Environment

The abandoned boats washing up on Victoria's shores, in pictures

The Dead Boats Disposal Society has spent decades pulling the wrecks out of the water and off the beaches in Victoria

By James MacDonald
January 22, 2021
Environment

The abandoned boats washing up on Victoria's shores, in pictures

The Dead Boats Disposal Society has spent decades pulling the wrecks out of the water and off the beaches in Victoria

By James MacDonald
Jan 22, 2021
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Environment

The abandoned boats washing up on Victoria's shores, in pictures

The Dead Boats Disposal Society has spent decades pulling the wrecks out of the water and off the beaches in Victoria

By James MacDonald
January 22, 2021
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The abandoned boats washing up on Victoria's shores, in pictures
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The wind gusts are reaching past 100 km/hour as the waves come off the bay in huge, breaking, foaming masses. But in Cadboro Bay, as in so many parts of Vancouver Island, on stormy days it’s not just waves hitting the shore.

The boats moored along the shore look to be hanging on for dear life as they buck and twist at their lines. A mainsail has already come loose and been ripped to shreds that now flap manically in the wind. 

Cadboro Bay, one of the more problematic stretches of shoreline on the South Island, is just the tip of the iceberg for the problem of lost, wrecked, and abandoned boats that litter BC’s coasts up and down the island and the mainland. 


A Freedom of Information Act request for Canadian Coast Guard records related to marine debris and derelict vessels yielded hundreds of pages, most consisting of densely-packed spreadsheets and photographs of dead boats. From Tsawwassen to Prince Rupert, seemingly every anchorage along the coast has the same perennial problem. 

After a particularly relentless storm season, John Roe—one of the founders of the volunteer-run Dead Boats Disposal Society (DBDS)—checked on and inspected four beached vessels. Another three had sunk just offshore. 

The DBDS has been removing boats and maritime waste since 1996. “In the past there was no serious money to get things cleaned up,” Roe explains. But the problem kept worsening; boats can be cheaper to buy than to maintain in the long run, so people often abandon them instead of having them disposed of safely. “About 2017, there was a buildup of boats in Cadboro Bay," Roe said. "We seized 14 boats over four or five months.” 

The draw of Cadboro Bay is its easy access. Those who want to moor their boats can simply put their dinghies in and access their boats from the beach. John says the problems arise because of the constantly shifting sand on the bottom of the bay. With the circling wind, the boats spin around their anchors, shortening the chains. Couple that with 13-foot tides and a windy day, and the anchors lift, and boats get blown onshore. Pender Island and Salt Spring Island have the same problem. “Anywhere there is an urban habitat, there is an issue with derelict boats,” Roe says. 


In its 25 years of operations the DBDS has pulled 48 boats out of Cadboro Bay alone, along with significant amounts of marine debris. Along the way the organization partnered with Salish Sea Industrial Services. That, Roe says, “was a great big leap in what we could do. They have great big cranes and barges and people; it was like being in heaven.” 

Roe said he’s pulled 124 boats out of the water since 2017, but even with the partnership, processing the new boats in Cadboro Bay took around a year to complete. 

With increasing population to the West Coast, there is a limited amount of dock space to house newcomers and their vessels, which leads to offshore mooring, which is not always done properly—leading in turn to beachings, sinkings, and abandoned watercraft. 

With that come the environmental issues. Sunk boats can leak oil, which Roe said is more or less the only guaranteed trigger to get government action. But it’s far from the only threat they pose.

“Leaking oil is one issue; what they’re made of is a whole other issue,” he said.


Fiberglass, lead paint, and batteries can all leach, leak, and break down in the salt water, resulting in shoreline contamination and pollution. Additionally, the boats often contain household refuse, either from the occupant or from locals tossing it into the abandoned boat. “It just ends up full of garbage,” Roe said, exasperated.

Things can also take a dark turn when the vessels are left on the beach. Roe used to do Facebook Live walkthroughs, showing what was happening to his online audience. Soon, though he realized not everyone was watching for educational purposes: some people would come along afterwards and strip the boats for parts, worsening the mess. “It’s the Wild West,” he said. “Within a few days the boats are stripped.”

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Compounding problems with tracking down owners, insurance, removals, vandalism, looters, and illegal dumping create a mess that can complicate the removal and clean-up process for months. 

To address these recurring issues, Roe believes there needs to be a management system in place. Australia has a system where state and federal governments hold some responsibility for both mooring, docking, and removals. The BC provincial government owns the foreshore area, with the federal government owning the nearshore and offshore seafloors, meaning that a comprehensive, interjurisdictional approach would be needed to start addressing the removal and disposal of these vessels.   

At this point, that kind of cooperation is not what happens in Canada. The Freedom of Information Act documents showed just a sample of how laborious that can be: a request from the Dead Boats Society just to use a Salt Spring Island Harbour Authority dock, with Transport Canada, to pull some derelict boats out of the water, was handled by five people at three agencies—who discussed insurance and project plans, and then ended inconclusively.

Roe recalls the process. “Nothing really came out of it,” he said. “We tried to work with these agencies, but we ended up doing it ourselves.” 

Acting more directly, he made a simple request: “If you’ve got crap, just let us know where it is, no questions asked.”

Correction: This story was updated at 11:17 am on January 22, 2020, to reflect the fact that Australia has state—not provincial—governments.

With files from Jimmy Thomson

contact@capitaldaily.ca

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