Abandon ship

On a boat, fighting crime and pollution, with local sheriffs on the Delta

Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Deputy David Guthrie checks on an abandoned barge on the Delta.

Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department Deputy David Guthrie checks on an abandoned barge on the Delta.


After setting off from Brannan Island State Recreation Area near Rio Vista, Sheriff’s Deputies David Guthrie and Marc Warren cruise through choppy waters near the Antioch Bridge, bouncing hard in a small police boat before entering a narrow slough on the back side of Sherman Island. Just past a privately owned watery junkyard of rusting cranes and trailers on blocks, Warren and Guthrie spy a possible suspect.

Guthrie cuts the motor, and the police dinghy moves in slowly toward a sailboat bobbing in the reeds. It appears empty. And, like roughly 50 other boats in Sacramento County, it may have been abandoned.

“Hello, anybody there?” Warren shouts, standing at the front of the small police boat.

No response. He tries again, drifting closer. On board, an unseen dog barks in short bursts.

“Hello?” Warren tries again.

A hatch on the sailboat opens and a man steps out, shirtless and yawning. “What’s up?” he says.

“We were checking on the boat. You fishing?” Warren asks.

“Just watching a movie,” the man says, sleepily.

Further down the slough, hard on the county line, Guthrie slows for a spot check on a beached boat. Scavengers have stripped the boat of its salvageable parts—running gear, engines, radios—and it now is slowly bleeding paint and other toxins into the water. The name and registry numbers have also been filed off, making the owner difficult to trace.

These are the usual tactics in boat dumping—an increasing national problem, with some owners simply losing interest and others unable to afford payments, maintenance or slip fees. (A California law to encourage owners to turn over boats they can no longer use is also pending, and a similar pilot program is in place in six cities until 2013.)

In the best-case scenario, the owner is identified, a citation is sent—with fines up to $3,000—a public notice is posted and the boat is eventually hauled out of the water by a salvage company. The process is a lengthy and expensive one, though, and at the moment Sacramento County can only afford to remove about four boats a year. (See also “Dead in the water”; SN&R Frontlines; November 25, 2010.)

Warren estimates it costs about $200 a foot to pull up a watercraft—though the bigger vessels, including barges and ferries, cost more. He adds one steel sailboat on Sherman Lake could cost about $35,000 to haul out. In the past, the county has received help through a state boat removal program, but this year it is still searching for a way to pay their 10 percent share of the grants. At the same time, the county’s four-person marine-enforcement detail is at half strength due to cuts, and is responsible for 300 miles of waterways.

After the spot check, Guthrie throttles up and moves out into a fluid mix of inlets, bays and shifting county lines. The dinghy moves past irrigation pumps, lately a popular target with copper thieves, past power lines, and then enters a channel where the water curves around an elbowlike bend. Below a bank with a newly tossed mattress, Guthrie idles the motor.

“There it is,” he says, pointing to the sonar in the narrow cabin. On the screen is a shadowy rising and falling line, the swoops resembling mountain peaks. A closer look reveals a prowlike shape and what appears to be a mast.

“It’s like finding the Titanic,” Guthrie says of the boat just below the water line.

Already damaged, this boat had been purchased by a woman who hoped to resell or salvage it, Warren explains. Shortly after leaving a nearby marina, however, the leaky vessel began taking on water. The woman ditched the boat. Now the boat sits on the channel bottom, leaking fuels, oils and chemicals, and creating a navigational hazard for boaters and jet skiers up on the surface.

Since, the woman has been cited, though she is disputing ownership and the issue is being decided in court.

Guthrie and Warren move on from the sunken boat and round the bend in the channel. Just up ahead they see a familiar boat, owned by a drifter notorious for skirting marina fees and boating permits. The channel is also popular site for abandoned boats, and the officers are on the lookout, ready for boats dead in the water, scavengers, copper thieves, scofflaws or whatever the current might bring.