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Owner of half-sunk boat by 17th St. Bridge to be charged


Nearly two months after a 35-foot catamaran hit a power line by the 17th Street Bridge, caught fire and caused a temporary power outage, the crippled vessel last week remained partially submerged in the Indian River Lagoon, just south of the bridge.

It could be July before it is removed.

Lt. Dustin Lightsey of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has police jurisdiction over state waters, said the boat has been declared a "derelict vessel" and that the owner will be criminally charged for abandoning it.

Under Florida law, abandoning a derelict vessel in state waters is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.

Lightsey, who oversees FWC patrols of the waters in Indian River and southern Brevard counties, refused to identify the boat's owner, saying only that he's in the Bahamas.

"We're working the case and our officer has contacted the owner in the Bahamas," Lightsey said. "He can waive his rights to the vessel or have it moved. Either way, the boat has been there for several weeks, so he's going to be charged."

Lightsey said state prosecutors probably would drop the criminal charge, however, if the owner promptly removes the boat from the lagoon or waives any claim to the yacht-sized vessel.

The owner also must agree to pay all costs incurred by the FWC and any other agency in the removal of the boat.

"The statute also holds the owner civilly liable for any costs associated with the boat having been abandoned," said Lt. Darrin Riley, the FWC's statewide derelict vessel coordinator. "That includes removal of the vessel, draining the fuel, damage to other property and even the investigation."

Among those with a civil claim is the city of Vero Beach, which hired a contractor to remove the remaining fuel from the boat to prevent a leak that could contaminate the lagoon.

"We spent about $5,000 to drain the fuel, so we'll try to recover that money from the owner," Vero Beach City Manager Jim O'Connor said. "It's an FWC matter, but we felt we had an obligation to remove the fuel and not risk any harm to the environment.

"We didn't want to wait for the FWC to have the boat removed."

Lightsey said the boat could be removed from the lagoon in the next few days if the owner decides to take action on his own, or in the next few weeks if the owner waives his rights to the damaged vessel so that the state can act.

Otherwise, the boat likely will remain in the lagoon – just offshore from the Fairlane Harbor neighborhood's seawall, south of the city's water-treatment plant and clearly visible from the 17th Street Bridge – for another month or more.

That's because, Riley said, due process protections under federal law require the owner be given 45 days to remove the boat and pay any civil claims before the vessel can be seized by the state.

The 45-day countdown began Friday, Lightsey said, adding, "We prefer the owner remove the boat."

Lightsey said the vessel does not pose a navigational hazard to other boaters because it is a safe distance from the channel.

According to the FWC, the catamaran burst into flames shortly before 8:30 a.m. April 10, when its mast struck a power line just south of the 17th Street Bridge.

County Fire Rescue officials said the boat had been tied to an island dock, broke free and drifted toward the west end of the bridge. No one was aboard the vessel when it caught fire.

The FWC has not publicly identified the boat's local caretaker.

A Fire Rescue boat extinguished the flames, but the vessel sustained heavy damage.

The explosion that occurred when the catamaran's mast hit the power line caused a power outage in some areas of the island.