A sleek black boat with an aluminum hull zips across Biscayne Bay on a sunny afternoon ten days after Hurricane Irma spanked South Florida with a punishing storm surge and ferocious winds. Fane Lozman, a lanky captain who converted his 30-foot former Navy vessel into a salvage ship about six years ago, eases on the throttle as he approaches a marina behind a beige apartment building in North Bay Village, a seaside town made up of three small islands between Miami and Miami Beach.
Lozman stops a few yards from two men standing on the bow of a small pleasure craft as they wrestle with massive chains looped under a 40-foot-long speedboat submerged in ten feet of water. After making small talk with one of the men, Lozman asks them to deliver a message to the speedboat's owner. "If he's interested, I can do it for $7,000," he says. "I'll have it floating again in three hours."
Although south Florida narrowly avoided a direct hit from one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the Sunshine State, Irma still smashed thousands of boats, leaving behind a trail of sunken hulls and vessel debris in local harbors and marinas. According to some boating-industry experts and professionals, it could be weeks—maybe months—before Biscayne Bay is completely cleared of ruined ships.
That leaves plenty of time for salvagers like Lozman to cash in.
"It could take 30 days, 60 days, or more to have all the damaged and destroyed boats removed from where they are just because of the sheer number," said Thom Dammrich, president of Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturer's Association. "We don't have an official count yet, but it will certainly be in the thousands."
Dammrich, whose organization puts together annual boat shows in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, said one reason for the lengthy cleanup is the amount of time it takes for a boat insurance claim to get approved. "Boats with insurance will likely stay put until an adjuster can come take a look," he said. "Because of the large number of claims, it could take 30 days or more before an insurance claim is dealt with."
Aabad Melwani, president of Rickenbacker Marina, which is located on Miami's Virginia Key island, said another problem is that some owners will simply abandon ship—for good. "In my view, 30 to 40 percent of the sunken boats are derelict vessels," he told me. "People just walk away from these boats. They don't have insurance and when they find out the full extent of the damage, they say, 'Fuck it.'"
Melwani noted that, prior to the storm, he saw owners anchoring dozens of sailboats in the basin near the Miami Marine Stadium and his own marina. "There were probably 80 to 100 boats," he said. "Some had the owner's information written on the hulls with sharpie marker. Others didn't."
He said the storm surge carried three boats to the shoreline and plunked another vessel in the parking lot of a restaurant nearby. But none of the boats in Rickenbacker sustained damage, he noted. "It took a lot of preparation and a little luck," Melwani said.
For seasoned and salty salvage operators like Lozman, cleaning up the wreckage is a no-brainer. "The money is good," says Lozman, a stocks and real estate investor who won a 2013 US Supreme Court decision finding Florida city Riviera Beach illegally seized and destroyed his floating home. "Boat salvaging is another of my ventures."
After leaving North Bay Village, Lozman pilots his retrofitted military vessel south for about 12 miles to the harbor in Coconut Grove, where Irma laid waste to three marinas. Myriad vessels can be seen either on their sides or completely underwater. Lozman theorizes that the storm surge sent poorly anchored derelict sailboats careening into pricey yachts, powerboats, and catamarans, creating a domino effect of destruction.
"That has to piss you off as a boat owner," he tells me. "Here you are in a good marina, your million-dollar boat is properly moored, and then a shitty-ass sailboat smashes into it."
Lozman navigates slowly around the boat graveyard. He spots a friendly competitor—Chuck Hansen, owner of Fast Response Marine Towing and Salvage—securing lift bags to a sunken speedboat. "How much they paying you for this one, Chuck?" Lozman inquires.
"Eight grand," Hansen responds. Lozman cracks a wry smile and turns to an insurance claim adjuster overseeing the salvage job. "You got any work for me?" He pulls his boat closer to the dock, so he can hand the adjuster his business card.
A few yards away, a team from national salvage company Sea Tow has placed a boat on a barge using a crane. According to Lozman, cranes are used as a last resort because it can cost $4,000 a day on top of the salvage fee. "It is a much more expensive process," he explains. "You bring in a crane when the boat's hull has major cracks that can't be fixed with a temporary patch."
In the past week, he's only been able to do small salvage jobs involving vessels 30 feet and under, Lozman admits. He adds that the real money is lifting boats that are 60 feet or longer out of the water, fetching between $15,000 to $20,000 a pop. "You have a lot of independent salvage companies that could have pulled these boats out a week ago," he says. "But the big insurance companies would rather let the boats sit in the water and contaminate Biscayne Bay with oil and fuel until their vendors can get them out."
On a nearby atoll of mangrove trees, Marco Iannelli is trying to figure out how he can get his sailboat back in the water. While the surge shoved his vessel onto land, it did not sustain serious damage. He rents a space in a mooring field managed by the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, which ordered all its tenants to remove their boats in advance of the storm.
"People who are smart will anchor sailboats near the mangroves and hope for the best," Iannelli says. "I got off lucky. Everyone else's boats are underwater."
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