Captain Harold "Smitty" Smith couldn't believe it - they were everywhere, hundreds of them.
Stacked in piles by the dozen. Leaning against homes and on top of cars. Peeking out from murky waters and marshes up and down the New Jersey coast.
Hurricane Sandy had turned the Shore area into a graveyard of boats. More than 1,400 marine vessels, from Jet Skis to 40-foot yachts, littered the coastline in the wake of the storm, carried from their docks by a record-breaking storm surge and deposited wherever Sandy saw fit - often hundreds of yards away from where they began.
"It was just completely decimated," said Smith, a towboat captain with TowBoatUS Sandy Hook who has removed dozens of displaced vessels at the Atlantic Highlands Municipal Harbor. "It wasn't just minor damage either. I'd say 70 percent of the boats that we salvaged were total losses."
Sandy caused record-breaking damage to nearly every facet of life along the coast - and the maritime industry was no different. BoatUS, an insurer and the nation's largest boat-owners association, estimates 25,000 boats were damaged in New Jersey at a cost of $242 million. The cleanup will be an unprecedented effort, according to the New Jersey State Police and Department of Environmental Protection, one not expected to be completed for months or perhaps years.
State Police data show about 350 boats remain where Sandy deposited them, and dozens more remain missing. The process of reuniting owners with boats can be incredibly complicated, from tracking down people whose entire lives - not just their boats - were uprooted by the storm, to others eluding contact because they cannot afford - and their insurance doesn't cover - costly salvage operations.
"In a lot of cases it's not that people aren't interested in salvaging their vessels, we're just having trouble finding them. We're writing letters and placing calls to addresses where there's no longer a home," said Lt. Perry Capiak, of the State Police Marine Services Bureau, which has been collecting data on displaced and missing boats and helping reconnect owners.
JUST THE BEGINNING
And Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, said cleaning up boats and other debris is only the beginning. In the coming weeks and months, attention will turn to what can't be seen - boats, cars, docks, boardwalks and tons of sand lying beneath New Jersey's bays, channels and other crucial waterways.
"What we're doing right now is really the easiest pickings - boats we've identified and we know where they are," Ragonese said. "There are plenty of boats and other debris that sank and we don't know where they are. We don't want to put a timeline on getting that debris cleared because we don't really know what's down there; we don't know what we're going to find."
After participating in flyovers in the early days after Sandy, Capiak and the State Police Marine Services Bureau knew they had a tall task ahead. Satellite photos showed boats piled high in marshes several football fields from the marinas they were once docked at, many of which had been heavily damaged as well. Others lay against houses, or obstructing streets, or jammed in train bridges.
"We began putting together a database a few days after the storm," Capiak said. "It became a security issue, because of the potential for looting. We wanted to get a jump on it."
The DEP has retained the services of AshBritt, a Florida-based disaster recovery firm that hopes to remove the remaining boats to staging areas in Brick and Tuckerton by early next month.
A day after Sandy struck, the Christie administration gave AshBritt a no-bid contract worth up to $100 million to clean up the state, including removing boats from inland waterways. The contract rates are based on the size of the boat and how far it needs to be hauled.
For example, the state paid AshBritt $481 per linear foot to recover and haul a boat less than 15 miles, according to the contract. A 30-foot boat would then cost the state about $14,000 to recover.
AshBritt later was awarded the contract through a competitive bid, but the rates are essentially the same.
Today, all but 25 percent of the boats have been removed.
But getting to this point wasn't easy. Some owners still have not been contacted. And at least 85 vessels remain missing, while others were likely swept away and not reported.
Once boat owners began the salvage process, other complications emerged, according to Smith.
"It was very difficult," Smith said of salvaging vessels. "For some we needed to bring in cranes. Some were left higher up (in elevation) than anything we'd ever seen before. Then you had boats that had washed into people's properties. There was a lot of difficulty in getting permission just to be on people's property. They might say ‘Well, your boat broke my fence, who is going to pay for that?'
Scott Croft, spokesman for BoatUS, said insurance issues emerged quickly. Boat insurance is not mandated in New Jersey as auto insurance is, but many banks require it for financing and some marinas do as well. But Croft said several boaters with insurance found it covered the damage to the vessel itself, but not the cost to salvage it, which can run several thousand dollars.
"A lot of boat policies have insurance on the value of the hull (of the vessel). You should have salvage coverage equal to that," Croft said. "If you're in a situation where your boat's a total loss, your insurance may cover that damage, but if you don't have salvage coverage you're going to end up paying that out of pocket."
Smith said it was a situation he has seen all too often.
"I hear the stories every day," he said. "I had a guy who I towed, the job cost $3,500. His insurance only covered $3,000 of it. But he was dealing with so many other things. He called me up and said ‘Look, I'm not normally this kind of guy but I just don't have it.' I told him not to worry about the $500, but there's only so many times I can do that as a businessman."
The next phase of cleanup is what lies beneath.
Officials and experts say tons of debris, from boats to boardwalks, was washed into New Jersey's critical coastal waterways, creating new hazards for mariners traversing them as boating season approaches.
The DEP is reviewing bids to hire contractors to search for and then remove the debris, but it is a process expected to take months and no one is quite sure how large of an undertaking it will be.
Capiak said Sandy has rendered local knowledge of the waterways useless and urged boaters to use extreme caution when traveling through Sandy-affected regions.
"We all saw the pictures. Those boats that are still missing, they're sunken somewhere. Until that's all remapped and everything, I wouldn't be operating at too high a speed," Capiak said. "The local knowledge people have relied on for years, that's all changed now. A depth finder is going to be your best friend."
The Army Corps of Engineers has started surveys of the region and has already started the process of clearing the Intracoastal Waterway, a heavily trafficked 3,000-mile federal waterway that parallels the entire East Coast.
A PROMISING START
Much of the initial surveys and quick fixes have been made, such as a stretch near Mantoloking where the bay was reduced to just 2 feet of depth, but projects in other areas historically prone to accumulating sand lack funding, and have for years.
"It was better than I originally thought. We were able to get our inlets done pretty quick," said Monica Chasten, a manager in the Army Corps Operations Division. "But some of these projects have not been funded. They've been on the chopping block for two years. ... We have no additional funding to do anything else here. We've been using some post-Irene funds. We're being creative in getting it done because it has to. It's not something we're willing to take a chance on."
Melissa Danko, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, said marinas and other maritime businesses are reeling as well. Without federal, state and private assistance in short order, Danko said businesses could stand to suffer even more if they cannot get back on their feet by the summer season.
"The impacts were tremendous. Our time constraints are a bit different because recreational boating season is coming. Obviously we're not the only ones that need assistance, but our industry is definitely an industry that needs support," she said. "I'm hopeful, but I don't have anything confirmed as of yet."
Smith said while the shock has faded, the impacts of Sandy will stretch on for years.
"I've never seen anything like it and I hope to never see it again. From a personal standpoint, I'm busy now, but I don't know what the next few years will bring with the impacts on boating here," he said. "I think it's going to be four or five years before boating from Atlantic City to the Raritan Bay gets back to normal."