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Is Coast Guard at fault for boat catching fire and sinking?


The caretaker of the catamaran that caught fire in the Indian River Lagoon in Vero Beach in April blamed the mishap on a U.S. Coast Guard crew he claims moved the 35-foot boat too close to the power lines immediately south of the 17th Street Bridge and failed to properly anchor it.

Doug Sweet said the boat, named “Fantasy,” had been safely and securely anchored near one of the spoil islands – about 1,000 yards south of the bridge and 250 yards out of the channel – for more than three days and had posed no danger to nautical traffic.

Sweet, a Vero Isles resident, said he was a longtime friend of the catamaran’s owner and had accompanied the boat’s captain, George Douglas, on the trip from its home port in the Bahamas to Vero Beach, where he was planning to do some maintenance and restoration work on the vessel.

However, when they arrived in Vero Beach at 7:30 p.m. April 6, the tide was too high to allow the catamaran’s mast to clear the bridge, so Douglas and Sweet moored the boat well to the south and out of the channel to wait for low tide.

“I had the boat anchored in the mud and it wasn’t going anywhere,” Sweet said last week. “I went out and checked it every afternoon, including the day before the fire. Then, for some reason, the Coast Guard moved it.

“They moved it close to the power lines and, when they set the anchor, they obviously didn’t make sure it was secure,” he added. “So, when the winds shifted and the current shifted, the boat must’ve come loose and swung around, and it got pushed into the power lines.”

According to a Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission report, the unmanned catamaran burst into flames shortly before 8:30 a.m. April 10, when its mast struck a power line. A county Fire Rescue boat extinguished the fire, but the vessel sustained heavy damage.

In fact, the partially submerged boat remained in the lagoon – just offshore from the Fairlane Harbor neighborhood’s seawall, south of the city’s water-treatment plant and clearly visible from the 17th Street Bridge – last weekend.

The FWC, which has police jurisdiction over Florida waters, stated in its report that the Coast Guard had “boarded the vessel the night before the fire” in response to a call claiming the boat was moored in the channel of the Intracoastal Waterway.

That report was confirmed by both Sweet and Capt. Ryan Helmig of Sea Tow Treasure Coast, which the city hired to move the damaged catamaran away from the bridge after the fire, who said they were told by multiple witnesses that the Coast Guard had boarded the catamaran at about 6 p.m. April 9 and relocated it near the bridge.

FWC Officer Roger DuBose wrote in the agency’s incident report that he had requested the Coast Guard’s duty log for the night prior to the fire and hadn’t yet received it. He stated that he would update his report after he reviews the log.

Vero Beach 32963 called the Coast Guard station in Fort Pierce last week, seeking more information regarding the decision to move the catamaran. However, the officer on duty referred the request to the service’s Public Affairs Office, where no one answered the phone.

As of Sunday, the Coast Guard had not responded to a voice message asking for a return call.

The FWC report identified Fantasy’s owner as Douglas Robert Silvera, whose listed address was a Post Office box in Freeport, Bahamas, where the boat was registered. Silvera could not be reached for comment.

FWC Lt. Dustin Lightsey said the boat has been declared a “derelict vessel” and that the agency has presented its report to the local State Attorney’s Office, which is expected to pursue a criminal charge against Silvera.

Under Florida law, abandoning a derelict vessel in state waters is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.

However, Lightsey, who oversees FWC patrols of the waters in Indian River and southern Brevard counties,
said prosecutors probably would drop the criminal charge if Silvera removes the boat from the lagoon within 45 days of being notified that it has been declared a derelict vessel. The countdown began last month.

In addition, the owner must agree to pay all costs incurred by the FWC and any other agency or entity in connection with removing the boat.

“The statute also holds the owner civilly liable for any costs associated with the boat having been abandoned,” said Lt. Darrin Riley, the FWC’s statewide derelict vessel coordinator. “That includes removal of the vessel, draining the fuel, damage to other property and even the investigation.”

Vero Beach City Manager Jim O’Connor said it cost the taxpayers “about $5,000” to move the boat after the fire and remove the remaining fuel from the boat to prevent a leak that could contaminate the lagoon.

He said the city would try to recover that money from the owner.

Helmig said the city hired him to relocate the boat away from the bridge area, drain the diesel fuel that remained in one tank and pump out “some dirty, bilgy oil and water film” that had accumulated on the boat.

He said he billed the city closer to $7,000, which he said was a discount price for the work done.

“I gave them a very good deal,” Helmig said, adding that he moved the boat the afternoon of the fire, after the FWC concluded its initial investigation. “It should’ve been over $10,000, but they’ve got a budget, so I brought the price down for them.”

But Helmig doesn’t believe the boat’s owner, or its captain or caretaker, should be held financially liable if the Coast Guard erred in moving the catamaran and didn’t properly re-anchor it.

“Maybe the boat drifted a little, so they moved it in good faith,” Helmig said. “But if the Coast Guard made the mistake – if they shouldn’t have moved it or didn’t properly anchor it – they should be the one to remove the boat and reimburse the city.”

Sweet, who has photographs he claims verify where he and Douglas anchored the catamaran, said he has known Silvera for 35 years and done at least $20,000 worth of work for him on other boats, and thought of him as a friend.

However, he said Silvera became upset with him after learning the Coast Guard had moved the boat – which, apparently, was valued at $25,000 but wasn’t insured – and it had been badly damaged in a fire.

“I guess he blames me, but I did nothing wrong,” Sweet said. “I did everything by the book. I notified the FWC that the boat was anchored and where. And the boat sat there for four days. I checked on it every day; it never moved. Then I get a call that the boat was on fire, and he screws me.

“He can sue me if he wants, but I wasn’t even paid crew,” he added. “The captain brought the boat over and I was just along for the ride, because I was going to do some work on it here.”

Lightsey said the abandoned catamaran does not pose a navigational hazard to other boats, but the FWC would like to see it removed from the lagoon next month.

The due process protections under federal law require the owner be given 45 days to remove the boat and pay any civil claims before the vessel can be seized by the state.

As for Silvera paying, though, Sweet said: “They’ll have a hard time collecting any money from him.” Especially if the Coast Guard was at fault.

“Nobody wants to take the blame for this because they’ll be liable,” Sweet said, “but I’d love to know why they moved the boat.”