You Call This the Riviera?

Creature from the Lake Worth lagoon: Bob Wilt (left) and Kurt Evans admire the sunken Sweet Head II
Sherri Cohen

The Sweet Head II's final resting place is in the Lake Worth lagoon. After six decades of service, the 48-foot motorboat of indeterminate make or model is submerged in water and lies perhaps 50 feet from the public beach at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach. The Sweet Head II's wooden body is rotting. Its deck has turned a sickly yellow and blue.

Attached to the small portion of the boat that remains above water is an orange warning sign posted by the Florida Marine Patrol. The notice is dated October 30, 1999, and warns that, if the owner does not move the boat within five days, it will be disposed of. That was more than three months ago, but the disintegrating boat remains.

The Sweet Head II is the most visible manifestation of a problem that plagues the portions of the Lake Worth lagoon controlled by Riviera Beach. From the north side of Phil Foster Park, perhaps 30 anchored boats are visible near the shoreline. Just as many can be seen from the south side of the park. From the Riviera Beach Marina, on the west side of the lagoon, the view is similar. The overall effect is that of a massive aquatic parking lot.

The vast majority of the boats are not submerged -- and are in significantly better repair than the Sweet Head II. They belong to recreational boaters or itinerant sailors, attracted by the deep waters and close proximity to the Bahamas, who simply don't want to cough up the change to dock their boats at private marinas.

But a smattering of the boats are derelict or deteriorating, patched together with duct tape and plywood, haphazardly anchored by cement blocks. These vessels are approaching a fate similar to that of the Sweet Head II.

Directly behind the Sweet Head II is a strong candidate for submersion. It is a 30-foot motorboat with flaking paint and broken windows. Visible inside the boat are clothes hangers, testimony that someone called it home. The boat will not be departing for the Bahamas anytime soon; however, the nameless vessel may soon join the Sweet Head II as a relic of the sea.

Riviera Beach has no means of getting rid of the sunken boats or of enforcing maritime laws for the 100 or more boats moored in its waters. The city is perhaps the only municipality with control of substantial coastal areas that has no marine patrol. And as evidenced by the delay in removing the Sweet Head II, state and county marine officials are in no hurry to clean up Riviera Beach's messes. The problem has been compounded in recent years by stepped-up efforts in other cities, such as North Palm Beach, to restrict boaters from camping out in their waters. In response, boaters have fled to the laissez-faire waterways of Riviera Beach.

"There's just a complete lack of control, a complete lack of discipline, a complete lack of enforcement," says Kurt Evans, a retired boater and resident of Singer Island, Riviera Beach's wealthy enclave. Singer Island residents have long complained of the city's reputation as a flophouse of last resort for boaters, but to little avail. "All of the boats are concentrating in this area," adds Bob Wilt, another Singer Island resident.

Wilt and others worry that sunken debris will get caught in the propellers of still-functioning boats, causing damage and opening the way to lawsuits that already cash-strapped Riviera Beach can ill afford. They also warn that, when the next big storm hits, insufficiently anchored boats in Riviera Beach's waters will be tossed about willy-nilly, damaging property along the way. Environmental degradation is another concern: Some boats have no means of disposing of waste.

"There's a disaster waiting to happen that's gonna cost us a lot of money if we don't get this under control," Evans says.

In April the city council of Riviera Beach established a "technical-assistance team" to look into possible remedies for the crowded waterway that has become known derisively as "Hong Kong Harbor." The team is led by an official from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and consists of boaters, law-enforcement officials, and other concerned parties. It is expected to report back to the council by March. Among other things, the committee is looking into establishing a "managed mooring" program that would provide safe anchorage and other services, such as showers, to boaters for a minimal fee. Although the program would most likely be voluntary, it would help confine boaters who call Riviera Beach home to one designated area.

More controversial is the possibility of the city council passing a law restricting the number of days a boat can stay anchored in Riviera Beach waters. In the early '90s, when the city attempted to enforce a similar measure, which limited boaters from anchoring for more than 72 hours during any 30-day stretch, it was sued. A judge eventually tossed the law out as unconstitutionally vague and unenforceable.

Riviera Beach is also struggling to put together a marine patrol to enforce existing laws, such as those governing proper waste disposal, and to remove derelict or sunken boats. "I've had people honestly admit that they put their sewage in a garbage bag and row it to shore," says Don Keirn, the DEP official overseeing the task force. "There's boats out there that, I swear to God, show duct tape along the water line."

City Manager William Wilkins, who has been in that position for less than four months, says that he is resolved to deal with the marina problems. "We're very sensitive to the fact that, as our waterfront grows, there is clearly a need right now to have a police presence," he says. But Wilkins also notes that the city is strapped financially and that dealing with problems such as disposing of derelict boats can be expensive. "There's disposal costs, there's the labor costs, and there's the cost of raising the boat," he notes. "It's a little different from having a junk car and you just tow it away."

Boaters, naturally, take issue with proposed changes and are already threatening another lawsuit if Riviera Beach attempts to restrict boats from anchoring in its waters. John Sprague, director of governmental affairs for the Palm Beach County Marine Industries Association, says that the police in Riviera Beach have enough problems dealing with crime on the streets without worrying about boaters. "Do we really want to take officers out of Riviera Beach and put them on the water?" he asks.

Sprague also downplays the significance of the problems, noting that the polluters and derelict boats are a small proportion of the vessels anchored in Riviera Beach. "As long as they're adequately anchored and they're not polluting the water, what harm are they doing?" he asks.

Sprague's sunny view of the average boater is little solace for George Carter. Carter is the director of the Riviera Beach Marina, and in his ten years on the job, he has seen it all. Sitting in his crowded office, Carter pulls out a photo album filled with eight-by-ten glossies. One picture shows a small motorboat that was blown ashore during Hurricane Irene crashing into a larger vessel called the Palm Princess. The smaller boat had been "anchored" with two cement bricks and an old tire. Another photo shows a boat that blew ashore and crashed into the dock, doing $3000 in damages to electrical wires. Before being swept away, the boat had been tied to a tree on nearby Peanut Island, where its owner was camped out. Carter pulled the boat out of the water and placed a lien on it.

"I'm gonna sell the boat, or he's gonna pay me $3000," says Carter. Despite the tough talk, Carter has little ability to rein in abuses by boaters before they lead to costly accidents. He's drawn up a proposal for City Manager Wilkins that would put a small marine unit on the water for less than $100,000 a year. Carter says he will come up with a boat on his own if necessary. "I could have somebody in the water with a quote-unquote police-enforcement boat, within 72 hours," he says.

Until then, the Sweet Head II and other boats will continue to rest at Hong Kong Harbor.

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:

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