Vessels of Concern: Signs of the Times

The grounding of “March Wind” in January prompted Roy Hales to write a story about boats adrift. I’d like to dig (or dive?) a little deeper under that story and consider some of the factors that have led to the increasing number of derelict and dilapidated boats on the BC Coast.

The Good Old Days …

Until the end of the 1990’s on the coast of BC, a good sound cruising or fishing boat was often worth more than a house. No exaggeration. More than one sailor or builder established himself ashore by selling just one boat and buying a house and land with the proceeds. Winston Bushnell, for one, sold 31-ft Dove I after his family’s circumnavigation, and with the proceeds bought a house in Nanaimo. In 2001, Jon Knowles sold his hand-built 40-foot schooner Tiger for enough money also to purchase a house in Nanaimo and move ashore.

In those days, there wasn’t a major derelict boat problem. People who owned boats fell into three categories: fishermen, affluent dilettante boaters, and serious cruising sailors; this last group was not necessarily wealthy, but pretty much all the wealth they did possess was invested in the boat. Almost everyone kept their boats in marinas during the off-season. A handful of hardy and adventurous souls lived aboard year-round, some in marinas, some anchored in harbours and bays which back then were relaxed and uncrowded. Moorage at the time was less than three dollars per foot per month.

It was affordable to keep your boat in a safe place, and the boat was very valuable and worth maintaining. Its resale value was high. Nevertheless, the wave of post-war prosperity and expansion of the upper middle class in North America meant that a lot more people could afford a boat. The marina and boatyard trade was booming! Great times.

Boats did come to grief — they sank, or ended up on a beach somewhere — but the attrition back then was happening mostly among older fishing boats and classic yachts made of wood, and over the decades they quietly composted away. On Manson’s Lagoon beach you can still see the stem and top of the engine block from a wreck buried in the sand. At Squirrel Cove, an old minesweeper that was conspicuously boat-shaped as late as 2009 is now an indeterminate mound of rust and wood.

Squirrel Cove, Cortes Island

The next generation of boats, those valuable sail and power vessels active in the 70’s and built since the early 60’s, tended more and more to be made of GRP (fibreglass). And GRP means “glass reinforced plastic.” They were more affordable than hand-made wooden boats, so the GRP revolution also expanded boat ownership. But plastic, as we know to our cost, is forever. They last and last. They don’t quietly compost away. Huge numbers of them were built during the “boating boom.” What would happen to them all?

Sunken Fibreglass Yacht, Forward Harbour Entrance

That Was Then, This is Now

Fast forward to the late 90’s. Times have changed.

A feverish real-estate boom transformed BC as the 21st century began. Starting around 2000, the value of land and houses skyrocketed. As a side effect of ballistic real-estate valuations, the price of moorage doubled and doubled again, reaching as high as $12.50 per foot per month in Vancouver in 2015. Fewer and fewer people could afford to pay that much to store a boat.

Overcapitalisation and the “fishing gold rush” of the 80’s and 90’s ended up killing off not only the fish stocks, but (inevitably) the fleet; government buy-backs in the 2000s (to reduce the number of licenses) squeezed the fishing fleet down from six thousand or more smallish family-owned boats to less than two thousand larger, more mechanised, more “productive” (aggressive) fish-killers. The price of licenses rose even faster than real estate: plenty of de-licensed fishboats were for sale as fishermen “cashed out” and retired.

vessels of concern
Wrecked old halibut boat, near Chatham Channel

Meanwhile, an aging fleet of raceboats was retiring, and a generation of cruisers were getting old and selling the boat — unless their kids wanted it (and could afford the moorage!). Local amateur racing itself was in decline, with reduced membership in youth sailing programs.

Result: the market in used boats began to collapse. With a glut of “beater” race boats and decent older cruising yachts for sale, old fishboats being dumped, and moorage rates at an all time high, resale values plummeted. For many owners, the yearly cost of moorage began to equal or even exceed the value of the boat itself.

At the same time, increasing inequity (particularly in the US but also in Canada) from the mid-80’s to the present day, shrank the ranks of the middle class while increasing the number of “one percenters”. The demographics of boat ownership changed, tilting towards the “superyacht” and “megayacht” class and away from the family cruiser/racer.

Megayacht docked at Shearwater 2019

Food Banks and Homeless Camps

The offshoring and financialisation that had so enriched the one percent — along with the over-exploitation that had decimated BC’s fish stocks and forests — shrank the job market; for a couple of decades, wages were stagnant. In 1970 it was very easy for any able-bodied person to get a job — and an affordable rental. By 1990, both jobs and housing were hard to find, and homelessness became a visible and permanent feature of urban and suburban areas. In the 1970s homeless people were rare, and most people had never heard of a food bank. The 80’s crash introduced food banks; by the 2000s, permanent homeless encampments were established in Victoria and Nanaimo.

By the early 90’s, not coincidentally, a new trend appeared. People who were not sailors and had little boating history were buying old vessels to live on, because they could not afford any other form of housing. As long as marina rates stayed affordable, this was a workable strategy and the “marina trash” — as some called them — were actually an asset to many facilities. Divorced men, struggling students, single moms, young families: there were all kinds of people living on boats for all kinds of reasons. Some dreamed of “going sailing” when they had saved up enough money. Others were content to use their boat as a floathouse and settle for years in one marina.

As moorage rates rose, some of the more indigent, hardy or seamanlike liveaboards moved out to join the hard-core cruisers at anchor in every available bay. So did the unattended boats of people who could no longer afford marina rates, but didn’t want to give up their summer boating fun. Suddenly anchorages like Silva Bay — most of which was clear in 1970 — were choked with private moorings, leaving almost no room for float planes to land and only marginal locations for visiting boats to anchor.

The rise in property values had its inevitable impact: gentrification. Waterfront areas were developed by condo speculators, and the new residents were not sympathetic to industrial and maritime activity. They didn’t like looking out of their million-dollar condos and seeing shabby boat people hanging laundry out to dry at anchor. Why should those “losers” enjoy the same million-dollar view without paying the going rate for it? Liveaboards, like nomads everywhere in history, were distrusted, envied, and feared by settled landlubbers; and a building pressure came on local governments to get rid of them.

Liveaboards: Eyesore, or Asset?

Older and wiser marina owners knew that liveaboards were an asset. They kept an eye on everyone’s boats, not just their own. I lived aboard for several years on the Nanaimo waterfront, and I can vividly remember the afternoon when a boat in a neighbouring marina caught fire and exploded its propane tank; it lit up nearby boats, and the prevailing wind pushed the burning vessels down onto our floats. It was the liveaboards who instantly rallied to fight the fire, fend off the burning boats, and hold the fort for over ten minutes before the official fire department arrived. If no liveaboards had been present, tens more boats would have been lost — mine among them.

Liveaboards defend their homes: fighting a marina fire, Newcastle Marina 2009

Nevertheless, the campaign to ban liveaboards got traction. They were accused — among other things — of posing a fiscal hazard to other boats because of having no insurance; most of them couldn’t afford the very high premiums for marine insurance, and most of their boats wouldn’t pass the underwriters’ very stringent requirements. On the other hand, many liveaboards took better care of their boats and were less likely to have dangerous accidents than absentee owners whose boats were not visited for months at a time.

The wave of gentrification, and the eviction of liveaboards, spread inexorably from South to North. French Creek, then Victoria, Ladysmith, even Ford Cove; one after another, gentrified waterfronts kicked out their liveaboards. And so they moved north in search of someplace safe to live.

The wave of evicted liveaboards — and the wave of devalued, “cheap” old boats — has reached Cortes Island. We are not immune from the storms of history and economics in the bigger world; the ripples just reach us a little later.


Lifecycle of Boats: First vs Last Owners

The postwar economic boom and brief period of increased equity and opportunity, meant that lots of boats were built. They were always an affluent person’s hobby, but no longer strictly reserved for the upper crust. Affluence had been somewhat democratised. So lots and lots of boats were built, while petrochemicals were cheap (that’s one reason why GRP hulls from the 60’s are so massively overbuilt — a drum of resin didn’t cost much back then).

The thing about boats, though, is that they have a life cycle just like cars. Most boats have more than one owner in their long lives. The first owner usually has money and takes good care of the boat, which isn’t that hard to do while the boat is still young. But boats age — just like houses and cars. Steel ones rust. Wooden ones rot. Plastic ones last longer, but they all wear out their engines and rigging and hatches and so forth. As they age, it costs more to keep them up. At some point, the first owner gets bored or tired or old, or just wants a spiffier boat, and the second owner takes over.

The second owner probably still pays quite a bit for the boat, but thinks it’s a deal compared to a new boat. It gets reasonable care for a while– but eventually this owner also gets tired of repairs, or through age or illness or a change of life passes it on to someone else. And so the boat continues from owner to owner, “going down the food chain,” gradually losing value unless someone does a major refit along the way.

vessels of concern
A great deal! Cheap boat! Annie Tuck in Alert Bay, near the end of her life (photo J Knowles)

Unlike cars, boats are not easily recyclable for scrap metal. You can’t just smash them into cubes and send them off to be rendered down. No tow truck will come and take them away. So as they get older and more sketchy, they just get cheaper and find more marginal places to “park”.

As they get cheaper, the people who buy them are less and less able to undertake the ever-increasing maintenance (and moorage!) costs. The old saying about free lunches is even more applicable to “free” boats: there ain’t no such thing. If a boat’s being sold super cheap, it’s probably a hot potato that someone is very eager to get rid of for very good reasons.

At the end of the line, the boat has gone so far downhill that it looks obviously derelict. The Last Owner usually abandons it, either skipping town without paying the moorage due (every marina has a few of these) or leaving it on an anchor or mooring somewhere. While it may be tempting to accuse these Last Owners of irresponsibility, we have to remember what “responsible” disposal of a boat costs. Ten thousand dollars is a conservative estimate for the officially sanctioned disposal of a derelict. Very few Last Owners have ten grand in their pockets. If they did, they wouldn’t be buying these old wrecks.

Towards the end of its life, the boat has negative value. Its moorage costs, and the cost of maintenance, far outweigh its notional value. Unless it’s a classic with a magic name, or the owner is handy and has the spare time to do the upkeep him or herself, it becomes simply a drain on someone’s already slender resources. One day it either mysteriously catches fire (“financial combustion”), or sinks in deep water one dark night… or is left to its fate while the Last Owner moves on in search of work, food, or salvation.

We Have No Real Solution

We have no real solution to this problem because we never planned ahead back in the exuberant 60s and 70s. We never thought, “What are we going to do with all these boats when they get old and no one wants them?” Back then, they were valuable. No one would have predicted, then, that a day would come when real estate would be worth fortunes and fibreglass yachts would be sold for five bucks just to get rid of them.

There was no “end of life” plan for these boats. Just like there was no “end of life” plan for the abandoned salmon feedlots that litter our coast, or for the collapsing canneries and piers from 60 years ago. The corporate owners have moved on, leaving their trash behind; and now it’s everyone’s problem.

Vessels of concern
Namu: pier collapsing into the water (photo by J Knowles)

So here we are. A whole generation of “good old boats” is reaching the end of their lives. As fuel costs increase, we can expect even more derelicts in the cabin-cruiser class — gas-engined monsters that no one can afford to feed. And if current economic trends continue, we can expect more people to buy old cheap boats because it’s the only affordable housing available to them. We can confidently expect more starry-eyed young (or mid-lifing) people bitten by the sailing bug to take on more and bigger old wrecks than they can possibly maintain or handle, because those old wrecks are so darned cheap.

The derelict boat is not just the problem of the Last Owner. It’s a problem building over decades, exacerbated by a confluence of social trends, and born of a failure to look far enough ahead. Perhaps all new boats, back in the day, should have paid a “recycling fee” at the time of first sale, which was banked (with interest) against the day when disposal would be required. Perhaps all boaters should pay a yearly fee into a similar kitty (if we can trust our government not to raid the piggy bank to fund unrelated activities!). Perhaps we should think more seriously about providing jobs and housing for people who need them.

Coulda-shoulda’s aside, the problem started long ago, and its roots are deep and wide. Threatening or punishing the hapless Last Owners is not going to solve it. “Kick out the liveaboards” is not going to solve it–like homeless people everywhere, if evicted from one place they will have to find somewhere else to exist. If forced off their boats, they’ll leave those boats behind — abandoned, and going downhill even faster. What may begin to solve it is federal assistance with the costs of ship-breaking and recycling. If I were running the Old Boat Disposal programme, I’d offer some kind of reward for bringing decrepit vessels to the breakers’ yard.

Old BC Packers Store, Denny Island

Aging infrastructure and wrecked boats are scenic and picturesque, up to a point. Beyond that point, they’re a public nuisance and an environmental and navigational hazard. We need to come up with a solution other than blaming the Last Owners, usually the people least able to deal with our “Vessels of Concern.”


[update Feb 6th: Thanks for the constructive comments; the last photo caption has been fixed.]

14 thoughts on “Vessels of Concern: Signs of the Times”

  1. I love this article, so many good points and good historical perspective. I live aboard an old 1952 wooden boat, and am concerned about it’s shelf life, and what to do after. I am concerned about all of the derelict boats in our bays, many of them break away in the winter storms, and cause problems with recovery, and also oil spills. I totally agree about a recycle tax, and somehow having affordable way of disposing of a boat once it’s no longer viable.

  2. Fabulous Article you nailed it !!!
    As a previous boat owner I concur with all boaters liveaboards alike
    I do own a Kayak and will be paddling around the West Coast admiring old and new boats !!!

  3. Additional comment. I grew up on a boat in the 60s, when my parents decided to move the family onto a 110 foot fishpacker and give it a few more years by completely overhauling it into a liveaboard in North Vancouver.
    Boats are definitely not the only things that lose their lustre and are abandoned. Some of my work over the past 30 years has involved rescuing old/vintage audio electronics. Whenever it’s in bad condition and beyond repair, it’s always been the lack of human attention and care.
    Since the mid 1980s I have witnessed the short life spans of computers, printers, scanners, cameras and other technology, always trying to use these, repurpose them before recycling. Often doing my own recycling by breaking them down and retrieving screws, bolts, anything that is reusable, before recycling the rest. Mobile phones are one of the worst offenders at this point, where a manufacturer’s software is what kills most of them, ie. they stop supporting the hardware in the phone, while at the same time fighting legislation to open up the repair market and allow these devices to “live longer”.

  4. I think the marina owners who collected ‘rent’ for many years from most boats on our coast need to be contributing to the cost of disposal.

  5. Great Article, I also think that in addition to funding for the destruction of old derelict boat, I think there should be some funding available for saving some of the heritage boats still left out there…, many are a great piece of our history

  6. Forcing people off their boats, and into the ranks of the homeless is a violation of their charter right to “Life, Liberty and security of the person, grounds for a law suit which could put liens on the personal property of anyone responsible, as well as garnishee orders on their wages, bank accounts and pensions.
    High time that was done, to send a clear message to anyone looking for a power, trip by crapping on the charter rights of the poor

  7. As a liveaboard boat owner, cruising sailor and professional mariner on this coast I’ve seen it all. Your article is well-written, comprehensive and neutrally-toned. This is a good, and reasonably accurate assessment. Two thoughts:
    The wave of derelict boats is not just “reaching”
    Cortez Island. Your island has long been recognized as a hub of alternate lifestyles. Liveaboard boaters have been a fact of life there for decades just as non-code housing has. Here in Ladysmith we have an under-the-radar liveaboard boat community where sinkings, fires and abandonments are a regular occurance. Litter, discarded drug paraphernalia, and petty crime are part of the fringe benefits this group imposes on the surrounding community.

    In Canada we are free to live as we choose but it cannot be at the expense of others. Part of living off-grid is to be discrete . The price of freedom is responsibility.

  8. This article points out the derelict boats’ issues very accurately, and I agree we need to find solutions sooner rather than later.

    We do need some more government funding to recover the derelicts out there. And we need to shift more responsibility to the owners; it just can’t be an affordable option to simply abandon a boat, then go get another one!

    BTW, the picture captioned as the “wreck of a cannery near Dryad Point” is miss-labelled; it’s actually a picture of the old BC Packers store on Denny Island, just north of the Coast Guard station.

  9. What a fine article! History, Economics, and Boats all treated fairly and without (too much) blame for anyone. Just the way life – and boats – on our Coast evolved. Yes, there should be a substantial contribution to a Salvage Trust Fund with every sale and resale, split between buyer and seller. This could be collected through the existing PST stream. Yes, marina moorage should be similarly taxed for the Fund. Maybe marine fuel sales, too? Lots of good ideas here, but the mention of Money makes everyone pay attention, very quickly. Note: Introduction of any taxes *must* be simultaneous with a plan for salvage and recycling, to avoid a tsunami of new abandonments.

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