ASSATEAGUE — More details emerged this week on the phantom “ghost boat,” an unoccupied house boat that was cut loose by its new owner who was towing it from New Jersey to South Carolina last week on the eve of Halloween.
Last Wednesday evening, a 40-foot house boat washed ashore on the beach in the Assateague Island National Seashore about a mile south of the entrance to the Over-Sand Vehicle (OSV) area. Early Halloween morning visitors to the island reported seeing the vessel on the beach in the early morning fog last Thursday, adding to the mystery of the unoccupied vessel. However, National Park Service officials were well aware of the origin of the vessel as early as last Wednesday evening and were already taking steps to mitigate the mystery ship.
According to AINS Chief Ranger Ted Morlock, an on-duty ranger discovered the house boat on the beach around 7:30 p.m., or just after dark, last Wednesday. Morlock, who was notified about two hours later, said rangers discovered no fuel was leaking and were notified the vessel had been released by its owner while being towed and had nobody on board.
“Because it posed no environmental or significant risk to anyone, we decided to leave it for the evening and deal with it in the morning when it would be safer,” Morlock said this week.
AINS rangers were able to ascertain the boat owner’s name on Wednesday evening from the Coast Guard. By the next morning, AINS rangers had learned the boat individual was from South Carolina who had purchased the house boat in New Jersey along with another vessel to tow it. The unidentified owner intended to tow the house boat to South Carolina where he planned to utilize it as an office for his marine construction business. However, during the attempt to tow the vessel from New Jersey to South Carolina, the owner cut the unoccupied house boat loose off the coast of Assateague.
“Unfortunately, he did not have experience in towing a vessel, which quickly became evident off our coast, forcing him to cut the house boat loose or lose the transom of his tow boat,” said Morlock. “We located him on that vessel anchored inside the Ocean City Inlet. We contacted him and began coordinating efforts to remove the ‘ghost ship’ from our beach.”
On Thursday, AINS rangers boarded the owner’s vessel and continued discussing his options for its removal. According to Morlock, the owner asked for 10 days to get back to South Carolina and return with equipment to remove the beached vessel. However, the owner’s request was denied.
“It was the opinion of the investigating rangers that he had very limited resources left as he had invested most of his money into the purchase of the two vessels,” he said. “We denied the 10-day request and strongly encouraged him to find a more expedient solution.”
Over the next two days, the high lunar tide came in and began dismantling the beached house boat. Morlock said he received calls from his staff stating the boat was breaking up in the surf and spreading a debris field along the beach. By Saturday, AINS rangers began their own salvage plans for the steadily deteriorating vessel.
By Sunday, personnel from the AINS maintenance division responded with heavy equipment on their day off and removed the entire boat and all debris from the beach. Criminal charges and restitution for the cost of the salvage operation are pending for the boat owner.
Morlock pointed out despite the mystery of the vacant house boat and its appearance on the beach around Halloween, AINS rangers knew what had happened from the start and had located the responsible party within 12 hours of its beaching. He pointed out the boat was never in danger of drifting back out to sea and there was never a hazard to the seashore, animals or people at any time.