Salvage company works to remove sunken sailboat from Lake Tahoe

A salvage company attempts to remove a sunken sailboat Tuesday, May 9.
Ryan Hoffman / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

After months of sitting at the bottom of Lake Tahoe just off the shoreline of El Dorado Beach, a sunken sailboat appears to be on its way out.

A private salvage company was out on the lake Tuesday afternoon attempting to remove the submerged vessel. However, several issues prevented a successful extraction, said Geoff Burrows, owner of TowBoatUS Lake Tahoe, the private salvage company contacted by the boat’s owner.

Despite two previous attempts to assess the situation, the salvage crew was unable to see that the large cabin windows had blown out. Prior to that discovery Tuesday, Burrows said he was hoping to simply raise the stern and pump the water out.

“Unfortunately because those windows are blown out, we needed to lift the whole boat and we weren’t able to lift the whole boat with the supplies we had with us today,” he added, “so we’re coming back tomorrow with bigger guns.”

Weather can always be an issue, as was the case Tuesday, Burrows noted. Assuming conditions are favorable, though, he hopes to have the boat up Wednesday.

The sunken sailboat has been the source of complaints among residents on social media and in letters to the editor for months.

It appears it had been left in the location for winter, with the engine and other possible contaminants being removed from the boat. It started sinking over the course of winter as the lake level continued to rise, eventually submerging everything but the mast.

During that time, questions were raised if anyone could or would do anything.

Jarret McGraw, a seaman with U.S. Coast Guard in Tahoe City, told the Tribune recently that the Coast Guard is unable to remove a sunken vessel from the lake, as that would interfere with private salvage business. The two exceptions would be if the boat posed a navigational hazard or potentially serious environmental harm.

According to Tom Lotshaw with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which coordinated with the Coast Guard to try and get the boat removed, this particular sailboat does not pose a serious threat to the public or environment.

“While troubling that this abandoned sailboat continues to sit offshore, we believe it poses minimal risk to public health and safety or Lake Tahoe’s environment,” Lotshaw said in an email to the Tribune in late April. “It’s our understanding from the Coast Guard that there is no engine and no fuel or oil on this vessel.”

The Coast Guard does take reports of sunken vessels and it does disseminate that information to private salvage companies around the lake, which it did in this case. It also can attempt to identify and contact the owner, which it also did in this case.

At that point, it’s up to the owner to reach out to a private salvage company.

A salvage company can extract the boat, but it generally doesn’t perform that expensive service unless there is an agreement for payment.

There are funds available through the state of California in emergency situations, said Lauri Kemper, assistant executive officer for the Lahontan Water Board, one of nine regional water quality control boards in the state of California.

However, the sunken sailboat did not qualify for those funds.

In a scenario such as this where a boat is sitting on the bottom of the lake, the agency that controls the land can take steps to remove the vessel, however, that also requires money.

Although the agency is unaware if this specific boat is on one of its parcels, the California State Lands Commission does not have the resources to extract sunken vessels, said Sheri Pemberton, the commission’s public information officer. There are some enforcement measures the commission can take to help facilitate removal if a boat is on California state lands.

“We just don’t have the resources, so what we try to do is work with the local jurisdiction,” Pemberton said.

Likewise, the TRPA, which does have its own boat, does not have the ability to pull out a sunken vessel.

“We’re not that type of agency,” Lotshaw said.

The same goes for other local agencies that have their own boats, including the South Lake Tahoe Police Department.

Burrows said he would like to see a fund established that would allow local agencies to order and pay for the removal of problem vessels, and then have them attempt to recoup the costs through various penalties on the boat’s owner.

However, he and others concede it’s not always easy to track down the actual owner.

In those cases it would likely be difficult, if possible at all, to recoup the costs.

“Unfortunately the way sometimes these things change hands, the ownership trail is lost because it’s just been traded to somebody and given to somebody else or inherited and nobody has bothered to re-register it and what’s on the books is someone who hasn’t owned the boat in years,” Burrows said.

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