We all see sunken and wrecked boats as we fish and play on our favorite waterways or journey the ICW. There are so many of those derelict vessels along the shores and in shallow areas. We all feel sad to see the mess or mad that it’s such an eyesore. It may have been there a while, or may have shown up in a recent storm. Regardless, we all want to see these blemishes removed and even prevented. The Vessel Disposal and Reuse Foundation (VDRF) is a nonprofit organization working to get derelict vessels out of the waterways. They are even working on the needed legislation and policy changes to keep them out of the water in the first place. 

derelict vessels
The Vessel Disposal and Reuse Foundation (VDRF) is a nonprofit organization working to get derelict vessels out of the waterways. Photos courtesy of VDRF

At the Annapolis Boat Show, I spent some time chatting with the gentleman responsible for the organization doing this great work, Mike Provost. He is the founder and executive director of VDRF. He and his organization took on the mission to do public outreach, education, and help waterways achieve sustainable health through removal of the abandoned and derelict vessels (ADV).

While these boats are a blemish on the natural beauty of the waterways, the problem goes well beyond that. Below the surface lies an environmental disaster. When a boat goes down, all the paints, fuel, cleaning supplies, oil, and countless other toxins onboard go into the water. These chemicals damage the wildlife and plants nearby, but they also drift and cause damage further away. They can leach into the water that nearby towns use to provide drinking water. Adequate filtration for this level of toxin is beyond many systems’ capacity. We irrigate the fruits, vegetables, and animals we eat with the same water, increasing our exposure. Some of these vessels are near businesses and, with a tidal surge or a storm, could pose a hazard to commercial activities, such as oystering and marinas. You can see that the magnitude of this problem is quite large.

derelict vessels
Abandoned and derelict vessels are known as ADVs. 

Sometimes there’s a calamity on the water resulting in a sunken vessel. After the people and pets onboard are safe, owners will try to get the boat raised and disposed of. However, this is not an easy undertaking. The owners may have the best of intentions to remove a sunken vessel, but the cost and lack of resources are prohibitive. The Coast Guard only removes boats posing a threat to navigation. Owners may find themselves at their wits end.

Other times boats are kept beyond their usable life. Owners tell themselves they intend to fix them up but, due to a variety of circumstances, it doesn’t get done. After seeking help from a wide variety of sources, owners with vessels in all states of disrepair throw their hands up in resignation. Landfills won’t accept them. And even if the boat owner finds an organization to accept it, it must be out of the water and cut into sections. This process takes a team of people and a significant amount of money and other resources. There is a tangle of authorities and lack of funding stopping nearly everyone from taking action. 

This is the scene in which Mike Provost started his work. His young son asked about cleaning up a boat in the waterway near their home. When a young, innocent voice asks who’s going to do the hard work, strongminded people are compelled to step up and do it. 

derelict vessels
When a boat goes down, all the paints, fuel, cleaning supplies, oil, and countless other toxins onboard go in the water. 

Provost made calls to a variety of state agencies, local governments, and other organizations. He looked for anyone having jurisdiction to do something about the ADV in the waterway where he and his family did their boating.

What started out as a passion project for Provost grew beyond one vessel. When he finally got the boat removed, he recognized the problem was much bigger than that one boat. Once he figured out how to remove that boat, he extended those skills and resources to other boats. Provost explains, “VDRF leverages charitable donations to hire expert marine salvage contractors to effect the safe removal and disposal of ADVs.” 

VDRF started in 2022 and reports, “It’s been a productive first year, but much environmental clean-up work remains.” Some of the work they’ve managed to get done in their first year includes: 

  • ADVs removed: 16
  • Debris landfilled: Over 190,570 pounds
  • Metal scrapped: Over 13,840 pounds
  • ADVs located: 30

The foundation also recognizes that they need to dispose of the recovered stuff. They make the effort to remove the metals and get them to a recycler. They hope to find a way to reuse more of the materials salvaged from these ADVs. And VDRF is not the only one trying to reuse these materials. The Rhode Island Marine Trades Association, for example, is working on a way to reprocess the hulls into cement.

derelict vessels
Funding for removing wrecks is often the largest obstacle.

A variety of groups have studied this growing problem and found, predictably, that funding is the largest obstacle. Around the Chesapeake, states have systems in place to try to fund the removal efforts. Maryland imposes a fee with every boat purchase to pay into a fund designed for removal. There is the Virginia Marine Resources Commission which has the authority to remove ADVs; however, it’s a small and underfunded agency. There are laws in place about abandoning a vessel; however, enforcement is challenging and expensive. Chesapeake Bay states are considering boat buyback programs, which already exist in some states, when a boat reaches the end of its useful life.

VDRF is doing the hard work we all want to see, work that has stymied so many organizations, owners, and marinas. It costs a good deal of money, and you can help. In December 2022, VDRF launched a petition calling for the establishment of a Vessel Turn-In Program. You can find it listed on change.org as “Virginia Vessel Turn-In Program (VTIP).” This preventative measure, which aims to protect Virginia’s sensitive marine environment and save millions of dollars in removal and disposal costs, would go a long way to keeping the vessels out of the waterways before they sink. You can also go to their website and click ‘donate.’ If you’ve seen a boat rotting in a waterway you use, please help out the foundation doing the work to get it removed. For more information, visit vesseldisposalreusefoundation.com

By Elizabeth Kelch