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By Andrea Swayne
(updated Sept. 25)
For Capistrano Bay District residents with homes on the sand at Capistrano Beach along Beach Road, the sight of sailboats and other vessels is a common, and usually welcome, sight. But the presence of a 40-foot sailboat abandoned on the beach after running aground more than a month ago, is getting old and answers to the question of when it will be removed have yet to be answered.
According to Sgt. Mike Scalise of Dana Point Harbor Patrol, deputies responded with lights and sirens to a 6:41 a.m. emergency call on Aug. 21, to a report of a sailboat with a child passenger adrift and in danger of being stuck on shore off the coast of Capo Beach.
The report of a child was found to be incorrect and deputies instead found the boat’s passengers were a man, a woman and a dog—the man, Randy McKenzie, is a transient boater well-known in the area, having been anchoring his boat, The Nightwatch, in and around the harbor for about four years, most often off the coast at Poche Beach.
When Harbor Patrol arrived, Scalise said, the boat was high and dry and his crew could not pull on it because, at that time, it was likely the hull would have been compromised and it would have sunk, creating a bigger disaster—a possible hazardous situation. Also, once a vessel is on the beach, it falls outside of Orange County Sheriff’s Department authority and the vessel owner is responsible to contract with a commercial salvage company for assistance, he added.
“The passengers refused to get off the vessel even after we gave several orders over the PA telling them to don life vests and get off,” Scalise said. “It is an extremely dangerous situation when a vessel grounds in the surf line. People can get injured or killed. They didn’t get off until quite a while later, when fire authorities and landside deputies arrived on-scene.”
Four to five hours later, Scalise said McKenzie got back on the boat and used the radio to send out maydays in an attempt to get assistance from the Coast Guard.
“It was not a mayday at that point,” Scalise said, adding that McKenzie was not cited for dragging anchor or for broadcasting a fake mayday.
McKenzie said he and his wife Barbara Adams lived on that boat and were reluctant to get off because it was their home and he believed, at the time, that it could be saved.
McKenzie also disputes the deputies’ claim that the boat was dragging anchor at the time it became beached.
“We woke up that morning when our keel hit the beach,” McKenzie said. “I stayed on the boat for about three hours and kept trying to get it to move. We were not dragging anchor. Our anchor was cut in the middle of the night and we ended up on the beach.”
According to authorities, the boat anchor was attached and the anchor line was taut, stretching out to sea, and was one of the obstacles the Harbor Patrol boat had to maneuver around when first responding to the grounding.
The following day, McKenzie returned and began trying to pull the boat off the beach with the help of another vessel. He was again ordered by Harbor Patrol to stop, as the potential for lines snapping and causing the potential for injury to beachgoers was unacceptable, Scalise said.
McKenzie said he is frustrated and feels that the Harbor Patrol is “happy to have me out of there” and won’t listen to how he and his wife were victims in this case.
He said their saga began when another transient boater (transient boater is a term used to describe a boater without a permanent slip, who comes and goes from the harbor) stole his dinghy and motor. He reported the crime to the Harbor Patrol but they did not arrest the other man and returned the dinghy and motor to McKenzie. The other man, McKenzie said, is responsible for cutting his anchor line in the middle of the night, following a days-long disagreement.
OCSD is aware of some sort of bad blood between McKenzie and the other boater, centering on a disagreement about the dinghy but said that it is a civil issued between the two.
“As far as law enforcement is concerned, this is an ongoing boat accident investigation which may turn out to be a vessel abandonment issue,” Scalise said.
“I don’t know if the county or state will go after them but I am sure the boat owner is responsible for paying for the cleanup,” Scalise said. “But because they ended up stripping the boat and just leaving it there, abandoning it, its location in front of a private community has landed it in a strange situation.”
The situation is complicated by the fact that the Capistrano Bay District management says the neighborhood has no ownership of the beach, the beach is a county beach, but the boat sits below the mean high tide line putting it on state land. And the Coast Guard, another authority mentioned as a possibility for the boat’s removal, has no jurisdiction over a vessel once it is aground.
Don Russell, general manager of the Capistrano Bay District, said the homeowners’ association’s main concern is with public safety and potential damage to the homes that could be caused by the boat.
“I’ve tried to contact the OC Parks director and have so far gotten no response,” Russell said. “The boat owner was fairly available in the first two weeks. I even got him to cut the mast off so that it wouldn’t have the potential to go through a window or wall had it been moved by the surf. But it’s been over a month and he’s indicated to me that he is not financially able to pay for a salvage operation. Residents are very concerned. The Capistrano Bay District doesn’t have any property ownership out on the beach; it’s not even covered on our liability insurance.”
Russell said he also contacted the National Response Center and the state fish and game department.
“The Coast Guard sent a team to assess the situation from the point of view of safety and environmental concerns—because of the motor on board, the head and pollutants associated with both,” Russell said. “But so far we have no idea who will move it or when.”
McKenzie said he is also at wits end about what to do and that he feels like the Harbor Department has had it in for him all along.
“A few weeks before this happened a boat went aground between Riviera Beach and San Clemente State Beach and that boat was gone within eight hours,” McKenzie said. “I don’t understand why they didn’t let me retrieve my property. Why did they stop me from pulling my boat off the beach? Then they told me it’s going to cost a lot of money to pull it off. I could have easily gotten it off the beach but they told me they would arrest me if and the captain of the tow vessel and impound my vessel if I pulled it off the beach. I don’t have the money to pay for it. I have nothing. And now we are homeless.”
McKenzie said he’s called the Coast Guard, the Orange County Supervisor’s office, OCSD Internal Affairs, and anyone else he could think of “to find out why they didn’t arrest that guy.”
McKenzie said he hadn’t received any responses.
On Sept. 16 McKenzie dropped off paperwork at Harbor Patrol headquarters, also delivering copies to the Capistrano Bay District HOA office, officially relinquishing his rights and surrendering all ownership of his vessel.
In a Sept. 24 email, Orange County public information officer Marisa O’Neil said OC Parks is aware of the abandoned vessel but believes it sits on a privately owned beach.
The stretch of beach, she said, is between the county’s Capistrano and Poche beach facilities and although the county (on behalf of the State) holds “a lateral easement across the private beach for the purpose of protecting public access to the water, but does not own, operate or maintain the beach.”
O’Neil went on to say that county officials had reached out to the HOA, who they say is responsible for the beach, and has offered to provide staging access via either Capo or Poche beach to facilitate a salvage operation for the vessel.
The county, she added, has also attempted to contact the State Lands Commission, regarding their interest in the stretch of coastline and that “the most appropriate method for removing the vessel has not been determined.”
On Sept. 25 State Lands Commission representative Sheri Pemberton said the state would be willing to provide a permit to local authorities for the boat’s removal and that the State Lands Commission is looking into the issue.
There is still no plan, or determination of whose responsibility it will be, to remove the boat.