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After ‘disaster’ shipwreck, a massive beach cleanup

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

The fate of the 76-foot pleasure boat couldn’t have been worse, first running aground after taking on water, then succumbing in a storm, its structure breaking like kindling.

In a Saturday, April 22, 2017 photo, a portion of the hull of The Tica, a Traverse City-based vessel, is visible along the shoreline as debris from the ship, which broke up after it was grounded April 15 when it began taking on water. Authorities have closed the beach of Ludington State Park after the grounded, stranded pleasure boat broke apart just offshore. (Patti Klevorn/Ludington Daily News via AP)

Since the storm ravaged the boat, wreckage has washed up on the shores of Ludington State Park, with hundreds of hours of cleanup by state employees and volunteers, and a tab that’s still running weeks later and may continue for months in an unusual spectacle of piles of wood and other debris on the public beach.

“It’s a disaster along the shoreline,” says Jim Gallie, manager of the park for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

About 9 a.m. April 15, the boat, Tica, took on water and its owner ran it aground onto a sandbar north of Big Sable Point lighthouse, officials say.

The Coast Guard, with a crew patrolling in the area, arrived about 20 minutes later and rescued its operator, who was traveling from Pentwater to Traverse City. The boat was listing about 15 degrees by the time the operator was rescued.

“A commercial salvage company is planning to place boom around the vessel Sunday and position a barge with a vacuum pump to remove all of the fuel and oil from the vessel,” read a Coast Guard statement published the day of the crash.

Less than a week later, on April 21, a major storm hit. Its wind and waves outmatched the Tica, forcing its “superstructure” to break, scattering debris along the shoreline, with more washing up onto the beach at Ludington State Park each hour.

Since then, debris has washed up; visitors at one point would find a huge part of the stern, with the words “Traverse City” peeking like pieces from some long lost shipwreck from its burial in the sand.

Caden Schmutzler and Ben Miller of Manistee, standing center, are among volunteers clearing debris from Ludington State Park beach.

Ludington State Park sits on 5,300 acres between Lake Michigan to the east and inland Hamlin Lake. It has miles of shoreline along both bodies of water, its website says; the damage is on the Lake Michigan side of the water.

The Coast Guard removed “70 gallons of oily water from the starboard tank,” it said in a statement. There was no fuel left to recover.

Two weeks after the initial crash, the cleanup effort is ongoing, said Gallie.

Asked if cleanup costs had reached hundreds of thousands of dollars, Gallie said, “It’s getting there,” but declined to be more specific, acknowledging only that they hadn’t reached $1 million.

“That’s an area I’m not involved in,” Gallie said. “Right now I’m just focused on the cleanup.”

Park visitors, which typically number between 800,000 and 850,000 annually, are officially barred from using the beach, though Gallie admits “it’s very hard to keep people out.”

Gallie and park officials are urging visitors to “use caution” during the massive cleanup.

“A lot of screws and bolts are buried in the sand,” Gallie said. “A lot of metal is buried.”

More than 100 hours of staff time and “a couple hundred” hours of volunteer time have gone into the effort. Somewhere between “70 and 90 cubic yards” of debris have already been removed, Gallie said, and the beach will need to be raked to remove what’s buried under the surface.

“But that doesn’t count anything that’s in the water right now,” he said.

A message on the Ludington State Park’s website warns visitors: “The beach is currently closed due to a salvage operation. Debris is washing ashore, and our crews are working to quickly remove it from the area. We’ll let visitors know as soon as it is safe to reopen the beach area.”

Heavy machinery was busy for most of the morning on Thursday to clean up remaining debris from the recent shipwreck of an old yacht that broke apart along the shores of Lake Michigan just north of the Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington State Park. Date shot: 4/27/17

None of the state or federal officials reached could confirm the status of contacts between authorities and the owner of the ship, or the owner’s identity. Cleanup continues, at the hands of state employees and volunteers who enjoy the park, and it might take months, Gallie said.

DNR spokesman Ed Golder said the state is “closely tracking costs,” but also did not have a tally immediately available. Legal and administrative remedies are possible if an agreement with the owner of the Tica can’t be reached, he said.

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Christopher Romero, who serves at the Coast Guard station in Ludington, advised boaters to “be mindful of the weather: Know your environment, know what’s coming before you go out onto the water, know your vessel, and know what it’s capable of.”

jdickson@detroitnews.com