Shipwrecked ‘ghost boat’ looms on SLO County coast. Where did it come from?
Seagulls screeched across a cloudless sky as tourists climbed down the bluffs north of Cayucos to reach one of San Luis Obispo County’s mysteries: a shipwrecked fishing boat.
The sun-bleached vessel leans against the rocky Estero Bay shore, caked with rust and algae. Relentless seaside weather has eroded holes into the ship’s hull, and visitors can hear waves slosh inside the abandoned boat as the tide rolls across the beach.
“It’s an old boat, that’s for sure,” one visitor said with a laugh.
Rumors circulate about how the so-called “ghost boat” came to rest off the coast of Estero Bluffs, with some claiming that its owner fell asleep at the helm while returning home from a fishing trip.
How did fishing boat wreck on SLO County shore?
According to a U.S. Coast Guard incident report, boat owner Jonathan Smith was fishing on July 28, 2017, when his boat drifted too close to the Estero Bay shore.
Smith’s deckhand wasn’t feeling well and “went below deck to rest” — leaving Smith to fend for himself, the incident report said.
At about 3:45 a.m., the boat’s propeller caught on a crab pot line, so Smith stopped the engine to try to untangle the line, the report said.
Fog settled into the bay, partly obscuring Smith’s surroundings as he drifted on the sea, according to the Coast Guard.
He ran aground at about 4:40 a.m. in Estero Bay below the bluffs, the report said.
At high tide, Smith tried to catapult his boat back into the sea with a winch attached to his anchor, which he dropped about 100 yards offshore.
When Smith started his main propeller, “the line was fouled in the propeller and parted,” the Coast Guard said, and the boat drifted another 45 feet towards the shore.
The vessel was officially stuck in the sand.
When the tide receded at about 6:40 p.m., Smith and his deckhand exited the vessel safely, and the Coast Guard declared the boat a total loss.
What would it take to remove fishing vessel?
The ghost boat is beached on land owned by the California State Lands Commission, according to Coast Guard External Affairs Chief Sheri Pemberton.
Removing the vessel would cost about $70,000 — money the State Lands Commission doesn’t have to spare, Pemberton said.
California State Parks runs a program to remove “abandoned and derelict recreational vessels, but there is no program for commercial vessels,” Pemberton wrote in an email to The Tribune.
Smith is ultimately responsible for removing the boat, but being uninsured, he chose to abandon it, Pemberton said.
The Coast Guard extracted petroleum and hazardous waste from the boat in 2017, but residual waste will likely leak into the ocean, she said.
“The vessel’s condition is unknown to commission staff and for that reason, the public should stay off and away from it,” Pemberton said.
What happened to fisherman?
So where is the boat’s owner?
Some community members say Smith is a mechanic in Morro Bay. Others say he still boats on the Central Coast, docking his new vessel in the Morro Bay Harbor.
All agree that he’s committed to his privacy, and only sometimes has a cell phone.
Smith is notoriously ornery, often clashing with local agencies and other anglers, according to the beached boat’s previous owner, Frank Loving.
“John was his own worst enemy,” Loving said.
Loving said it’s “a tragedy” to see a once-productive vessel marooned in the cove.
Washington state resident Joseph Smith visited the ghost boat on April 30.
As a boater, he wasn’t thrilled about the idea of a shipwreck.
“It’s horrific, the idea of a boat going ashore,” he said. “We try to be cautious on the ocean.”
In the meantime, the story of his shipwreck echoes across the Central Coast — drawing adventure-seekers to Estero Bay to examine the wreck.
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