote Bridge.

    The Miss Meghan is owned by Miss Meghan Inc.

    Lt. Humberto Navarro of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's division of marine enforcement said, "They (the owners) are having trouble coming up with the money to get it out." Several area residents said the old shrimp boat, which lies directly across the river from Tarpon Spring's tourist hub, the Sponge Docks, has been pumped out and raised at least once, but it sank again. Navarro said the owner will be given more time to raise the money to move the boat.

    "I think they need to get rid of it," said Joy Sakelson, part-owner of a large fishing boat and gift shop directly across from Miss Meghan. "It doesn't look so good."

    "It doesn't speak well of the waterfront," said Bob Ayers of New Port Richey, who comes regularly to fish from the Sponge Docks.

    Old boat, familiar face

    The owner of the 35-foot schooner Joshua II is well-known to Pinellas County code enforcement officials. John Schestag has been embroiled in a three-year dispute with neighbors and county code enforcement officials over several old cars and boats on his property in Ozona.

    Gary Upchurch, owner of The Landing at Tarpon Springs, said he sold the sailboat to Schestag for $900 in January. Upchurch said Schestag took sails and rigging off the boat and said he would be back in February to get the boat. He returned in March with a friend in a small motor boat to tow the sailboat away.

    But about 20 feet off the dock, Upchurch said, the sailboat ran aground.

    When Schestag started to leave, Upchurch told him high tide still was more than an hour away, and that he could easily dislodge the boat at high tide. But Schestag left, he said.

    Upchurch said he called the Coast Guard to warn them the boat might drift into the river or tip over in low tide and then swamp as the tide rose. No one responded, Upchurch said. Sure enough, the boat eventually fell over and filled with water.

    Upchurch said he has not been able to get Schestag to come back for the boat.

    "I think he's pretty much walked away from it," Upchurch said. "I think the county should go after him."

    Navarro said the sailboat soon will be marked as abandoned.

    "It's been there way too long," he said.

    Navarro said Schestag is embroiled in a dispute with Upchurch over ownership of the boat. Apparently, Navarro said, Schestag wants his money back.

    After the boat has been marked, Navarro said, the case will be turned over to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office for possible prosecution against Schestag for having an abandoned or derelict vessel, a misdemeanor. Schestag could not be reached for comment.

    The sunken boats are a black eye on Tarpon Springs, Upchurch said.

    "Because of boats like that, Tarpon Springs seems to sometimes attract that type of boater," Upchurch said.

    What type?

    Those like the former owners of the April Grace, Upchurch said. The 43-foot wooden boat was beached on a sandbar in the Anclote River. In August, police took custody of a baby girl living on the wooden boat and charged her parents with child neglect. The 38-year-old boat was described as filthy and listing.

    "I would like to see Tarpon Springs control the river, keep it clean," Upchurch said. "We don't want to give that image that anyone can show up and do whatever they want."

    Neglected, but authentic

    Kochen said the police department plans to do just that. In addition to calling the state's attention to sunken boats, police plan to seek out old boats that may have been abandoned or are in such poor shape they are in danger of sinking. Then, he said, the police will try to find the owners and warn them before a problem develops.

    "There are a few boats scattered about," said longtime sponge merchant George Billiris. "But I don't see it as a big, big problem."

    Although Billiris is pleased that the city has decided to take preventive measures, he said some tourists are drawn to the Sponge Docks because of the authenticity of the working port.

    "Sunken boats are authentic," Billiris said. "Life is not always rosy pink all the time."

    There may be something to the sunken boats as tourist attractions, he said.

    "There could be 100 boats afloat, and they're going to take pictures of the one that's sunk," he said. "We can't change human nature."

    -- Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com

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