What began in January as one man's whim to buy a 150-gross-ton tugboat for $8,000 is poised to end with a combination of taxpayer-funded agencies footing the six-figure bill to haul the 81-foot Tilly out of water off Key West, where it sank and remains.
Stephen Freer, 66, said his goal was to start a "marine cooperative" and take the Tilly to Cuba — he had never owned or operated any sort of boat —to escape the "evil empire driven by greed and arrogance" in the United States.
Freer bought the boat off craigslist, then had it towed into the new Stock Island Village Marina, where he had reserved a slip for February, on Jan. 25.
Marina managers started a formal eviction on Jan. 28, the day of the marina's grand opening. On Feb. 21, marina staff towed theTilly out of the harbor, at which point the stories diverge.
"I understood we were going to the mooring field" off Fleming Key, Freer said, "but instead, he just dumped me in the channel" about two miles off Fort Zachary Taylor State Park.
"That was my first time on the water," he said.
By Feb. 23, the Tilly was sitting on the ocean bottom in about 35 feet of water, with some of its superstructure exposed.
Marina spokesman Robin Smith-Martin said "we were trying to help him out. Our guys asked, 'Do you want us to help you get the boat out of here' and he said yes. They towed him out somewhere west of the ship's channel and he set his anchor. They asked him if he wanted a ride back to shore and he said no."
Smith-Martin said the eviction is based on marina policy.
"Our policy is that you have to come in under your own power. He told us it was a motor yacht. During our grand-opening party, he made some signs asking people for money. He was subletting out some space to homeless people and that's in violation. It was kind of a nightmare."
"The Tilly didn't fit in with their rich, white color scheme," Freer said of the marina, adding that he sees two options: The marina can recover and repair his boat or he'll "take them to school with a media blitz."
U.S. Coast Guard Sector Key West spokesman Peter Bermont said the base got a report Feb. 21 that the Tilly "was dragging anchor." On Feb. 23, the Coast Guard "received a report from a mariner that they nearly [collided] with the Tilly because it was not displaying proper navigation lights."
That prompted sector commander Capt. Al Young to issue what's called a "captain of the port order" directing Freer to "ensure that your vessel is safely anchored outside the main ship channel and maintains proper navigation lights" according to federal law.
The Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation Team has installed a red buoy with blinking lights on the wreck.
An assessment team with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary snorkeled the Tilly Monday, according to sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton.
"We want it out of there," Morton said. "It looks like it is dripping out a little bit of oil. Most fuel and oil was removed prior to it sinking but I think you're always going to have a little bit of something."
The next step is for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to officially declare the vessel derelict, a process that's already under way, Morton said.
From there, the "FWC will work with us, the Coast Guard and Monroe County on a salvage plan."
Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent said this is an example of the county's reactive rather than proactive monitoring of derelict boats, on which the county spends around $250,000 per year removing from local waters.
"I think that any time you can manage a situation and it's not to interfere with anyone's right to public boating, it's just a matter of enforcing existing rules and regulations."
"Now we've got a vessel on the bottom of the ocean that needs to be removed. I have a severe problem with spending public money on this," he said.
He said he'd put a discussion item on the County Commission agenda for its March 19 meeting at the Marathon Government Center.
Morton and Neugent agreed the recovery cost would be several hundred thousand dollars. Neugent said he's consulting with county legal staff on any potential liability as it applies to Freer or the marina.
Bermont summed up the Coast Guard position: "A vessel on the water, whether it's floating or submerged, is the responsibility of the owner."
Freer said he's a "victim of this rotten, evil money system. I'm ready to give up on this evil empire and go down to Cuba where they still appreciate old machinery."