March 4, 2010

City seeks home for 'boat nobody wants'


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Gordon Chibroski

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — The Frankie Joe, an old wooden fishing trawler, has become something of a fixture at the city-owned Portland Fish Pier in recent months.

Crews from other fishing boats move it up or down the wharf whenever it gets in the way. But the distinctive blue-and-white boat doesn't go far.

City officials are worried that it never will.

Portland's harbor master issued an order last month telling the owner, who hasn't paid any berthing fees, to remove the vessel or face fines that could be as much as $500 a day. The city is even considering taking ownership of the boat, although officials hope it won't come to that.

''The goal is to get someone else to take care of it so we don't incur any costs, but if we have to we will,'' said Mary Costigan, an attorney for the city.

The boat's owner, Keith Fitzell, said he needs just a little more time.

Fitzell said he can't leave the harbor or earn money to pay for berthing because fuel and electronic equipment were stolen from the boat while it was tied up at another wharf in June.

He's now trying to sell the boat and fishing equipment to cover expenses, and said he's close to finding the Frankie Joe a new home.

''It's my absolute number one priority,'' Fitzell said.

The Frankie Joe, built in 1980, has a high bow that gives it an unusual profile in the water. Fitzell, a longtime fisherman, said he has used it to drag for groundfish and catch hagfish, also called slime eels.

He moved the boat from Gloucester, Mass., to Portland in the spring and tied up at Hobson's Wharf, where he was hired briefly to take fish waste offshore. Fitzell said he was already struggling financially when his boat was burglarized in June.

Thieves took about 850 gallons of fuel, his radar and other electronics, his safety equipment and even his captain's chair, which later turned up in the bay, he said. He couldn't run the boat or pay for berthing space.

The Frankie Joe showed up at the Portland Fish Pier in July. Fitzell said someone else towed it there and left it but that he has never abandoned the boat.

The fish pier's transient berths are for boats that stop in for supplies at Vessel Services, which charges $80 a day. Fitzell hasn't paid any fees, said Michael Foster, store manager for Vessel Services.

''It's the boat that nobody wants,'' Foster said. ''At this point, it's almost become part of the furniture. We'll almost be sorry to see it go. But it does get in the way now and then. Our main concern is, we're afraid it's going to sink and then it's going to be a real problem.''

A sunken boat that pollutes the water or endangers other boats is Harbor Master Jeff Liick's chief concern, he said. But it's not so easy to get rid of a 61-foot, 50-ton boat.

''We can't just set it adrift because then it will be a hazard to navigation,'' Liick said. ''We're pursuing options to take possession of the vessel and deal with it that way.''

That would mean towing the boat away and storing it, and the city would rather not pay for those services.

''It's an expensive venture, which is why we're not anxious,'' said Costigan, the city attorney.

Costigan said the best outcome is for a buyer to come forward soon and move the boat. The harbor master's order, and the threat of fines, applies to Fitzell only, so a buyer wouldn't inherit any liability for unpaid fines, she said.

Fitzell said he is close to selling the boat. He said he doesn't have an asking price and hopes simply to cover his expenses and get out of the business.

''If I got a good price, I'd love to give the city some money,'' he said.

In the meantime, he said, there's no danger of the Frankie Joe sinking.

''I go down every day to make sure the boat's OK,'' he said. ''Everybody's afraid of wooden boats these days. There's nothing wrong with that boat.''

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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