“Rotten boats will be a common sight . . . for a long time to come”.


On the charter yacht Cuan Law, every single mast was gone. There was no sign of its sails. Its tenders were bent and twisted. Inside the cabins, the mouldy carpet and rotting wood had been ripped up, revealing bare floors.

Surveyor Chris Smith checks the structural integrity of a boat with a hammer. CLAIRE SHEFCHIK

After Hurricane Irma, explained Captain Scott Ferris, the 105-foot trimaran was hit by looters, who carried off flat-screen televisions and bottles of liquor.

Now the ship is a veritable laundry list of damage and destruction. But, following Mr. Ferris around deck with a clipboard on a recent Thursday at the CSY Dock in Baughers Bay, marine surveyor Andrew Ball explained that it’s far from the worst of the hundreds of boats he’s surveyed in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

“It’s still floating,” he said.

And despite the damage, Mr. Ferris plans to welcome guests this month — which is more than many Virgin Islands yacht charterers can say.

At age 30, Mr. Ball — who like many surveyors formerly worked as a charter yacht captain — is young for this business.

“It’s a retirement job for a lot of people,” he said.

The company he works for, Caribbean Marine Surveyors, handles more than 40 percent of the estimated 900 boats in the territory, according to Mr. Ball. The company’s clients are the insurance underwriters who hire the surveyors to assess damage, and, if necessary, coordinate with a salvager.

“This is what we do,” he explained. “After storms, we’ve flown to Grenada, St. Maarten, the Bahamas. But it’s never been this close to home before. And it’s never been this much.”

Still, Mr. Ball is holding to the personal goal he set soon after Irma: getting all of the boats he handles processed within six months. He said he has already made it through hundreds — as a walk through Nanny Cay showed.

“Most of the boats that remain submerged are what insurance companies call ‘constructive total losses,’” he explained, pointing to a line of twisted masts in the distance, known as “the graveyard.”

Out to sea

Nearby, heavy machinery buzzed as a crew from Husky Salvage & Towing put another boat up on blocks — working, Mr. Ball said, at a speed of about three boats per day.

Many of the boats that remain in the water here are write-offs, as are some 30 percent of boats in the territory after Irma, according to Mr. Ball’s estimate. But some may still have residual value.

“They might be repurposed as a day sail vessel, for instance,” he explained. “People forget that a lot of those were lost in Irma, too.”

On the way deeper into the boatyard, he pointed to an overturned catamaran.

“The owner wants to save it,” he explained. “I say it’s more cost-effective to just drive an excavator right through the middle of it.”

At another boat, Mr. Ball was greeted by Chris Smith, a surveyor and one-time tall ship captain. Business is booming at the company post-Irma, and like many of the recently hired surveyors and administrators, Mr. Smith is new to this line of work. Mr. Ball handed him a hammer and told him to start banging on the hull.

“She had pieces of decking embedded in her and significant water ingress,” explained Mr. Ball, pointing up to the stern. “She would have sunk if they hadn’t put this patch over the hole. Now we’re trying to determine if her inside layers are still intact.”

He climbed in the company boat to head to Manuel Reef, holding up a fat printout of boat names received from insurance companies — the vessels they’re still looking for.

“They were in such a hurry that it’s just names — no descriptions,” he said. “Some of these, where they are is anybody’s guess. They could have floated out to sea by now.”

Uninsured vessels

Until Irma, Captain Mike Hasted had been living aboard his vessel since 1993. At Manuel Reef, the Husky crew hauled it out of the water so it could be surveyed. He said most of the damage to his boat was caused by someone else improperly securing their lines.

“You can take all the precautions you want, but you’re only as good as the guy next to you,” he said. “One boat bouncing around can take out ten. And there’s nobody overseeing how well boats are secured.”

Surveyors and salvagers can only do what they’re paid to do, but sometimes nobody is willing to pay.

“Uninsured boats are going to be a huge issue,” Mr. Ball said. “The charter companies all have insurance, so they’re covered. But many of the boats you see sunk around the island were live-aboards. They were somebody’s retirement plan. Who’s going to pay to remove them? It’s not going to be the owner, and it’s sure not going to be the government.”

He noted that in the United States, the Coast Guard supervises the removal of wrecks.

“But here there’s no oversight, either before or after the storm,” he said. “I would like to see a framework put in place for next time. If the government won’t act, the marinas can step in by requiring boats to carry insurance. It’s too late for Irma, of course, but in a territory as saturated with boats as we are, it makes sense to take steps to prevent this mess from happening again.”

Salvage operations

Later that afternoon at Manuel Reef, a longhaired salvager with a British accent shouted to his young colleagues, employees of Husky Salvage & Towing who stood barefoot on the waterlogged deck of a 25-foot Beneteau attached to a massive crane. Gradually, it rose out of the murk, its previously glossy surface now covered in filth, green algae hanging off the wheel. They stuck a length of hose in to pump the boat out as water poured out of a massive hole in the bottom.

“That’s what sunk it,” explained Mr. Ball, pointing below him. “See these marks on the dock? That means the storm surge took it, slammed it on top of the dock, and put it back down again.”

The vessel had been underwater for about seven weeks.

“Occasionally they find bodies onboard,” Mr. Ball said. “Although that probably won’t happen here. We’d know by now if somebody was missing.”

The boat swung onto the barge to join its unfortunate neighbours. Although the young Husky crew resembled a boy band of salvaging, Mr. Ball insisted that theirs is not a glamorous job.

“I’ve done it,” he said. “A boat fell on me, and I almost died.”

The salvagers often spend much of their day submerged in polluted marina water, which sometimes causes staph infections referred to as “the funk.”

A line of previously raised boats was already “on the hard” next to the water, waiting to be surveyed.

“We’re running out of space here already, as you can see,” Mr. Ball said. “We’re running out of space everywhere.”

It’s good news, however, that cranes and barges have arrived after a mad post-Irma scramble to get them here, he explained.

“Husky already had some equipment, and Kevin [Rowlette, founder of Husky,] has been great at locating more. He’ll go anywhere, do anything to get it here. He’s really sped things along.”

In the next slip over from the Beneteau waited another submerged boat, visible only because its dinghy and navigational computer were bobbing just above the surface. It was one of hundreds that still await the crane.

As of last week, the surveyors at CMS had only just begun surveying Paraquita Bay.

Stress of the job

Mr. Ball’s next stop for the day was his office, previously located on the top floor of a building in Nanny Cay. It was completely flattened by Irma, along with many of its files.

“Then it took us five days of working with chainsaws just to cut Bill [Bailey, founder of Caribbean Marine Surveyors,] out of his house on Sage Mountain,” Mr. Ball explained. “The insurance companies don’t know what we’re dealing with down here. They’ve seen pictures, but it’s not the same.

“One underwriter was really putting the pressure on, asking us when we’d have the reports ready, until finally he flew down here. Immediately, he said, ‘Oh. I understand now.’”

Back in the surveyors’ temporary headquarters — at the Road Town law firm belonging to Mr. Bailey’s wife — stacks of file folders lie stacked on a table, each representing a different boat handled by Mr. Ball and his colleagues. The workload weighs on the surveyors, and Mr. Ball has started smoking again.

“I lay awake all night thinking of wrecked boats,” he said.

‘Bids for a dollar’

The surveyors are also helping out the insurance companies — and the territory — by facilitating the sale of boats.

“We’ve gotten bids for a dollar on some of them,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to help clean this place up. But what people don’t realise is that when you buy a boat, you are responsible for that boat — docking fees, maintenance.”

As a result, Mr. Ball fears that despite his and his colleagues’ best efforts, abandoned, rotting boats will be a common sight around the territory for a long time to come.

Meanwhile, plans for rebuilding the office are already in the works, complete with, as Mr. Bailey joked, a barrier to separate them from frustrated boat owners.

“I’ve had people cry, yell at me,” Mr. Ball explained. “It doesn’t help that nobody really understands how this process works. And boats are sentimental objects.”

Later, the surveyors gathered over drinks and shared photos from the day. Mr. Smith took out his iPad, showing a photo of an overturned boat named Flip-Flop.

“You have to keep a sense of humour,” he said.

This article was posted in its entirety as received by www.onecaribbeannetwork.com. 
One Caribbean Network does not correct any spelling or grammatical error 
within press releases and commentaries. The views expressed are not necessarily 
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