The Mission to Make South Carolina's Coast the Cleanest in the U.S.

Wounded Nature sailboat cleanup
Courtesy Wounded Nature

Published Mar 11, 2024 4:24 PM by Sean Hogue


Thanks to its pristine beaches, the South Carolina coastline is a popular sailing destination. It is home to the Grand Strand, a 60-mile stretch of sandy shore that includes the world-famous Myrtle Beach. This is one of the country’s most popular vacation hotspots, attrracting over 17 million visitors annually.

But over the past 30 years, derelict boats and debris have been accumulating in tidal areas and marshes along the coast. These are a hazard to navigation and the environment, and they are impacting local marine life.

In 2010, one man said “enough” and began a mission to make the South Carolina coastline the first in the nation to be 100 percent free of this hazardous marine debris. 14 years later, he has nearly achieved his vision.

But one major issue threatens the project, which could otherwise be completed within the next 12 months.

Boat By Boat

The 19-foot SeaArc pounds through the choppy waters towards a sailboat. The derelict vessel is listing heavily to one side, its mast swinging wildly with the waves.

The center-console craft shows wear from its previous life as a border patrol boat, but the engine runs smooth. Another small battle-scar accumulates as it bumps up against the sailboat.

The captain, former US Marine Rudy Socha, waves at a man onboard a nearby boat. TowBoatUS is emblazoned on the side. The man gives a wave and a thumbs up.

“Just about ready now,” Socha says under his breath.

“Here we go,” Socha says, louder now. The man on the other boat turns a dial and the quiet whir of an air compressor increases to a roar.

A diver breaks the surface near the TowboatUS vessel and crawls back onboard. The sailboat is lifting in the water now, floating freely, the diver-installed airbag filling the space inside the cabin.

Socha clutches in and the SeaArc moves slowly forward while Jones pays out the slack until the towline is tight. Then, carefully, they begin towing the decrepit old sailboat across the choppy harbor towards a nearby boat launch. There, a team awaits with Sawzalls, a dumpster, and a one-ton dually ready to drag the hull onto land for the last time.

“This one is relatively easy,” says Socha. “When they are half-sunk in open water like that we just need to float ‘em, tow ‘em in, and pull ‘em out with the truck, or maybe a backhoe.” He checks the compass and adjusts course slightly. “Now all that's left is to chop it up and get rid of it”.

A Complex Operation

A 30-foot sailboat creates a lot of trash. It contains up to 9,000 pounds of fiberglass, 2,000 pounds of wood, and another 1,000 pounds of metal, not to mention the motor and any fuel tanks that need to be removed.

The fiberglass breaks down over time, leaching into the seawater. The wood fittings swell. The metal rusts. The fuel slowly seeps into the ocean, damaging the environment and playing havoc with local sea life.

Getting it out of the water and into a dumpster is just one step in a long line of logistical issues. You’ve got to work with law enforcement to establish ownership and get it cleared for removal. Skip this step and the owner could come back and file a claim against you.

You’ve got to engage stakeholders in government, raise awareness and - most importantly – raise funds. Recovery of one sunken boat can run upwards of $25,000, depending on the complexity and equipment required.

Many of the resources, such as those committed by TowboatUS, come through donations or volunteer efforts.

Then you need to find a place to get rid of it.

Fuel needs to be pumped out. Moran Environmental Recovery is another South Carolina-based partner that helps with this. The gas and oil goes to their recycling center. The metal goes to a scrapyard, with any money received given entirely to the volunteers. The wood and fiberglass goes to the landfill.

It is a logistically-complex project, but one worth doing. And Wounded Nature is just the organization to do it.

A History of Complex Cleanups

Captain Rudy Socha has been tackling complex disposal problems for decades.

In 1979 he was hired by Nuclear Metals to clean up a massive amount of depleted uranium machine turnings. It was the first radioactive waste cleanup of this size at the time, and he completed it two years ahead of schedule and $2.7 million under budget.

Socha founded Wounded Nature Working Veterans in 2010 to focus on his passion of cleaning up rural and hard-to-access beaches, tidal marshes, and coastlines in wildlife-critical areas. He chose Charleston, South Carolina as his homebase due to its central location on the coast. He then proceeded to remove over 2,800 abandoned crab traps from the coastline.

Next, he turned his sights on the derelict boats washing up on beaches and clogging up the harbors. In the last five years the government really started to take notice of his efforts, and helped accelerate the cleanup.

Where Do They Come From?

The source of these boats is a complex problem in itself.

Many are abandoned by owners who are no longer able - or have just lost the desire - to keep up the maintenance. They give them away for free for people to live on, or they just walk away.

This is an issue around the nation. The median home price in Charleston is $528,471 as of January 2024[6], and other coastal cities are similar. This has led to a growing rise in liveaboards as rents increase and home ownership becomes more difficult.

Free boats are typically poorly maintained boats. They slowly take on water, which the bilge pump needs to stay ahead of. Eventually the whole thing becomes waterlogged and is abandoned by the second “owner”.

Other sources are hurricane wrecks, failed companies, and downright negligence.

You’d think that the government would be responsible for these, rather than private industry. But they also have limits on what they can do.

Plenty of Red Tape

The biggest issue is liability. For example, when a derelict boat washes against (or under) a cruise dock, it can totally shut down navigation in the channel and stop the cruise ship from tying up.

Kind of like offering first aid, once you get involved you need to stay involved. Because the derelicts don’t have insurance, this can include assuming the financial liability of the cleanup. Wounded Nature carries a $2 million environmental liability policy. This, combined with their experience in these removals, helps to de-risk the project.

Establishing ownership of these boats is a key first step, and Wounded Nature works closely with local law enforcement to figure this part out. They will first try to get the owner to clean up their mess, but failing that, law enforcement will give it the thumbs-up for removal.

Full Inventory of the Coast is Complete

The most exciting recent development is a complete inventory of everything that remains on the South Carolina coast. This was a joint effort by Wounded Nature and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

They found 90 wrecks in total, including recreational boats, barges, old shrimp boats - even a navy ship sunk in place since the 1940’s.

If managed by the government the project would have to go through a lengthy and expensive tendering process, which would drive the price up to a level that couldn’t be covered - even if their entire annual budget was allocated.

Because Wounded Nature stands apart from this process as a private organization, the cost to perform the cleanup is much lower - estimated at just $5 million.

And the best part? This could be completed within the next 12 months.

A Generational Legacy

Government budgets won't cover this work. Less than three percent of all funds and personnel in the marine non-profit sector are dedicated to fixing problems through remedial action.

There is plenty of money to go around for research, advocacy, and legal fees, but very little for the front-line workers with their boots in the muck getting their hands dirty.

And those are the men and women who will make this cleanup a reality.

Wounded Nature relies on donations from companies, organizations, and individuals to fund these removals. Plus the efforts of volunteers to do the work.

Considering the scope, the dollar amount isn’t unreasonable for a large company or trust to make South Carolina the first state in all of the USA to have a coastline free of derelict boats and debris.

Final Cleanup

Socha walks the dock, stopping to pick up a small piece of fiberglass. He tosses it into a nearby garbage can.

The dumpster, full of a chopped-up boat hull and interior fitting, was just loaded onto the transport truck. A pile of metal, including the mast and small outboard motor, sits off to one side. The dock is otherwise clear.

It’s like the sailboat never existed.

Socha does a final sweep with his eyes as the dumpster and the last of the volunteers drive away. Satisfied there is no trace of the derelict boat left behind he walks back to his truck.

“One less piece of trash on our beaches,” he says, squinting into the setting sun overlooking Charleston Harbor.

“Only eighty-nine more to go.”

To learn more, visit https://woundednature.org.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.