Decrepit Tugboat's Demise Caught Headlines -- But Boats Sink in San Francisco Bay More Often Than You'd Think

Categories: Local News
BoatWhoWouldn'tFloat.jpg
It isn't often that you misplace a 100-foot-long boat, but that's just what happened late Monday with the ex-U.S.S. Wenonah. The 69-year-old boat slipped beneath the waves while berthed on eastern Treasure Island; when the sun went down it was up and when the sun came up it was down. Naturally, the odd story of a World War II-era ship sinking and leaking fuel into the Bay attracted reporters and cameramen with a speed usually reserved for a "My Dad was the Zodiac!" press conference.

That's not to say media attention wasn't warranted; big ships don't up and sink every day in San Francisco bay. But a few calls around the city and state reveal that it happens a lot more often than you might think.

"If there's no oil spill and no dead bodies, it just doesn't make the news," said longtime Fisherman's Wharf wharfinger Hedley Prince. "We just got through disposing about 10 of them."

Wenonah.jpg
Historic Tugboat Education and Restoration Society
The ex-U.S.S. Wenonah in happier, less damp, days
Prince recalls a large, extremely old sailboat perhaps as large as the Wenonah spontaneously sinking off Pier 38 earlier this decade. But, again, "no oil spill, no dead bodies" -- and it didn't even make the news.

Gauging how often boats sink in San Francisco Bay isn't an easy task as no one agency seems to keep track. The 10 sunk or partially sunk boats Prince mentioned had been culled over the course of several years before being pulled out of the water and disposed of earlier this summer; since that time "Somebody abandoned a boat near the new launch ramp at Pier 52," Prince notes. "They just backed it down the ramp, let it go, and it had a big hole in it and it sank right there. Pretty inconsiderate."

John Davey, the deputy maritime director of the Port of San Francisco, says that two-to-four boats sink every year at the port. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Department says this is the sixth sunken boat reported to it in the past two years; the other five were in Treasure Island's Clipper Cove (trivia: Clipper Cove is so called because the Pan-American Clipper flying boat used to take off and land there in the days before the Bay Bridge).

How much is retrieving these rotting, sunken boats costing the city? Less than it might. Prince notes that the state Department of Boating and Waterways puts up 90 cents of every dollar through its Abandoned Watercraft Program. While reclamation job costs vary depending on factors such as how deep the water is and how rickety the boat is, Prince says the rule of thumb for calculating boat disposal costs is 100 dollars a foot. Most of the boats he deals with are 40 feet long or shorter.

Of course the Wenonah is a more complicated matter: It weighs hundreds of tons, a crane will almost certainly be involved, and much money will be spent. Its owner, the Historic Tugboat Education and Restoration Society, figure to be writing a lot of checks in the near future.

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