There’s a certain romance about old ships, a suggestion of exotic adventures, faraway places and weathering the darkness of a winter storm. Rather than going to the breakers, some old ships become the property of the dreamers, who cling to the often unrealistic idea of preserving the past for future generations to enjoy.
Those were perhaps the noble dreams of an Oregon man named Walt James, who many years ago bought the former U.S. Coast Guard cutter Alert and U.S. Navy tug Sakarissa. He moored them in the Columbia River at Jantzen Beach, just downstream from the Interstate 5 Bridge. He told friends he could restore them.
But as any motorist can plainly see, James’ dreams have ended up as sunken, derelict wrecks resting on the river’s bottom. A recent story by Columbian reporter Anna Mattson suggests James has died, his dreams never to be realized.
A third ex-military vessel owned by James, a Korean War-era landing craft, is still afloat downriver. It too seems unlikely to ever be restored.
When the dream dies, the taxpayers must step in. But there are problems with salvaging derelict vessels: jurisdictions; titles and insurance; environmental remediation; and, of course, the cost.
Unfortunately the Alert and Sakarissa rest within yards of the Oregon shore, because Washington has a program to salvage and dismantle hulks. The Derelict Vessel Removal Program is run by the state Department of Natural Resources. Since it was instituted in 2002, more than 900 vessels have been removed from Washington’s waterways. It’s been expanded over the years, most recently in 2020, when the Legislature gave the DNR more resources and more authority, including more power to fine owners of vessels that are not properly licensed or registered.
Sometimes the U.S. Coast Guard gets involved. One notable local incident involved the Davy Crockett, a 430-foot former World War II Liberty Ship that was cut down into a barge before eventually being tied up for good on an island four miles upstream of the Interstate 205 Bridge. In January 2011, its owner was attempting to salvage it, in place, without permits, when its hull broke open, causing a large oil slick on the Columbia River.
The Coast Guard stepped in to manage what turned out to be a $22 million salvage operation, including construction of a cofferdam to prevent more pollution. The barge’s owner was prosecuted and sentenced to serve four months in prison.
It’s possible the Coast Guard will step in to salvage the Alert and the Sakarissa. But no plans have been set, nor funding identified.
Luckily neither vessel is a hazard to river navigation, nor are they believed to be actively leaking. In 2020, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality spent $146,000 to remove some contaminants including paint, propane, solvents and batteries, although solidified petroleum products remained in the tanks. There are possibly other contaminants, such as PCBs, onboard.
No matter who pays, the shipwrecks must be removed as soon as practically possible, as must the landing craft. In addition to their potential environmental hazards, they are unsightly. As the river falls and more of the wreckage is revealed, they present a dangerous allure to would-be shipwreck explorers who could become injured or trapped.
Many people feel the romance of an old ship. But their allure needs to be tempered by a strong dose of reality.