September 28, 2016

Abandoned vessel washes ashore in Avon, may have held refugees


A vessel that appeared to be an abandoned refugee boat washed ashore in Avon on Tuesday sans passengers, but with equipment and supplies surprisingly intact.

The roughly 20-foot long vessel washed up on the beach in front of Greenwood Place, in between the Avon Pier and Ramp 38. The Avon Volunteer Fire Department and National Park Service rangers Joseph Darling and Peter Malionek responded to a call from the U.S. Coast Guard via Dare County Dispatch about the vessel, and enlisted Jarvis Williams of Jarvis’ Towing to dispose of the wreck after examining the structure and cleaning excess Styrofoam and debris from the beach.

“It was obviously a homemade boat, but it looked like it was in good shape,” said Darling.

The boat was “constructed pretty uniquely,” according to Williams. It had a diesel engine, and a metal frame that was padded with blocks of Styrofoam. Boards were placed under the frame to support the Styrofoam backbone and hold it together, and a bright yellow canvas bordered the front hull.

And even though the boat was abandoned – and looked like it had been abandoned for some time – the vessel itself was in decent condition, with supplies still onboard which included bottled water, 30 cans of sardines, and 40 gallons of extra diesel fuel.

“It was quite a feat of engineering for someone from a third world country,” said Williams, noting that the water bottles on board said they were from Cuba, further proving the theory that the boat was, at one point, a Cuban refugee vessel.

And other than a missing rudder, the vessel looked like it was still in working condition.

“The engine is not frozen up – I turned it over,” said Williams, “but the battery was missing.”

“It had been out in the water for a while due to the presence of barnacles – and the people who were on it were probably off of the boat for a while,” said Darling.

“I think it had been through storms down south and floated all the way to Hatteras Island,” said Williams. “But we don’t know if [the people onboard] abandoned it for a bigger boat, or what happened to them. There are no clues of what happened.”

And while it’s possible that the passengers onboard did not survive the trip, Darling and Williams noted that it did not appear that the boat had capsized at any point, due to the assortment of supplies onboard.

“Overall, it’s in great shape. It obviously hadn’t rolled around because food was still there,” said Darling.

The vessel had been reported by several local commercial and charter boat captains in the Gulf Stream waters off of Hatteras in the days before it washed ashore.

“When I worked in South Florida, [finding these vessels] was a lot more common, but this is very unusual for Hatteras Island,” said Darling.

And while spotting a refugee vessel is extremely unusual along North Carolina, it has happened before.

In early summer 2016, an abandoned boat made out of rusty drums was spotted on a beach on the South Core Banks in the Cape Lookout National Seashore. This vessel had been marked by the U.S, Coast Guard, which had intercepted the boat in May 2016 somewhere off of South Florida, marked it with “5-16/OK,” and sent it  adrift as “derelict.” It was a coincidence that the boat happened to land a month or so later on the South Core Banks of North Carolina.

The vessel found in Avon on Tuesday had no such visible markings, however, so there’s no way to tell if it was intercepted by any passing boat, or what happened to the people on board.

Williams moved the boat outside his shop and gas station in Buxton on Tuesday, where a chunk of the boat was stolen while it was sitting by the road, and then moved it to the Cape Hatteras Secondary School grounds, close to the tennis courts.

“I thought I would let the kids take a look at it for a couple of days,” said Williams.

As of Wednesday afternoon, a number of small student groups and their teachers had made a trek to the vessel to examine it, and to ask questions about where it may have come from.

“They did a good job building it [considering that] they didn’t have much to work with,” said one student who was taking a closer look at the engine.

The boat can still be seen at the Cape Hatteras Secondary School, although the long-term plans for the vessel are somewhat unclear.

“I think I’ll keep it out somewhere for a little while and let people look at it – it’s unique,” said Williams. “If it becomes a problem with people climbing in it, I’ll have to do something else. But for now, I’ll probably store it near the gas station or the store once the school is finished with it… It’s a good conversation piece.”

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