MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — It’s unknown how many abandoned boats are currently drifting on Horry County waterways.
That’s about to change.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources plans to ride down the county’s waterways to essentially audit and document all of the boats in the area so it can begin the process of documenting abandoned vessels, identifying owners and eventually remove potentially dangerous crafts from the area — along with creating a partnership with the county similar to ones it has elsewhere.
“If we can get it up there, I think it would be a win for everyone,” said Michael Thomas, the captain of Region Four law enforcement for the SCDNR.
Thomas, who oversees waterways from Myrtle Beach down to Savannah, plans for Horry County to be his next focus to declutter waterways.
The state passed legislation in 2008 to identify abandoned boats, their owners and to create penalties for people who leave their vessels in state waters. An initial survey in 2019 found 215 boats that met the threshold for opening an investigation, according to the 2020 Law Enforcement Investigations Statistics report from the SCDNR, obtained by News13 through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In 2020, 19 abandoned boats were removed in Georgetown County, 15 were removed in Charleston County and nine were removed in Beaufort County.
“The abandoned boat numbers continue to be a significant problem along coastal areas,” the report reads. “Boat owners, no longer choosing to be responsible for fees associated with maintaining, storing or removing their unwanted equipment, or failing to tend to their property as required, abandon their vessels on our waterways.”
It’s becoming an issue for the quality, safety and appearance of South Carolina’s waters.
Thomas doesn’t want an abandoned boat to drift and damage another vessel. The boats also tend to not be properly lit at night, and fuel tanks can cause environmental concerns. The boats also tend to be old and in poor shape.
“And then once they start falling apart, that creates more hazards and problems, and then they are even harder to remove if we get to that point,” he said.
The process of taking an abandoned boat from state waters is long — and typically complicated. If the SCDNR notices a potentially abandoned vessel, it’s tagged. The agency will try to locate the owner by using the most recent registration information, and will post a sign for 45 days about the boat. After that deadline is up, it will send a certified letter to the last documented registered owner of the boat. Typically, Thomas said, that letter ends up bouncing back to the state.
He said the process takes a lot of legwork and rarely runs smoothly. If an owner is identified, then the boat isn’t technically considered abandoned. In one instance, the SCDNR talked to a man who owned several boats and wasn’t willing to sign over any of them. He then later agreed to give up three so they could be removed.
Another time, they found out the owner of a drifting boat had moved to South America and wasn’t going to sign paperwork to take it out of their name.
If the boat is signed over, the SCDNR can work with a county to get it out of the water and destroyed. Thomas said the agency has gotten rid of 30 to 40 abandoned boats with Beaufort County’s help, and has seen a big push in Georgetown County, as well. In Charleston, the state partners with an organization of veterans who repair docks and remove abandoned boats.
The SCDNR doesn’t have the funds or boats to remove the vessels, but Thomas said collaborations with counties have had “tremendous success.”
He wants to tackle Horry County, next, before the boats sink or break apart.
“We try to stay on them and we try to keep a comprehensive list in each county,” he said.
Thomas wants to draw attention to the problem and come up with solutions. The SCDNR is unable to write tickets for abandoned vehicles, and wants to make the removal process faster. He also wants to see funding from the state for removal, but is afraid that that’d create an incentive for irresponsible boat owners.
“We don’t want that,” he said. “We want something that allows for funding to get them out without encouraging people to leave their boat out there.”
Instead of dumping a boat in the water, Thomas said vessels should be sent to a scrap yard or salvaged.