01-11 abandoned and derelict boat in Virginia

[Image above] The Vessel Disposal & Reuse Foundation coordinates the removal of an abandoned and derelict boat from Virginia waters. Credit: VDRF & VMS Videos, YouTube

After several years of record demand driven by the COVID-19 pandemic’s outdoor-recreation boom, the boat market is expected to finally settle back to normalized levels sometime this year. The result of this buying bonanza is there are now many more fiberglass boats cruising the waterways than before.

The first fiberglass/polyester boat was built in 1942 by Ray Greene of Toledo, Ohio. Over the next few decades, innovations in resin and manufacturing techniques led to fiberglass becoming one of the dominant materials used in boats today.

The weight of fiberglass compared to aluminum is one reason fiberglass boats are so popular. Fiberglass boats are much heavier than aluminum boats, which means they can cut through waves more easily, thus making the ride more comfortable.

On the other hand, fiberglass boats are less durable than aluminum boats. As such, they require more maintenance than aluminum boats, and repairs are typically more expensive as it is more difficult to fix fiberglass than it is aluminum.

Once damage is extensive enough to no longer justify the cost of repairs, fiberglass boats are again at a disadvantage compared to aluminum boats. While the heavier weight of fiberglass is beneficial when boating, it means fiberglass boats are more expensive to dispose of than aluminum boats. Additionally, while aluminum can be sold or donated as a scrap material, methods for recycling fiberglass are still a work in progress, thus adding to the cost of disposal.

Because of the high disposal costs, some owners will choose to abandon their old fiberglass boats in public waters instead. Such dumping is an environmental hazard for numerous reasons. Not only does the fiberglass release microplastics into the water as it degrades, but a boat will often contain oil and other toxic chemicals that will leach into the surrounding environment.

To mitigate illegal dumping, some states, such as Florida, Oregon, and California, have state-run “turn-in” programs that offer owners a way to voluntarily surrender their unwanted vessels to the state free of charge. Establishing such programs offers both environmental and economic benefits, as disposing of a vessel while it still floats costs thousands of dollars less than removing an abandoned boat that has disintegrated.

Unfortunately for owners in the state of Virginia, such a program does not exist there, even though abandoned boats are a growing problem in Virginia waters.

A June 2022 Bay Journal article reports that the U.S. Coast Guard has documented 170 abandoned and derelict vessels in Virginia waters since 2013, and state officials are documenting even more vessels that need to be removed. The article points specifically to fiberglass boats as being at the heart of this issue.

“But one of the biggest concerns involves boats built during the affordable fiberglass boat boom that began in the 1960s, which are reaching the end of their lifespans. The number being abandoned appears to be on the rise … [because] Getting rid of a defunct boat can easily cost more than the boat is worth,” the article explains.

The video below further details the expanse of this problem.

Credit: Clean Virginia Waterways of Longwood University, YouTube

In lieu of a state program to address the issue, some Virginia residents are taking matters into their own hands. Specifically, Mike Provost.

Provost is a U.S. Navy veteran who enjoys cruising the Lynnhaven River near his home in Virginia Beach. During a cruise one day in 2021, he spotted an abandoned 36-foot cabin cruiser left tied to a tree in Long Bay Pointe. He called dozens of offices trying to find someone to remove the vessel, but he was explicitly told that if he personally did not take care of it, no one would.

In response, Provost started the Vessel Disposal & Reuse Foundation (VDRF). This nonprofit leverages charitable donations to hire expert marine salvage contractors to conduct the safe removal and disposal of derelict vessels.

The VDRF website states that, to date, the nonprofit has organized the disposal of 17 abandoned and derelict vessels, representing almost 196,000 pounds of landfill debris and more than 14,620 pounds of scrap metal.

The largest vessel disposal so far (see video below) was a twin-masted sailboat stuck in the mud in Norfolk Harbor. It required a crew of six, a barge, and crane to dismantle, and the process cost more than $28,000.

Credit: VDRF & VMS Videos, YouTube

The next big project that VDRF has planned is to remove 13 derelict vessels from a “boat graveyard” in the North Landing River. The nonprofit is hosting a fundraiser event at Shorebreak Pizza & Taphouse – Pungo in Virginia Beach on January 28 to raise money for these disposals.

Provost knows that VDRF cannot keep up with the ongoing influx of abandoned boats if the underlying issues are not addressed. So, he launched a petition on Change.org to raise support for a state vessel turn-in program.

Though a turn-in program is not yet in the works, the Bay Journal article reports that Virginia officials are discussing with a local cement plant the possibility of pursuing a fiberglass disposal method used in Rhode Island. The Rhode Island pilot program involves dismantling and reprocessing fiberglass into cement rather than dumping it in a landfill. Learn more about the project in the video below.

Credit: Wendy Mackie, YouTube