A derelict vessel is the subject of a dispute between the Port of Port Townsend and Washington State as to its disposition and the responsibility for its repair.
The port claims that the John N. Cobb, now tucked away in the corner of the Boat Haven’s linear dock, was illegally conveyed by the Seattle Maritime Academy to a boat owner who could not afford its upkeep, leading to its dereliction. The school, through its lawyer, maintains that it is exempt from these regulations.
Currently, the dispute is between the port and the Washington State Attorney General’s Office, which acts as counsel for the public university. The matter could end up in court.
“We are of the opinion that the Seattle Maritime Academy did not fulfill its duty to make sure this vessel did not become derelict,” said Sam Gibboney, port district executive director. “After research, we are more convinced they have responsibility for this vessel, along with the costs incurred by the port.”
Eric Toews, port planning director, estimated that the port has already sustained $25,000 in direct and lost-opportunity fees.
“We are pursuing every avenue and opportunity in order to make the taxpayers of Jefferson County whole,” he said.
The Cobb is a 93-foot-long, 300-ton, planked wood fisheries vessel that was built in Tacoma in 1950 and pressed into a half-century career in North Pacific fisheries and fishing gear research. In 1956, the state Fish and Wildlife Service was reorganized, and the boat joined the fleet of the new Bureau of Commercial Fisheries. The Bureau of Commercial Fisheries joined NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service in 1970. The vessel was in service with NOAA until June 2008, when its main crankshaft broke.
Even with a colorful history – and its listing on the National Register of Historic Places – the Cobb doesn’t share the buzz created around the Western Flyer, the subject of a multimillion-dollar rehabilitation project to transform it into a floating marine laboratory. The Western Flyer, now under restoration at the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op, has the advantage of its association with author John Steinbeck, who rented the vessel for a voyage that gave birth to “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.”
The Flyer’s owners seek to turn the vessel into an educational center, a goal Gibboney shares for the Cobb.
“We would like to convey the vessel to a purchaser who has both the technical and financial capacities to make the vessel seaworthy and return it to service,” she said.
The Cobb was decommissioned Aug. 13, 2008 as the oldest wooden boat in the NOAA fleet, at which time it was donated to the Seattle Maritime Academy, which is part of Seattle Central College. It was deeded to Daniel J. Webb of South Jordan, Utah, for $1 in July 2015.
Webb moved the vessel to Port Townsend “without proper notification,” Toews said, in February 2016 to repair the crankshaft, but it could not be hauled out because it was full of water and exceeded the port’s 350-ton mobile boat hoist’s capacity.
The port is not pursuing legal action against Webb “because he doesn’t have any money,” Gibboney said.
After nonpayment of moorage fees, the port sought and received temporary and then permanent custody of the vessel. It was pumped, hauled out and inspected in October in preparation for sale, Toews said.
As of Aug. 1, moorage fees due to the port already exceeded $20,000, Gibboney wrote to the Seattle Maritime Academy.
Toews said the vessel has a “theoretical” value of about $300,000 and estimated it would require about $250,000 for repair. The worst-case scenario would see its sale for $50,000, for scrap.
Toews said the port is now in communication with two active bidders. Others requested bid packets but were discouraged by the potential repair cost.
On Aug. 1, the port sent a demand-for-restitution letter to the Seattle Maritime Academy, citing the school’s “complete failure to comply” with a statute that prohibits sale of an unseaworthy vessel to a party who does not have the funds for its repair.
“In short, [Seattle Maritime Academy’s] transfer of the John N. Cobb contravened the law, and should never have taken place,” Gibboney wrote Aug. 1. “It appears that SMA simply rushed to make the Cobb someone else’s problem, the precise situation that RCW 79.100 seeks to avoid. It is patently unjust for the taxpayers of Jefferson County and the ratepayers of the Port of Port Townsend to bear the costs of SMA’s abject malfeasance.”
The Aug. 11 response came from Washington State Assistant Attorney General Derek Edwards, who said the college was not subject to the statute because it “exempts unregistered vessels [that] are primarily used for government purposes.” The letter noted that the college had never registered the Cobb, and that the college was free to surplus the vessel consistent with the intent of the donor.
Edwards wrote he was “surprised” that the port allowed Webb to moor the boat.
“This appears to be a contractual matter between the Port of Port Townsend and Mr. Webb,” he wrote.