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Waist deep in the big muddy: Vietnam-era landing craft hauling Brooklyn shipwrecks

Heavy duty: Custom Marine was selected for the $2 million parks contract to clean waterways throughout the five boroughs of wrecked ships in large part due to the Vietnam War-era landing craft it utilizes in its salvage work.
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They’ve declared war on Brooklyn’s ghost ships.

Officials are using a Vietnam War-era landing craft to remove more than 30 dangerous shipwrecks from the waters around Gerritsen Beach and Marine Park more than three years after Hurricane Sandy deposited them there. The sunken boats risk leaking fuel and polluting Shell Bank Creek, but they also pose an immediate risk for pleasure-seekers, according to York Bergin-Pugh, a Parks Department dock master who is supervising the salvage operation.

“Not only are the boats and the debris we remove eye sores, but, for the boating public, anything that’s submerged or part submerged is a huge hazard,” said Bergin-Pugh. “The last thing you want on your day out with the family is to hit a boat, start taking on water, and have a real safety issue on your hands.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are financing the project, and contractors Custom Marine have already removed 14 of 35 Sandy-scuttled schooners, according to Nate Grove, the Parks Department’s senior marina manager.

Custom Marine won the $2 million contract through a competitive bid, in part thanks to the company’s Vietnam War-era landing craft, which touts an extremely shallow draft and allows it to operate in waters where other boats would run aground, Bergin-Pugh said.

The veteran vessel, which is fitted with crane, drags wrecks up from the briny depths and drops them on a barge moored opposite Tamaqua Marina — Custom Marine’s base of operations for the project. The barge takes the scrap to New Jersey for processing, Burgin-Pugh explained.

Work at Shell Bank Creek will likely continue through the end of January — then Custom Marine and parks supervisors will head over to Mill Basin to remove another four or five boats, officials said.

Waterways throughout the Five Boroughs have been polluted with wreckage and debris for years before Sandy. City, state, and federal groups partnered to remove dozens of ships from the Brooklyn-adjacent sections of Jamaica Bay in 2008.

But workers didn’t haul all the hulls that had accumulated off Southern Brooklyn’s coast back in the late aughts, and Councilman Alan Maisel (D–Gerritsen Beach) said he’s been lobbying the city to clean up scuttled boats since before Sandy.

Even the ongoing disaster cleanup won’t capture all the capsized ketch’s, but it’s a start, Maisel said.

“It’s a drop in the bucket, but at least the bucket starts getting filled in my district,” the councilman said. “I’m being parochial, but there are so many places throughout Brooklyn where there are sunken boats.”

Reach reporter Colin Mixson at cmixson@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-4505.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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