LOUDS ISLAND — Thirty years before it washed up on Jimmy Ellsworth’s island shoreline as a rusted derelict, The Columbia was the Maine-built pride of the man credited with helping to jump-start one of New England’s largest modern fisheries.

It was the last of a generation of wooden “draggers” that bridged the gap between the age of sail-powered fishing schooners and the rise of steel ships. But by the time Ellsworth saw it drifting toward his property, the 90-foot-long F/V Columbia was a hulk without a home after being kicked out of two local harbors.

“And there she sits,” Ellsworth said while looking at the vessel leaning on its starboard side too far up the rocky beach for any tide to lift it away.

More than nine months have passed since The Columbia – an eastern-rigged dragger that served several decades in the New Bedford, Massachusetts, scallop fishery – escaped its mooring and went aground on Louds Island just off the coast of Bristol. The Columbia has become a minor tourist attraction among paddlers and recreational boaters drawn to the sight of a rusted-out ship beached in an area of Maine’s midcoast best known for lighthouses, waterfront restaurants and expensive vacation homes.

But for Ellsworth and other Louds Island property owners – some of whose family ties to the island date back well over a century – the vessel is at a minimum an eyesore and, at worst, a potential environmental threat. Those concerns deepened last month when a dilapidated lobster boat mysteriously showed up at The Columbia’s old mooring and sank on the same day in what several people believe was someone’s obvious attempt to scuttle an unwanted boat.

“We just don’t want people saying, ‘If your boat is sinking, bring it to the northern end of Louds Island and let it go,’ ” said Nate Jones, co-owner of a charter sailing sloop, the Sarah Mead, whose family has owned property on Louds for five generations.

MODERN SHIPS, MODERN HAZARDS

Abandoned and derelict boats are, of course, not a new issue for Maine or any other coastal states. Maine’s rocky shoreline and coastal waters are littered with the remains of untold hundreds of boats that sank or went aground over the centuries, some with tragic results. Modern ships do not disintegrate as readily as the wooden predecessors, however, and the heavy diesel fuel, complicated metal rigging and other heavy-duty equipment on today’s fishing vessels present additional environmental and safety hazards.

The response to and responsibilities for addressing abandoned or derelict vessels – the latter being vessels with an identified owner that have been left unattended and in significant disrepair – are governed by a myriad of state and federal laws. The U.S. Coast Guard typically investigates marine incidents and could require the owner, if one is identified, to come up with a formal plan to salvage or remove the vessel. Likewise, the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Marine Patrol can investigate incidents and impose penalties, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Maine Department of Environmental Protection get involved in the event of oil spills or other contamination.

In The Columbia’s case, the current owner, Doug Wood, was required to file an “action plan” with the Coast Guard but, according to Louds Island property owners, likely lacks the hefty sums to salvage the large vessel. A Coast Guard spokeswoman said the agency ensured in December 2015 that all pollutants and hazardous materials that could cause environmental harm were removed from the vessel, and because it is not blocking a navigable channel no further action is required. Jeff Nichols with Maine DMR said Marine Patrol is investigating but declined to comment further.

Messages seeking comment from Wood were not returned.

One option sometimes available for paying to remove abandoned vessels is Maine’s Submerged Lands Fund, which contains proceeds from the lease of state-owned submerged lands to fishermen and others.

Jimmy Ellsworth estimates that four or five boats of people have been coming every day to check out The Columbia and more on the weekends. He said he’s even seen kids climbing on the unsecured vessel.

But John Noll, who oversees the Submerged Lands program for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said first the ship would have to be declared abandoned by the local jurisdiction, which would then seek the state’s assistance. If the owner still did not remove the vessel after being contacted by the state, the state and local governments or property owners could develop a plan to remove the vessel with the hopes of recovering costs later.

In the past, the state has partnered with municipalities or others to cover some of the removal costs but appears unlikely to go it alone with The Columbia.

“If we were to foot the entire bill for removing that vessel, it could be anywhere from $20,000 to $200,000,” Noll said, adding that The Columbia can likely never be restored. “And if we go around and clean up other people’s vessels, that would just encourage other people” to abandon boats in Maine waters.

Other coastal states such as Washington, Virginia and Florida have more aggressive state policies to enforce abandoned or derelict vessels laws as well as mechanisms for paying for their removal. For instance, some states collect fees to cover abandoned and derelict vessel removals as part of boat licenses.

Maine’s Submerged Lands fund is used primarily for public access improvements, such as boat ramps, or for municipal harbor planning.

“The state lacks any kind of mechanism to prevent abandoned or derelict vessels from coming into the state to begin with,” Noll said. “We don’t require a title and we don’t require insurance.”

While The Columbia’s location means it is out of sight and out of mind for many mainlanders in Round Pond facing the island’s western shoreline, it’s not just Louds Islanders who are watching the wreck with concern.

The southern tip of the National Audubon Society’s Hog Island preserve lies just a half-mile away from Louds Island’s northern end and perhaps a mile from the shipwreck. A destination for birders, students and artists from around the world, the 330-acre Hog Island has been hosting camps every summer for more than 80 years with famed ornithologists and naturalists.

Eric Snyder, facilities manager and instructor at Hog Island, said he does not know whether The Columbia still has fuel or other chemicals on board that could leak into Muscongus Bay.

“The bay is one ecosystem and it’s all connected,” said Snyder, who has attended many of the local meetings on the fate of the ship. “So it is close enough that it is a concern.”

Curious boaters check out fishing vessel The Columbia off of Louds Island where it drifted after breaking its mooring. It sits not far from an Audubon site that holds ecology camps. It’s not known if the boat contains diesel fuel or other chemicals that could leak into the bay.
(Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)

HARBOR POLITICS

The Columbia had been drawing attention – and criticism – in midcoast harbors for several years before turning up on Louds Island.

It was moored in scenic Pemaquid Harbor for roughly two years before the state formally declared it “abandoned” and the town of Bristol sold it to Wood for $1. Soon thereafter, Wood dropped a mooring in Greenland Cove in Bremen but quickly ran into trouble with the town harbor master and local residents. Wood received a violation notice in December 2015 and was given 15 days to remove the mooring and the vessel from Greenland Cove because the mooring was deemed inadequate to secure such a large ship. There were also fears that The Columbia’s location could impede the narrow navigation channel.

Wood appealed but ultimately lost in February 2016, in part because he lacked any insurance on the The Columbia.

“The evidence assembled by the harbormaster indicates that the Columbia, as moored in Greenland Cove, presents a serious hazard to the surrounding shore line, docks, the environment and to other vessels that navigate or are moored in the cove,” members of the Bremen Appeals Board wrote in their decision. “According to the surveyor, the vessel is in need of constant maintenance, which it apparently has not had since 2010. It is uninsured and unlikely to be insured, so although the Harbor Ordinance provides that Mr. Wood would be liable for any damage caused if the vessel broke loose from the mooring on which he has placed it, he has no insurance to cover the liability.”

A few weeks later, in March 2016, it showed up on a mooring a few hundred yards from Louds Island. And when a large storm hit during an astronomical high tide, the scenario outlined months earlier by Bremen’s Appeals Board came true.

“She cut loose Halloween weekend and when we came around, all we could see was the stern of it coming” toward shore, Ellsworth said. Despite attempts by Wood and local residents to pull the ship back into the water, it came to rest high up on the beach and eventually settled.

EVOLVING FROM WOOD TO STEEL

It’s an ignominious ending for a ship that was the last in a proud lineage of New England fishing vessels, many built in Maine shipyards.

Known as an eastern-rig dragger, The Columbia is a wooden-hulled vessel built to operate in heavy seas and with a massive store capacity for hauling scallops and fish back to port. Eastern-rig ships emerged in the late 1800s to early 1900s, their design inspired by the fishing schooners that once plied the New England coastline. They were workhorses of the fishing fleet until well after World War II.

By the time The Columbia was built by R. L. Wallace & Sons in Thomaston in 1985, wooden ships had largely disappeared or fallen out of favor with fishing fleet owners. But Myron Marder, who is often credited with helping build what is still America’s largest scallop fishery in New Bedford, Massachusetts, still preferred the older wooden ships that had been the backbone of his successful business.

“You’ve got to consider the longevity!” Marder told Wooden Boat magazine in 1987 for an article about the decline of the eastern-rig dragger. “A steel boat eight or 10 years old looks like it’s falling apart,” said Marder, comparing that to the “brand new” appearance of one of his 25-year-old wooden boats. “It takes me seven to eight years to pay off the mortgage. I want something left at the end of that time.”

Marder reportedly paid $1.1 million for The Columbia, more than the cost of a steel ship. According to the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center, it was the last wooden eastern-rigged dragger ever built for the New Bedford fleet – and potentially one of the last, period.

“He had an affinity for wooden boats, that’s for sure,” said Brian Marder in recalling his father, who died in 2012 at the age of 91.

The Columbia was the last boat in the Marder fishing fleet when it was sold as the business transitioned to the wholesale market. Brian Marder, who still serves as president of Marder Brands, described the ship as “a good boat” and said he was sad to hear how it had been allowed to fall into disrepair in the years since the sale. He had heard bits and pieces of the boat’s situation.

“I wish it had a better ending, that’s for sure,” Marder said.

END OF STORY: STAY TUNED

Exactly how The Columbia’s story will end is still unknown, although its days of sailing under its own power – much less dragging the ocean bottom for scallops – are clearly over. It’s also unclear how many eastern-rig draggers still ply New England’s waters. Last year, a wooden eastern-rig estimated to be 64 years old was dismantled after sinking in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Nowadays, The Columbia’s primary catch is curious boaters.

Ellsworth estimates that four or five boats of people come by every day during the week to check out the derelict, with that number growing to “a steady stream” on weekends. As he was speaking, a small power boat with four or five people dared to squeeze between the listing ship and the rocky shoreline at high tide, an unwise maneuver, according to Ellsworth and Jones, given that parts of its cut-down masts are submerged. Ellsworth said he’s even seen kids clambering on the unsecured ship, which has countless hazards for those unfamiliar with fishing vessels.

“If I charged $5 per boat, I’d have more than enough money to salvage the thing,” Ellsworth quipped as he watched the boat.

Walking the beach near the ship, Nate Jones said the appearance and immediate sinking of the apparently unwanted lobster boat at the same mooring was alarming. The owners apparently refloated it soon thereafter, aware they were facing potential sanctions and fines from DMR. But it’s still “floating” in the bay, its windows shattered and hull looking worse for wear.

Jones said Louds Island’s property owners, all of whom are seasonal these days, are not trying to pick a fight with anyone. Some, such as Jones and Ellsworth, are fishermen and boat owners themselves. Pointing to stands of dying trees all along the shoreline, Jones said Louds Island is apparently facing a blight that is killing off many of its leafy trees. Old descriptions of Louds Island occasionally described the landscape as “bald” – a possible reference to the cyclical nature of this tree blight.

Island property owners recently opted to let nature take its course rather than undertake a costly and potentially unfruitful attempt to stop the natural blight, knowing full well the potential of returning to those “bald” days.

“But this isn’t nature,” Jones said, pointing to the 90-foot boat aground on what was once a scenic beach. “And the people who have been here awhile are pretty concerned about it.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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