Snook Islands turning into ‘Gilligan’s Island’ as boat graveyard threatens sensitive natural area
Updated: Sep 4
THE SNOOK ISLANDS in Lake Worth Beach are supposed to be an ecological gem of manmade mangroves, oyster reefs and wildlife along the Lake Worth Lagoon’s downtown shoreline.
“Gilligan’s Island” might be a more appropriate name these days.
A small but growing graveyard of boat wrecks has littered parts of the watery, environmentally-sensitive ecosystem over the past few months, within view of a public boardwalk and popular kayak trails.
The biggest eyesore: the hulking remains of “Sweet Emotion,” a 33-foot Viking yacht precariously anchored since June 24 on rocks next to mangrove islands that are home to protected shorebirds.
A short swim from the yacht, at least two more abandoned vessels are floundering in the water, including a nearly-submerged boat tethered to a water scooter.
Not far from those three disabled vessels, a scattering of operable boats are either anchored in the lagoon around the islands, which is legal, or tied to floating docks on the northwest side of the Lake Worth Bridge, which is legal from 6 a.m. to midnight.
But a few boats tied to the dock are either inoperable or barely operable and home to people who say they have no other place to live. If one of those boats push off the docks before midnight, to avoid a citation for illegal overnight docking, they risk drifting into rocks or the bridge.
Meanwhile, a slow hurricane season may be heating up with new storms forming in the Atlantic.
“Obviously we are concerned about these derelict vessels,’’ said David Carson, a senior environmental analyst with Palm Beach County’s Environmental Resources Management Department, which spent millions to develop the Snook Islands Natural Area before it opened in 2005.
“They could leak gas and oil into the water which can negatively affect the estuary and the fish and wildlife that live there, as well as damage any seagrass, oysters or other resources that the boat is resting on.’’
Submerged vessel within view of the public boardwalk on Snook Islands (Joe Capozzi)
Lake Worth Beach isn’t the only waterfront community dealing with derelict boats. Peanut Island and Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach are hotspots. Burt Reynolds Park in Jupiter has had problems.
But in the eyes of many in Lake Worth Beach, the derelict boats around Snook Islands are ruining the public’s enjoyment of what should be a scenic natural area and threatening to pollute the waters around it.
And the most frustrating part is the glacial pace of the derelict-boat removal process, which some residents say shouldn’t be so cumbersome since the state recently enacted new regulations to speed up that process.
“They got all this new money and new programs to deal with derelict boats but they can’t handle an emergency like this. I see it as an emergency,’’ Ted Johnson, commodore of the Lake Worth Sailing Club of Florida.
“I’m sympathetic to our housing crisis here,’’ he said, ‘’but this isn't the way to solve it. Letting people live on the docks and having this happen doesn't make any sense.’’
Johnson said he has filed complaints with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission about “Sweet Emotion” and with the city about the condition of the floating docks.
“It’s just really puzzling to me. It’s an ecologically sensitive area and all these people are living down there. These are not functional boats. These boats can’t move. They don't have motors on them. They don't have masts on them so they can’t sail,’’ he said.
This yacht has been abandoned on the rocks at Snook Islands since June 24, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)
Of particular concern is “Sweet Emotion,’’ whose owner, Richard Castagna, has been cited numerous times by the city for tying up overnight at the floating docks, which is illegal.
After his latest citation on May 7, he was arrested on June 23 and jailed overnight for failing to appear at a hearing. In an interview, Castagna said that after his arrest, he asked a friend to anchor the yacht near the docks in the lagoon.
His friend’s efforts caught the eye of Johnson, who said he happened to be nearby on his boat when he saw a woman trying to anchor “Sweet Emotion” near the rocks. As the boat started to run aground, it was still moving in the water because it was high tide, he said.
Seeing a chance to get the boat away from the mangrove island, Johnson said he offered to tug “Sweet Emotion” to deeper water. But he said the woman operating the boat refused.
“Why she would put an anchor on the top of the rocks and expect it to stay and be all right is unbelievable. They're not boaters,’’ Johnson said.
“It's a miracle that we have not had a storm in the past two months. If the hull is breached by sharp rocks, we could have an oil and fuel spill. Hundreds of thousands (of dollars) have been spent developing Snook Islands and a spill would be devastating. It’s just crazy that there’s nothing done yet.’’
Castagna, who owns a house in Delray Beach, said no fuel is leaking because he closed the valves. But he said thieves trying to steal the boat’s generator dropped it in the lagoon.
He said he is trying to fix a small hole in the boat and then move it. He offered no timetable for when that would happen.
This boat sank some time during the week of Aug. 28. (Joe Capozzi)
“I’d only owned it a month and then this happened,’’ he said. “A couple of people said it reminds them of Gilligan’s Island. I guess in most peoples’ eyes, or in the eyes of people that count, it probably is an eyesore.’’
A supervisor with ERM said the county is moving as quickly as it can to remove “Sweet Emotion.’’ But because of red tape, it could be another month or longer before that happens.
A derelict vessel is somebody’s property and can’t just be removed with a snap of the fingers. The owner has 21 days to respond to a removal notice before the FWC can authorize the boat’s removal. Once that happens, the county has to get a quote from a salvage company.
But if the removal cost is more than the county can afford, ERM officials will apply for money from grants offered by the FWC and the Florida Inland Navigation District. The application processes for those grants can take several months.
The county each year sets aside $20,000 to $40,000 to remove derelict vessels but tries to leverage that money with state grants.
View from the Lake Worth Bridge of fishermen approaching two boat wrecks in the Snook Islands Natural Area on Aug. 30. (Joe Capozzi)
“We are trying to use as little county dollars as possible, which means going to get these grants, which means things take longer,’’ said Jena McNeal, ERM environmental supervisor.
She said the FWC issued a removal authorization for “Sweet Emotion” on Sept. 1 and the county is in the process of getting a salvage quote.
“I'm going to try to get it off the water as soon as possible,’’ McNeal said. “If the price is something we can afford, then the county will just remove it, because it has sat there a long time and we've had a lot of feedback from neighbors.
"But if we don’t have the money for it, then I'll have to apply for a grant and we’re going to have to wait.’’
(Although the FWC this year started its own derelict vessel removal program, the agency is initially targeting counties with fewer financial resources.)
Once “Sweet Emotion” is removed, the problems around Snook Islands aren’t going away anytime soon.
Joseph Malinowski lives on a derelict boat tied to the Lake Worth Beach docks at Snook Islands (Joe Capozzi)
Joseph Malinowski said he’s been living on his 30-foot Pearson Wanderer sailboat since May when he “bought it from a guy named Dave” for $3,000. He said the boat has been tied to the floating docks for at least a year, does not have a working engine and has other problems preventing him from sailing it.
Malinowski said he is worried that if he pushes off the dock at night, as Palm Beach County sheriff’s deputies want him to, the boat will drift into the bridge or onto the rocks around Snook Islands.
“I ended up going to jail for two nights because of this boat,’’ he said, claiming he has refused several warnings and citations for overnight docking.
“Now they don’t even cite me anymore because they know I’m not going to do anything,’’ he said.
One city commissioner said the issue is complicated — and not just because it involves different agencies, including the city, county, PBSO, the FWC and FIND.
“It’s a sensitive problem because in today’s housing climate it's something people are resorting to, just like sleeping in cars. But at the same time, the environment is so critically important to our community, especially Snook Islands and Lake Worth Lagoon,’’ said City Commissioner Reinaldo Diaz, who has a stake in the issue in his water-quality monitoring role as Lake Worth Waterkeeper.
Lake Worth Beach City Commissioner Reinaldo Diaz leading a kayak tour of Snook Islands in early August (Joe Capozzi)
“Those docks at Snook Islands are not meant to be a long-term stay,’’ he said. “We don't have a pump-out service (for toilets). Without a pump out service you can pretty much imagine where that's all being pumped out to. Something needs to be done and it's unfortunately been a frustrating and complicated issue that has many hands in it, which slows the process.’’
The Snook Islands Natural Area is a 118-acre wetland restoration system, which stretches off the shore of the Lake Worth Municipal Golf Course south to Bryant Park and runs parallel to the city’s golf course.
It cost about $18 million to create, starting around 1998 with another restoration project at Peanut Island. About 1.2 million cubic yards of fill from Peanut Island was ferried in barges to create the chain of islands along the shoreline east of the Lake Worth Beach golf course.
It was an immediate success. Protected oystercatchers started nesting on the islands before the project was completed in 2005. Green sea turtles and West Indian manatee have been observed there.
In 2012, nearly $2 million in public access improvements opened, including the floating docks and a 600-foot boardwalk over the lagoon.
Derelict boats can be viewed from the end of this public boardwalk over the Lake Worth Lagoon (Joe Capozzi)
But if you walk to the end of that boardwalk today, you get a prime view of the three derelict boats, including the one submerged underwater to its roof that sank some time during the last week of August.
Johnson of the Lake Worth Sailing Club said he sympathizes with the plight of homeless people, but he’s worried the problems around Snook Islands will only get worse the longer authorities fail to take action.
Even more frustrating for Johnson is the fact that the Lake Worth Sailing Club proposed six years ago to act as a host at the floating docks by tying the club’s sailboat there and offering lessons and public education.
But he said the plan was rejected by the FIND. “So now we’ve got people living on their boats out there,’’ Johnson said.
Ted Johnson of the Lake Worth Sailing Club of Florida inspects the boat wrecks at Snook Islands on Aug. 30, 2022 (Joe Capozzi)
There’s even more urgency for Lake Worth Beach, Johnson said.
The Riviera Beach Marina, some 15 miles to the north, plans to put in a mooring field to rid itself of the derelict boats that litter the waterway around Blue Heron Bridge and Peanut Island. The theory is that the mooring field would allow responsible boaters to pay rent to anchor in a designated area.
If the mooring field is extended to West Palm Beach, “the only place that derelict boats can go is right here in Lake Worth Beach,’’ he said.
“Due to lax enforcement, we already have a growing community of liveaboards around our day docks at Snook Islands. When the mooring field is completed we'll have a deluge of undesirable boats — right in the middle of an ecologically sensitive area.’’
Lake Worth Beach city staff had no comment, city spokesman Ben Kerr said.
The FWC has not returned an Aug. 31 request for comment.
© 2022ByJoeCapozzi.com All rights reserved.
ByJoeCapozzi.com was honored in the 2022 Society for Professional Journalists’ annual Sunshine State Awards competition. If you enjoyed this story and others, please help support us by making a donation.
About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.