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Abandoned boat leaks fuel near Turtle Beach
A boat sits partially submerged at a dilapidated dock in a slough near Turtle Beach. The boat is leaking fuel into the water, worrying residents and fishermen. - photo by James Burns


• If you have questions about an abandoned watercraft or boating safety, contact the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department’s Boating Safety Unit at (209) 953-3428 or

The running joke among John Geurin’s buddies is that the retired 60-year-old could catch a fish anywhere.

“Even in a toilet,” Geurin chuckled.

Oh, the irony.

The longtime fisherman worries that one of his favorite holes along the San Joaquin River – Walthall Slough near Turtle Beach – could become toxic.

The root of the problem is a partially submerged “Popeye” boat, a name Geurin and his pals have given the vessel because of its likeness to the cartoon ship.

The boat sits at the bottom of the slough, stuck in the mud and muck that makes up the river bed, leaning against a dilapidated dock that once belonged to the late Judd Phillips, according to residents.

Water has rotted out the hull and moves from bow to stern and into open water. The paint is chipping away in spots. Holes have been punched through the wood paneling.

There are remnants of a former life – ropes, chains and a can of lacquer thinner –scattered about a vessel that once had some historical significance. The boat was handcrafted in Monterey and intended for ocean excursions, according to San Joaquin County Sheriff Sgt. Carey Pehl.

Yet somewhere along the way it lost its course, landing at the dock that juts off Lake Avenue shortly after the flood in 1997.

It hasn’t moved since.

“It’s an eyesore, that’s what it is,” said one Lake Avenue resident who has thrown his arms up at the situation. He says he’s been in contact with the Sheriff’s Department, the Department of Fish and Game and the San Joaquin Environmental Health Department about the boat in the last four years.

The condition of the boat has worsened in the last month, worrying residents and fishermen alike. Two weeks ago, the boat began to take on water. Fuel is leaking into the water and an absorbent pad that was placed by one of the agencies has come loose of the docks.

“The boom is useless,” said one resident.

The pungent smell of fuel fills the air around the boat and can be seen on the surface of the water. Its iridescent swirls are heaviest in the stern.

“It can poison everything in here,” Geurin said on Wednesday as we ventured down to the boat, jumping from one dock to the next. “What it doesn’t kill here will run out into the river.”

Geurin has been fishing the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers for four decades. He depends on the river to feed a household of five, including his mother and father, son and daughter.

“I love to eat fish,” Geurin added.

He turns up at Walthall Slough expecting to net Black Bass, Perch and crappie.

So his fear is genuine.

He’s not sure what kind of impact this boat and its fuel supply – however large or small it might be – will have on the fish that populate these waters.

“I haven’t gotten sick,” he said, “but you can smell the diesel.”

Residents says the boat has been docked at this location since 2000, largely unattended and seemingly forgotten.

At this point, it’s unclear who the vessel belongs to. Residents say they first reported the boat to the Sheriff’s Department in 2010.

Pehl acknowledges the community’s effort to rid its waters of this eyesore, but asks for their continued patience.

The Boating Safety Unit patrols 550 miles of waterway in the Central Valley and have removed 150 vessels under their current program.

“Popeye” is one of 13 on their watercraft removal list. However, removing a boat, he says, isn’t like towing a vehicle. The cost and effort is exponentially different. Pehl estimates it would cost $5,000 to 10,000 to remove “Popeye.”

To cover that cost, the Sheriff’s Department has applied for a state grant. Best-case scenario, Pehl, who will contact Fish and Game and the Environmental Health Department about the boom, hopes to pull the boat out of the water in June.

“Be patient,” he said. “It’s coming.”

Until then, the residents and fishermen of Walthall Slough will have to live with the problem, hoping a fixed boom will sponge-up the fuel. Or fund the excavation themselves.

Either way, it’s a “crappie” situation.