Friends Group Raising $100K for New Patrol Boat

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.

October 9, 2020

The Friends of the Morro Bay Harbor Department is trying to raise $100,000 to assist the Morro Bay Harbor Department in purchasing and repowering this patrol boat owned by the Port San Luis Harbor District in Avila Beach. Submitted photo

Friends of the Morro Bay Harbor Department is raising money to help the City purchase a used patrol boat from Port San Luis, and they’re off to a good start but have quite a ways to go.

The Harbor Patrol currently has three patrol boats but one is nearly 40-years old and, while it’s been a workhorse, it’s literally falling apart and long past due to be replaced.

The department would like to pare down it’s 3-boat fleet to two boats, said Chief Harbor Patrol Officer Becka Kelly. They want to have two, diesel-powered boats, each with a fire-fighting water canon. 

The oldest boat was built in 1984 and has been in on countless rescue missions over the years. “We love that boat,” Kelly said. “It just needs to be retired.”

The biggest issue with that gas-powered boat is the structural integrity, specifically a hole in the fiberglass hull that was repaired once, but tore off in the midst of an emergency call, while running full throttle to Montaña de Oro.

The two patrolmen onboard realized something was wrong when the boat started taking on water. The patch had de-laminated and the boat hasn’t been in use now for a couple of years.

“The integrity of the boat for emergencies isn’t there,” Kelly said. “We want to sell it. It would be a fine recreational or fishing boat. We never intended to keep it this long.”

Their middle boat, built in the early 1990s by Harold Davis of Davis Boats, is a single engine, gas powered but no longer meets their needs. “It’s 22-foot and a great little bay boat, but for emergency work,” Kelly said, “it doesn’t fit our needs for a multi-faceted job.”

Boats Are Expensive

The newest boat in the fleet, a 2013 Radoncraft built by Don Radon of Santa Barbara, is what they need — twin diesel engines with a water canon and advanced electronics for search and rescues at night or in rough seas — and was built to their specs.

It also cost some $450,000, which the department simply doesn’t have now to buy another one.

“We can’t just go back and do that again,” Kelly said of their most recent big capital outlay. They will be keeping that boat and they plan to sell at public auction the other two boats but don’t expect to get much for them.

The last patrol boat they auctioned brought just $10,000 and Kelly said she’s been working with City Hall on how an auction might take place, considering the restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic response and the shelter-at-home orders.

An online auction is a possibility but most potential boat buyers want to “kick the tires” figuratively speaking.

Kelly said the oldest boat has been trailered and is currently sitting in storage. It’s been cleaned up and is ready for sale, once they get the go-ahead, anticipated to be before the end of the year.

State Grant Sought

The department is asking for an $85,000 grant from the State Department of Boating and Waterways, the agency funded by special gas taxes on marine fuels, to buy the PSL boat (plus $2,000 for a boat trailer).

DBW has helped the City with numerous projects, including new patrol boats and replacing the floating docks by the launch ramp, among others.

Bill Luffee, president of the Friends of the Harbor Department, a non-profit group that raises money to supplement the harbor department’s needs, is heading up the fund-raising efforts. 

The Friends have paid for numerous equipment needs — communications equipment for jet ski operators; a new rescue sled; repairing and replacing beach lifeguard towers; buying a beach wheelchair for the handicapped; replacing the floats on the sea lion dock and installed free binoculars on the street end pier by the Hofbrau; and replacing a solar powered emergency phone on the Sandspit that hadn’t worked for two years.

Luffee said their goal is to raise $100,000 to help with repowering of the PSL patrol boat. In the past, they’ve done things like organizing marine swap meets and drive-in movies at Morro Rock, but with the Coronavirus restrictions, they can’t hold any types of public events to raise money.

Money Woes Plague Harbor

With the virus lockdowns, the City deferred rent payments to the harbor department from tidelands leases, punching a big hole in the budget that is slowly refilling, as tenants catch up with rent payments.

Kelly said much of the department’s money woes originated with the loss of payments from the power plant’s outfall lease, some $250,000 a year. “That used to fund a lot,” she said. Those payments, which included a minimum of $500,000 a year to City Hall (more if the plant ran a lot), ended shortly after plant owner, Dynegy, closed it for good it in 2014.

Luffee, who is a past chairman of the Harbor Advisory Board and a driving force in forming the Friends group, said a lot of harbor maintenance needs have been put off due to tight budgets, for example a bayside parking lot behind the Inn at Morro Bay is literally falling into the bay. 

“The bay is the lifeblood of the city,” Luffee said.

PSL Boat Needs Engines

Kelly explained that the PSL boat, which is an inboard twin, diesel powered Radon built in 2002 and equipped with a water canon, needs both engines replaced, which is where the $100,000 comes in. 

That’s how much it will cost to replace the engines and to install a separate motor for the water canon. 

Right now, the canon runs on a “power take off” or PTO system connected to the engines, so to use the canon, the boat has to be in neutral, which causes the boat to drift with the force of the water spray, making it difficult to keep the stream on point.

“You can’t drive the boat and shoot water at the same time,” Kelly said. 

The boat has been inspected by a marine surveyor and a diesel mechanic and is in pretty good shape, but does need new engines, which they estimated could run $110,000. 

They will complete the purchase once the DBW grant is finalized, which Kelly said should be by the end of the year. The engine work will take a couple of months, so they anticipate it hitting the water in Spring 2021, placing a sense of urgency on the Friends’ fundraising efforts. 

They will also probably paint it, as currently it is red and white and Morro Bay’s colors are blue.

Harbor Patrol Has Been Busy

For the Harbor Patrol, the coronavirus pandemic started out slow, as the team worked out ways to enforce the many restrictions that were initially laid down, including restrictions on fishing that caused the launch ramp to be closed early on.

Then it was opened to allow only SLO County residents to launch boats, a move intended to emphasize social distancing and the shelter-at-home orders. 

It was reopened to all shortly after rockfish and salmon seasons opened in April. And now, with the state mostly reopened, they are super busy. 

Kelly explained that people were cooped up for so long that when it started to ease, they had a rush of people going boating, fishing and kayaking and paddle boarding.

“People have been purchasing a lot of equipment,” she explained, “because that was something they could go out and do.”

Fundraising Already Begun

The Friends group started fundraising with appeals going out on social media, which Travis Ford of Rock Harbor Marketing is handling as the IT guru for the Friends group since it started. They raised some $10,000 with that first effort, said Luffee.

According to a news release, “Morro Bay Harbor Department’s jurisdiction is comprised of some of the most notoriously rough waters in California, with 150 days per year of small craft advisory conditions, and an average of 30 days per year of hazardous harbor entrance conditions. 

“The harbor department also aids neighboring communities reaching approximately 100 square miles.”

If readers would like more information or to donate to the cause, see: or call the Harbor Department at (805) 395-0619. Donations are tax deductible and donations of $50 or more gets a Friends T-shirt and water bottle.

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