The Amazing Grace must have been somebody’s dream once. Close to 30 feet long, the sailboat must have been a beautiful sight bobbing on the gentle swells on Lake Pontchartrain or gliding through a bayou or river.
But Wednesday, the dream was but a distant memory as the Amazing Grace sat, bow angled down into the mud on the bottom of the Tchefuncte River.
Half of its hull was covered with green algae; its sail was tattered and wrapped around the boom. Its engine was missing, and most of the cabin was filled with brown water.
Because the river was only about 6 to 8 feet deep where it sank, the mast and stern stuck sideways out of the water, an ugly companion to nearby cypress trees.
The Amazing Grace was an eyesore.
It also was a hazard to boaters and tubers on the river, a fact that made it a target of an innovative cooperative effort between a private foundation and St. Tammany Parish. That effort targets blighted vessels and structures in the river, similar to the way parish and municipal governments deal with blighted structures on land.
The problem of blight in the Tchefuncte — already bad after Hurricane Katrina — only worsened after Gustav and Isaac, and there appeared to be no one who could do anything about it.
The problem, as often is the case, was a lack of money. State officials tried to get FEMA to pay to remove the blight, but FEMA refused, saying it could not be sure that the wrecked boats and camps actually were hurricane-related damage, said Leo Richardson, the marine debris coordinator for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Parish leaders were aware of the problem but didn’t have the money to handle it, according to St. Tammany Parish President Pat Brister.
“This would have had to come out of our general fund,” she said, “and there is a lot of pressure on our general fund.”
Enter Kyle Catalano, president of the Tchefuncte River Foundation. Catalano helped form the foundation in 2010 with the goal of bringing the boating community along the Tchefuncte together to address issues on the river. Like anyone who spent time on the river, he had noticed the dozens of wrecks and dilapidated camps up and down the waterway.
So Catalano decided to look into what could be done. He found that the river is governed by a mishmash of federal, state and local agencies, none of which was equipped or had the funding to remove the wrecks.
So he came up with a plan: The parish could claim the boats on a quit-claim deed — the same way it does with blighted houses — and then the foundation would arrange to have them removed if they weren’t claimed by their owners.
And that’s essentially what happened. The foundation identifies boats or structures that could be a danger to people using the river; it then provides any identifying information to the parish so officials can attempt to track down the owner. If the owner can be found, the parish notifies that person that the structure or boat needs to be improved or removed. If the owner refuses to act or can’t be found, the parish advertises in its official journal for 30 days, and then it takes control of the property and gives the foundation the go-ahead to remove it.
All of the funding for the project comes from the foundation, Brister said. The foundation has contracted with Davie Shoring to get the boats out.
Catalano’s solution has received praise from local officials, including Peter Gitz, the mayor of Madisonville, which sits along the Tchefuncte.
“This has been a boat graveyard since Jean Lafitte” two centuries ago, Gitz said. “It’s a great project.”
Brister said having the Tchefuncte River Foundation take care of the boats was a “wonderful solution.”
The project is unique in the state, GOHSEP’s Richardson said.
“You have a state agency that has been frustrated in its efforts on behalf of the community and ... found it expedient to assist and support a private nonprofit,” he said. “This to my knowledge is the only time this has happened in the state.”
Abandoned and derelict vessels are a problem throughout Louisiana’s 23 coastal parishes, with the highest concentration in the southeast part of the state, including St. Tammany, Richardson said.
Wednesday, it was the Amazing Grace’s turn to leave the river for the last time.
Three men — Chad Pitre, his son Jordy and Justin Anthony — piloted a barge up the Tchefuncte to where the Amazing Grace sat just north of the La. 22 bridge.
Stepping gingerly onto the rear of the sailboat, Anthony wrapped a thick strap around the stern. He looped another strap around the tilting mast and then attached the two straps to a hook hanging from a crane on the barge.
The crane grabbed the boat and pulled it upright. But the bow still was on the bottom of the river, weighted down by all the water inside. So Jordy Pitre handed over a pump, Anthony cranked it, and soon a spray of water was shooting into the river from inside the boat.
A tendril of that long-ago dream returned after the pump had been running for about 20 minutes. Though darkened by algae and grime, the Amazing Grace’s bow resurfaced, and glimpses of what it must have been could be seen. It floated easily atop the water, but the sail was useless, and with no motor, it could not move on its own.
Anthony removed the strap around the mast and put one around the bow.
Then the crane lifted the Amazing Grace like a toy from a bathtub and set it on the deck of the barge, the boat tilting into the crane as the keel touched down.
Chad Pitre backed the barge out and pointed it back downriver, where the Amazing Grace would be offloaded near T-Rivers Bar near the mouth of the Tchefuncte. There, the boat would be broken up, her pieces tossed into different bins for fiberglass and for metal — no longer anyone’s dream but also no longer an eyesore.
So far, about a dozen boats and structures have been removed from the river, Catalano said, with several more to go before summer.
Catalano is just glad he was able to be part of the solution.
“Nobody wanted to take responsibility for the river,” he said. “It just fell to us, or it wasn’t going to get done.”
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.