City to Sell F/V Windwalker

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

July 16, 2023

The Morro Bay Harbor Department was slated to auction off a local fishing boat after the owner fell behind on slip payments to the department.

Harbor Director Ted Schiafone told Estero Bay News that the F/V Windwalker, a federal registered vessel, was seized by the City last year and is set for auction at 2 p.m. Thursday, July 13 at the Harbor Office.

Windwalker has been sitting at the North T-Pier with stickers on the window of the wheelhouse indicating it had been seized by the U.S. Marshal’s Service.

According to D. N. Jones Documentation Service, Inc.’s website: “A documented vessel is one that is registered by the Federal Government through the U. S. Coast Guard, rather than titled and numbered by a state. Pleasure vessels of 5 net tons and over [26-feet in length and up] may be documented, and commercial vessels 5 net tons and over must be documented.”

That would make most commercial fishing boats Federally Documented vessels, adding a layer of protections — and red tape — to ownership of a vessel. 

That’s because the Coast Guard, which documents all such boats, is supposedly keeping superior records of documented boats versus boats licensed through a State agency like DMV in California.

The benefits of documenting a vessel, according to D.N. Jones include:

• Title Assurance: You have better assurance of title because the U.S. Coast Guard has more stringent chain of title requirements than do most states. Once a vessel is documented, the complete history of the vessel is available on the Abstract of Title.

• Foreign travel: If you sail in foreign waters, your Certificate of Documentation facilitates clearance with foreign governments and gives you the status and protection of a U.S. flag vessel.

• Financing: Most lenders require documentation so that their interest may be secured by a Preferred Ship’s Mortgage recorded by the U.S. Coast Guard.

• Prestige: Many boat owners like the prestige of having their boats documented. Others object to state registration because they do not want to display the numbers on the hull. A major advantage becomes evident when you sell your boat, as ownership and encumbrances are easy to check.

On the other hand, seizing a federally documented vessel for non-payment of local slip fees, as with Windwalker, and selling it to pay the bills, becomes trickier, as the process is laid out in federal law.

Normally, with a boat that isn’t registered by the Federal Government but through an agency like California DMV, all the court proceedings are local. With Federal Documented vessels, it’s done in Federal District Court. The closest Federal Courts to Morro Bay are in Fresno and Los Angeles.

That means going to federal court to provide supporting evidence of non-payment, in order to get an order allowing it to be seized and sold.

The Windwalker was posted for auction on Craig’s List (Post I.D.: 7634705784). 

According to the auction website, Windwalker is a schooner-hulled steel vessel, built in 1984. It’s 64-feet long and 18.5’ wide, and has a steel hull. She’s rigged to fish using traps or pots or troll lines — long lines of baited hooks that trail in the water behind the boat.

From the photos online, she looks to have lived a tough life fishing, and the inside of the cabin, wheelhouse and galley look like someone is living in it, though Schiafone assured EBN that no one lives on it now.

The auction is on an “as-is, where-is,” basis so the harbor department is looking to sell it with all the gear and personal effects too.

She sports a Cat 334 diesel engine, rated at 250-horse power, a John Deere 30-kilowatt generator and two Isuzu back-ups. She also has a mast and sail rigging.

She can pack on 80,000 kilograms in a pair of insulated fish holds; and has a 25-ton Bohn blast freeze. She has a capacity of 4,400 gallons of fuel and carries 600-gallons fresh water.

Windwalker has the normal compliment of electronics — GPS, VHF, SSB, two radars, sounder and autopilot. She has four berths in two staterooms.

There is one requirement that seems to have been put down by the City: “The successful bidder will be required to safely remove the vessel from the City of Morro Bay’s Harbor and jurisdiction within 14 days after the completion of the sale.”

Local commercial fisherman, Jeremiah O’Brien told Estero Bay News that the Windwalker was built by a man named Morgan Davies somewhere up Hwy 41 and its design is good for what it was built to do — fish. “It was built in Morro Bay,” O’Brien said, “It would be an excellent tuna boat or a long liner.”

There are a lot of schooner-hulled boats and a lot have masts, like Windwalker, he added.

The boat’s last owner, John Gillespie, O’Brien explained, fished with the boat for many years but fell ill and got behind on his slip fees.

He cautioned that the boat hasn’t been hauled out in a long time and its worth depends on the condition of its bottom. “The bottom is the key,” O’Brien said. “That would add a lot to repair it.”

He said that he was able to tour the boat after it was seized and while a lot of the electronics are old, there are some parts on it that could be valuable, including a crab block built in Astoria Wash., by famed machinist Warren Junes, of W.L. Junes, L.T.D. “He makes the very best equipment,” O’Brien said. A crab block is the piece of equipment used to haul crab pots off the seafloor. That part might be worth about $10,000.

He said Windwalker has always tied up at the T-piers over the years and hopes someone buys it, though it will cost a great deal of money to bring it back. “I hope that somebody does buy it,” he said. “I hate to see a built in Morro Bay boat go away.”

He added that the requirement that it be removed from the harbor could be a way to make sure someone doesn’t buy it and then move onto it essentially turning it into a relatively inexpensive, floating home. But leaving it in danger of some day springing a leak and sinking, which could cost upwards of $30,000 to demolish and remove it, an expense that could eventually fall on the City.

As to how much it might cost to bring it back, O’Brien didn’t want to give an estimate without a more thorough survey of its condition. But suffice it to say, it would take a lot of money.

This isn’t the first time a federally documented vessel has been seized by the City for non-payment of dockage. Years ago the City went through the same process with regards to the F/V St. Joseph, which had essentially been abandoned at the South T-pier by the owner after a series of unfortunate and tragic mishaps, including the death of a crewman.

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