Coronado Ghost Ship Spooky for Environment, Navy

Jus Play’N Around is the S.S. Minnow of the Silver Strand and, for the Navy, the tip of a very large ecological iceberg

“Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

The sun sets on another day that Jus Play’N Around remains marooned on the Silver Strand. The abandoned, derelict sailboat has sat on these shores, directly in front of the U.S. Navy’s Silver Strand Training Complex, billed as the military’s premier training facility for U.S. Special Operations Forces, since a storm washed it ashore Jan. 16, 2021. The boat’s fate, and guesses as to how much longer it will remain on the beach, are a mystery. (Photo: Craig K. Collins)

If a boat washes up on the beach, and no one seems to care, did the boat really wash up on the beach?

That is the question posed by Jus Play’N Around, a 20-foot pleasure craft tossed ashore during a storm Jan. 16, 2021, onto the Silver Strand, a lonely, lovely stretch of sand that runs about eight miles from scrappy, scruffy Imperial Beach to Coronado, I.B.’s wealthy, manicured neighbor to the north that’s fond of calling itself an island, when in fact, thanks to the Silver Strand, it’s really an isthmus.

The sailboat, marooned for half a year now and sinking ever deeper into the sand, its 15-foot-high mast, rigging, and other parts now stripped and scavenged by beachcombers, poses a full range of ancillary questions, too, like:

Where did this boat come from?

Who is its owner?

Was this a simple case of a boat breaking lose from its moorings in a Southern California harbor and drifting south in the current until it was driven ashore by waves and wind?

Or was it part of something more nefarious?

Was it used to smuggle drugs from Mexico — the hills of Tijuana rising only two miles distant?

Was it used to traffic human cargo?

If so, was Jus Play’N Around’s final tempest-tossed voyage terrifying?

Did anyone die?

Who’s responsible for removing it? (I mean, this is a freaking 20-foot sailboat — kind of hard to miss — not some quotidian flotsam like a soccer ball, soda bottle or Cheetos bag that regularly wash up here.)

How much longer will it be here?

Or will enough people not care long enough for it to be entirely subsumed by the sand, buried, out of sight, problem solved?

The ill-fated Jus Play’N Around as it appeared a couple weeks after being tossed ashore during a storm on Jan. 16, 2021. (Photos: Craig K. Collins)

“That’s not our responsibility,” said the matter-of-fact ranger who answered my call to the Silver Strand State Beach information line, but then refused to get further involved by providing his name. “The U.S. Navy’s in charge. That’s their stretch of beach. You’ll have to ask them.”

And, yes, there’s not much that escapes the Navy’s attention in these parts. Their presence is everywhere. There are aircraft carrier groups doing maneuvers just a mile or two offshore. Jets frequently roar above the coastline on their way to Coronado’s North Island Naval Air Station. (“The sound of freedom,” the locals like to say.) I’ve seen helicopters hover 70 feet above the beach while teams of Navy SEALs disgorge themselves from the choppers’ bellies, one after the other, and rappel down ropes to terra firma. I run on the Silver Strand at low tide a few times per week and regularly see SEALs in the middle of ten-mile runs wearing 45-lb. weighted vests. (It’s dispiriting when they breeze past you.) During a run last year, I came upon a large, metal, army-green box filled with long clips of M-16 cartridges, which, fortunately, were sans bullets, and probably used for practice. As I pondered what should be done with this potentially dangerous flotsam, a four-wheel-drive SUV came racing toward me up the shoreline. The vehicle slid to a stop a few feet away. I stepped back, and a humorless man in camouflage hopped out, and without saying a word or acknowledging my presence, hoisted the wayward ammo into the SUV’s open back hatch. He then jumped back into the passenger seat, and before he’d had time to buckle up, the SUV was already spitting sand from its wheels and racing back down the beach from whence it came.

So, clearly, this is the Navy’s sandbox. And if they want something gone, it’s gone.

An M-16 practice round found by the author on the Silver Strand in 2020. (Photo: Craig K. Collins)

A one-by-two-foot, 25-lb. ammo box? Poof. Just like that.

A 20-foot, half-ton sailboat. Meh. Not so much.

“If it bothers the Navy enough,” said David Weil, a Seal Beach, CA-based, maritime attorney, “they could just have the boat removed, send the owner the bill, and see if they pay.”

Weil says that according to maritime law, whenever a vessel runs aground, the owner is responsible for all damage, clean-up and removal. However, he adds, the California Department of Motor Vehicles ownership database for boats isn’t public record, so it’s difficult for individuals to determine who the boat belongs to. But, he says, the City of Coronado or the U.S. Navy could certainly find out.

“It’s highly likely the boat wasn’t insured,” Weil said, “because insurance typically covers such accidents and the insurance company will immediately pay to have a grounded boat hauled away.”

As for the sailboat’s origin, Weil speculates that it may have just been at anchor and broken loose during a storm. Happens all the time, he says. Or it could’ve come up from Mexico. Hard to say.

The drug or human smuggling scenario is certainly a possibility. Border patrol helicopters and SUVs regularly zip up and down the coastline here. And for good reason. Small craft, motorboats and pangas are frequently deployed by Mexican smugglers, often with disastrous results.

On May 2 of this year, a trawler broke apart in high surf on the rocky shores of Point Loma, which is visible from the Strand. The boat was packed with nearly three dozen Mexican migrants, 27 of whom had to be plucked from the ocean by San Diego lifeguards, the U.S. Coast Guard and beach goers. Three migrants died. The ship’s captain is in jail in San Diego awaiting trial on human smuggling charges.

According to data from the U.S. Border Patrol, arrests at sea for human smuggling almost doubled from 2019 to 2020. Last year, the agency confiscated 118 boats used for human smuggling off the San Diego coast and arrested 1,278 people.

So it’s easy to see why in these waters, an abandoned boat is often not just an abandoned boat.

So what fate awaits Jus Play’N Around? For that, I spoke with Kevin Dixon, Public Affairs Specialist for Naval Base Coronado.

“Which boat?” was Dixon’s first response.

Apparently, abandoned, derelict vessels washing ashore on Navy-controlled land is a common, persistent problem on the San Diego County coastline.

“The boat on the Strand likely came from a location near Point Loma where boaters frequently anchor in open water so they don’t have to pay docking fees. During storms, those boats are prone to breaking loose and coming ashore. Happens all the time. And under maritime law, the Navy is required to allow time for owners to reclaim their property. After a set period, the Navy can then go in and cart the vessel away, which comes at a cost to taxpayers of about $20,000 per boat.”

As for Jus Play’N Around, that set period of time has clearly passed. But when the Navy will take action is anyone’s guess.

Though the U.S. Navy has been a major part of San Diego since the days of clipper ships, it has never developed a reputation as thoughtful environmental stewards. The marooned sailboat on the Silver Strand is merely the tip of a very large iceberg. It is a symbol of military apathy toward the environment — simply the visible part of things large and mostly very small — even microscopic — that have been washing up on the shores of this important and sensitive ecosystem for years now.

And while the Navy has recently invested nearly $1 billion to expand its U.S. Special Forces facilities on the Silver Strand, it has failed to advocate in a major way for projects to mitigate the pollution that directly threatens the health of members of those special forces, as well as American military readiness overall.

And that threat comes primarily from just two miles south where the Tijuana River feeds into the Pacific Ocean. This unfortunate and intensely befouled waterway, passes through the crowded, chaotic heart of Tijuana, Mexico, a metropolis of over 2 million. The river, which is mostly a stagnant trickle in the summer months, transforms to a raging torrent during winter storms. From November through April, the river flushes debris, sewage and chemicals down its concrete-lined channel on the Mexican side of the border, before emptying into Tijuana River Slough on the American side, from which it then pulses great, tainted plumes into the Pacific.

The amount of debris that washes up daily on the Silver Strand is staggering and represents not only a massive environmental hazard, but also a hinderance to the region’s economic development, as well as a threat to American military readiness. (Photos: Craig K. Collins)

For days and weeks following these storms, the beaches along Imperial Beach, the Silver Strand and Coronado are closed to swimming, surfing and fishing. In 2020, beaches in the region were closed for a record 300 days.

And what’s it like on the beach after a rainstorm? Ugly is the only word to describe it. Whenever I run on the Strand after a storm, there’s an unmistakable, oily stench wafting off the water. And the sand is littered with all manner of human detritus, but mostly plastic — everything from mattresses to doors to balloons, wrappers and plastic bags.

Or as Leslie Stahl put it in 2020 during a 60 Minutes piece on the problems posed by Tijuana River pollution: “Let me read you a list that we found of stuff that is in this water: fecal coliforms, drug-resistant bacteria, benzene, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, medical waste, and DDT, which has been banned for years in the United States.”

Such conditions are hazardous, to say the least, to Special Forces members who regularly train, rain or shine, in the open ocean along the Strand.

Fortunately, the EPA, as part of the Trump Administration’s reworked NAFTA Agreement in 2019, included a $300 million provision for constructing much-needed infrastructure to cleanse the Tijuana River before it flows into the ocean. Over the next five years, the U.S. will work with Mexico to install new sewage-treatment plants, filtration systems, and debris catch basins that should go a long way toward abating the pollution along San Diego County’s southern beaches.

But these solutions weren’t driven primarily by the Navy. In fact, the Navy has been mostly mute and absent in the discussions and political wrangling on the matter. Rather, action from Washington was the result of decades of high-decibel cage-rattling emanating from local politicians, voters, and the regional business community, the engine of which is largely comprised of hotels, restaurants, real estate and tourism, none of which are fond of befouled beaches.

Perhaps no one has been more engaged in the David-versus-Goliath rock fight for attention on this issue between local interests and Washington entropy than Serge Dedina, the surfer-lifeguard-environmentalist-PhD mayor of Imperial Beach.

In a conversation with Lesley Stahl, Dedina said, “I’ve got to spend my time hammering people in power to make sure they understand that dumping toxic waste on Navy SEALs and Border Patrol agents is a bad idea, and getting them to acknowledge that it’s actually happening.”

To which Stahl asked, “If the Navy weighed in do you think things would begin to happen?”

“I think if the Navy brass weighed in,” Dedina replied, “this would be fixed tomorrow.”

Jus Play’N Around sinks further into the sand, June 11, 2021, nearly six full months after first drifting ashore. In the background, right, stands the U.S. Navy’s Silver Strand Training Complex, newly constructed for nearly $1 billion as the military’s premier training facility for U.S. Special Operations Forces. (Photos: Craig K. Collins)

Which brings us back to the marooned sailboat just off the Navy’s front porch along the Silver Strand. It’s an unmistakable eyesore and environmental hazard that’s difficult to ignore. And for an organization that prides itself for being literally ship-shape, a decrepit, stranded boat is nothing, if not a symbol of carelessness and slovenliness, things the Navy should naturally abhor. But in this case, the Navy, in spite of all its money and might, probably dislikes wading into local politics and environmental matters even more.

Meanwhile, Jus Play’n Around sits, the S.S. Minnow of the Silver Strand. Each day its carcass sinks ever deeper into the sand. And one day soon, the Navy probably hopes, the boat will be out of sight and, thus, out of mind. Unfortunately, as the Navy surely knows, especially in the age of global warming and looming ecological disaster, environmental problems have a way of becoming military problems. As such, it might be wise for the Navy to think of Jus Play’n Around as a very small canary in a very large coal mine. Right now, the canary’s singing. Its message is loud and clear. Whether the Navy opts to listen and finally move to give a stricken boat a proper disposal, perhaps will tell us if the institution is up for the coming challenge of much larger ecological problems looming just over the horizon.

Craig K. Collins is a San Diego-based writer and the author of Thunder in the Mountains(Lyons Press, 2014) and Midair(Lyons Press, 2016). He has a novel due out in 2022.

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Craig K. Collins

Author of Midair (Lyons Press, 2016) and Thunder in the Mountains (Lyons Press, 2014). At work on a novel, as well as a book of historical non-fiction.