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Residents 'worn down' after years of encounters with transient boaters that harass, commit crimes

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - An abandoned tent and discarded personal items litter a campsite on Sand Island, a St. Helens city-owned park. Trash like this has been left in the park over many years and is just one sign of a transient community of boaters who some say are misusing parks and city docks.Members of the Columbia County boating community are becoming increasingly worn down by a subset of unwanted boaters who permanently live on the water.

"Pirates", as they've been dubbed by nearby residents, are boaters who choose to intentionally live on their boats full-time, traveling along the Columbia River from one place to the next.

Renters at the privately owned St. Helens Marina have complained about being harassed, stolen from, intimidated, and confronted by the pirates for years, but have recently been making their complaints more public.

Toni Doggett, a manager of the St. Helens Marina, said she has had to deal with the vagrant boaters for years now, but with the city of St. Helens on the verge of major waterfront redevelopment, she sees the few boaters causing problems as "a slow trickle before a tsunami," and she wants something to be done.

In the past two months, Doggett has approached the St. Helens City Council and the Columbia County Board of Commissioners, saying the vagrant boaters have scared away visitors and made others afraid to leave their boats unattended for even a short period of time.

Negative encounters

Boaters at the St. Helens Marina recall myriad interactions with transient boaters over the years. Some become confrontational and start fights. Some refuse to purchase items from the St. Helens marina shop that Doggett runs. Other boaters report people entering the cabins of their boats and riffling through liquor cabinets, underwear drawers, and other personal belongings, taking things when no one is on board.

Several weeks ago, a group of visitors to Sand Island were stranded there, after paying cash to be shuttled from the dock to the island, only to be left there when the boat never returned for them, Doggett and others said. Another time, a family was stranded on the island, when their boat was taken in the middle of the night.

Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said his staff have dealt with numerous complaints at the city docks and the St. Helens Marina on a semi-regular basis.

City Adminstrator John Walsh has also seen similar problems with the city docks, which are just downriver from the marina.

"The complaint we've heard is that there are people out there who are using the docks, but they're not licensed and they shouldn't be there and we should get them to move along," Walsh said. "We don't disagree we just don't feel like we have the tools to do it either."

Frankly, Doggett said, boaters are simply worn out by the problem.

Law enforcement aware of the issues

Since January, the St. Helens Police Department has received more than 30 calls for service at the St. Helens City Docks that involved radio calls, harassment, or suspicious persons. Police have received more than 20 calls to the St. Helens Marina in that same period of time.

Dickerson said the Sheriff's Office has not issued any citations this year for boaters staying past the five-day city limit, but has received frequent anecdotal reports of theft and criminal activity.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - St. Helens boater Dan Sternadel drives his boat across the Columbia River to visit Sand Island. Sternadel said he has had encounters with pirate boaters before and they often make his fiance feel uncomfortable, especially in isloated places like the island."We have been pushing these victims to report everything — no matter how small — because it at least creates statistics that can be used to justify a different way to conduct business at the dock," Dickerson stated in an email.

Boaters also say Sand Island is being misused.

Last summer, St. Helens city staff temporarily removed trash cans from Sand Island and locked up the bathrooms, which sustained thousands of dollars worth of damage from graffiti.

Last month, an abandoned purple tent was left in plain view on Sand Island. The city-owned park campsite was full of discarded personal items like disposable razors, bottles of salad dressing, crayons, cigarettes, and old clothing.

Living on the water legally

Living full-time on a boat is legal in Oregon when certain procedures are followed. Typically, residents of houseboats or "live-aboard" boaters must get written authorization from the Department of State Lands to do so.

Boaters who operate under "transient use," however, do not have to secure such permissions, but a state law passed in 2013 requires boaters to move to a new location at least five nautical miles away after 30 days in one location. It also requires them to not return to that same location for at least 12 months.

The city of St. Helens boasts more strict limitations, preventing boaters from staying in one location on the water for more than five continuous days, or 10 days in one month, a rule which was adopted in 2015.

Pirates on the river

The "pirates" Doggett refers to are boaters who view life on the water as a sort of glamorous lifestyle, she says. They drift from place to place, but they're different from the homeless boating population that also exists in the community, Doggett notes.

The problem is not with people who choose to live on their boats, Doggett says, but with those who abuse recreational docks like the St. Helens Marina and commit petty thefts, vandalize and harass boaters by overstaying their welcome or picking fights.

James, who describes himself as a "live-aboard" boater, lives full-time on his 27-foot sailboat. He is a transient boater, but doesn't call himself a pirate. For his own safety and the crew of transient boaters he lives with, James would not provide his last name.

When asked about what kind of encounters he has had with self-described "pirates," James laughed and rolled his eyes with a shallow scoff saying they use that term as a joke.

"They're not the villain that everyone's making them out to be," James said.

James said many of the boaters who are living "on the hook" or "on the slip," terms which refer to anchoring boats, are often upstanding, good people. He'd like to see the pirates and criminal boaters dealt with properly by law enforcement to stem the negative attention.

'What can you do?'

Walsh said the city is looking into issuing permits for the use of city docks, to track how long boats stay anchored in the area.

"The five day rule has been hard for us to enforce," Walsh said. "We're trying to do something to earn back the trust of the boaters."

However, Moss said the city police department is restricted in responding to reports of crime on the river. SHPD does not own a patrol boat and is dependent upon the Sheriff's Office marine patrol to respond to calls on the river or Sand Island.

While officers can issue citations for rule violations, SHPD has no way to tow a watercraft in violation, like it would with an abandoned vehicle.

"One of the problems we've had in the past is someone will tie it up, and we issue a citation and they still don't move it, so what do you do?" Moss said. "If it was a car, you just have it towed away. A boat is not that easy."

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