In reality, there are two closely related problems. A truly derelict vessel is an abandoned one. It might be abandoned while riding at anchor, or it may be sunk or perhaps run aground in shallow waters or on shore. Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of hurricanes, the population of DVs soars. A quasi-derelict vessel fits the same description except that there are people living on board.
Both kinds of DVs can constitute visual blight. They can be just as ugly and just as objectionable as junk cars abandoned along the roads. Property owners who see DVs every time they look our their expensive windows, are especially incised. On the other hand, there are few waterfronts in the whole world that don't have some DVs and many people consider them picturesque. Remember though, that the skeletons of wrecked pirate ships will rot and disintegrate with time. Plastic hulls will not.
Quasi-DVs with people on board have the further problem of having toilets that must eventually drain their waste directly in to the water, unless they arrange for some kind of pump-out. Cruisers do use pump-outs. Even though studies show that the actual pollution caused by DVs is a negligibly small fraction of total water pollution, they make a highly visible and irritating source that elevates their true negative impact.
Florida and other states are finding it very difficult to pass laws to get rid of DVs. Making a written legal definition of DV is hard. Making laws that are easy and inexpensive to enforce is hard. Especially difficult is the problem of making a law that draws a clear line defining the difference between undesirable quasi-DVs, desirable cruisers like us, and the continuum of intermediate cases. Existing laws about abandoned vessels, and illegal discharge of waste don’t work well in practice for whatever reason.
Rather than fix those laws, frustrated DV opponents are trying a different and tangential approach -- they are trying to restrict anchoring for everybody. Basically, they hope to use the number of days at anchor to define the difference between DVs and cruisers. Of course, all cruisers and desirable cruisers are up in arms in opposition.
To be fair, remember that cruisers start from a pretty privileged point. Imagine someone being allowed to park a car on the side of the road and to live there rent free and tax free for years. The boating tradition differs greatly from land traditions. Nevertheless, no matter how unfairly rights are distributed, they need to be defended.
The current DV controversy is a good illustration of the atrocious way we go about making laws in our American Democracy. For example, economic stimulus bill passed last week was 1200 pages long, and legislators had only from midnight to 10AM to read it. The result was that nobody knew what they were voting for but this week it is the law of the land. Worse, when we make bad laws, we don’t go back to correct them; rather we tend to pass new laws with a different approach. Over the long term, our law books become encrusted with bad laws like barnacles on the hulls of those DVs. Our system sucks. By the way, I first became libertarian because of exactly this disgust with the efficacy of our government.
We were exposed to a somewhat different system when we lived in Sweden. There the authorities have much more discretion (At least in some cases they do, in other cases they’re just the opposite). I’m thinking of an example in their welfare system. There, a poor person who wants a new sofa can go to the authorities and ask for the money to buy one. There is no written rule about sofas. The applicant has to convince the authority and the authority has to apply his or her best judgment. We abhor that in the USA. We proudly say, “We are a country of laws,” meaning that the laws and regulations must be in written form, leaving little room for discretion. We want a rule defning when a person is entitled to a sofa, and then the applicant can go to the authority and demand one rather than beg for one.
In pop culture, we do the same. Think of the Sheriff in the book and movie Rambo, First Blood. The local sheriff used his discretion and judgment to decide that war hero Rambo was an undesirable. The audience was led to think of the Sheriff as a villain who abused his power. We hate it when authorities act arbitrarily, and we consider exercise of judgment without explanation arbitrary. So which is the cause and which is the effect. Does popular culture shape public opinion, or visa versa? I don’t know.
In the context of DVs, I can say that the rational solution to the problem would be to give the officials the authority to say, “I know a DV when I see one,” and to act with authority on that judgment. We won’t do that though. We’re too afraid of petty tyrants abusing that power. In Sweden, they do not expect abuse or incompetence in government, and in most cases they get what they expect.
The whole point of this blog post is: one would think that since we depend so much on written laws, that we would be much more careful in forrmulating them; yet we aren't.