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National park bay in NYC is nautical graveyard

Jamaica Bay is within the only national park in New York City, a place where gulls pirouette, geese sail and seals frolic. But the bay is home to something far less breathtaking.
Image: Larry Brown attaches a line to an abandoned motor boat in Gerritsen Creek in New York
Larry Brown attaches a line to an abandoned motor boat in Gerritsen Creek, Tuesday, June 17, 2008 in New York. At any time along the Jamaica Bay shoreline, scores of discarded boats, dinghies, rowboats, runabouts, even the occasional barge, litter the shores and lie submerged in its shallow water.Mary Altaffer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jamaica Bay is located within the only national park in New York City, a place where herring gulls pirouette overhead, Canada geese sail in naval formation in quiet coves and harbor seals frolic on the shoreline.

But Jamaica Bay also is home to something far less breathtaking: abandoned boats.

At any time, scores of discarded boats — dinghies, rowboats, runabouts, even the occasional barge — litter the shores and lie submerged in its shallow water. It's a nautical junkyard, one more worry for ecologists in an area of the Gateway National Recreation Area where delicate marshes already are imperiled by rising water.

National Park Service officials say many of the boats are dumped by owners who simply don't want to deal with the hassle and cost of taking them to salvage yards. Others have simply drifted in after breaking away from their slips.

Clean-up effort ongoing
A dozen state, city and federal agencies have teamed up recently to clean up Jamaica Bay's not-so-incredible hulks, spending hours each week yanking them from the bay. But as crews pull the watercraft from the bay, more replace them.

John Daskalakis, a National Park Service district ranger, said a recent GPS survey of Jamaica Bay pinpointed about 88 wrecks and discards along the shore, of which 38 have been recovered, leaving 50 yet to be pulled out.

"That doesn't include the creeks leading into the bay," he said. "I've heard there are as many as 160, and a lot of them wind up in the creeks."

They may pose threats to the environment, to navigation, or simply spoil the experience for visitors. Some derelict craft have become hangouts for drug users, and those with engines can leak oil onto beaches or into the water, especially during storm surges, he said.

The 25,000-acre bay, flanked by John F. Kennedy International Airport and blocked from the ocean by the Rockaway Peninsula, is a key part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. About a third is set off as a national wildlife refuge, with more than 350 reported resident and migrant fliers, from hawks and herons to Monarch butterflies.

Cruising Gerritsen Creek with Capt. Bernie Schachner at the helm of his 26-foot "emergency response" boat White Cap Salvor, Daskalakis pointed out a half-dozen abandoned boats lying in weeds along the shore.

Up ahead, Schachner's brother and business partner, Capt. Jack Schachner, maneuvered another launch so his crewman could attach a line to a shabby motorboat on the beach.

Tracking down owners
The pair pulled the derelict free, lashed it to the side of the launch to keep it from sinking, and headed for a seaplane ramp at Floyd Bennett Field, where a Sanitation Department front-loader waited to drag it ashore.

Some people try to avoid getting caught by removing the identification number on the hull, but Jack Schachner radioed that the recovered boat still had numbers, which would enable officials to track down the former owner and bill him for the salvage. The towing alone would run $2,500, Bernie Schachner said. In addition, the owner might be fined for abandoning the boat rather than disposing of it legally. Owners are also assessed for any costs of cleaning up pollution.

Some try to sink boats by loading them with sand or drilling holes in the hull. "You have to patch the holes before you can pull them out," said Bernie Schachner.

One large boat found on shore was so firmly ensconced in underbrush that it took 40 Marine Corps reservists to lift it out.

But if birds nest in a derelict boat and there is no environmental issue, the craft is left in place. "We don't disturb habitat," Daskalakis said

That rule also applied last winter when a group of harbor seals "took over a boat and were resting on it," he said. "We left it alone."