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Patches of snow still dotted the gravel lot at Brewer Yacht Yard in Mystic, where most of the boats were parked on metal stands and shrouded in shrink wrap on this early March day, as Keith Vandal readied his 21-foot vessel to venture out onto the water.
"It's been warm, so I lucked out today," he said, as he stepped off the dock onto his boat. "Normally in the winter I've had to get the ice out of the hoses first."
Vandal, program manager for Coastal Environmental Services, won't be going far. While most fair-weather boaters haven't been seen for months around the docks, Vandal has stayed busy throughout the winter providing a vital service to about 15 "live-aboards" whose vessels are their full- or part-time homes throughout the winter. They keep their boats at marinas in New London, Groton, Waterford and Gales Ferry on the Thames River and on the Mystic River in Groton, Noank and Stonington. Vandal comes to them with his skills and equipment, requiring no effort on the part of the boat owner other than a few clicks of a mouse.
"Five minutes," said Vandal, as he finished up at Yankee Redneck, a sport fishing boat docked at Seaport Marine and headed a dock away to the next one on his list, Sea Minstrel. "Now how hard was that? The owner doesn't even have to be present."
Vandal operates one of the eight pumpout boats run by Coastal Environmental Services, a Mystic-based nonprofit company, that keeps the waters of local rivers and Long Island Sound clean by offering a free, convenient way for boaters to have their holding tanks emptied and protect the environment and human health. State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection grants of about $250,000 funds the program, and the company raises about $85,000 through donations.
In addition to the services on the Thames and Mystic rivers, Coastal Environmental will also begin operating a pumpout boat in Old Saybrook until May 1. It will also service Connecticut River boaters on the Lyme and Old Lyme side of the river. Boaters request a visit from the pumpout boat by simply going to the company's online sign-up form.
"We have a nifty online system that schedules your pumpout in about a minute," Vandal said, as he steered the boat toward the next vessel, a 15-foot sailboat named Mimosa Morning.
"They're part-time live-aboards," Vandal said of the couple that owns the sailboat.
In addition to the services provided by Coastal Environmental, pumpout boats also operate in East Lyme and Waterford on the Niantic River, run by Save the River/Save the Hills, and on the Stonington and Westerly sides of the Pawcatuck River, run by the town of Westerly. Pumpout boats also service vessels at The Marina at American Wharf in Norwich and Brewer Pilots Point marina in Westbrook.
Kate Brown, coordinator of grants and outreach for DEEP's Office of Long Island Sound Programs, said the pumpout boat program's popularity is evident: about two-thirds of the approximately 900,000 gallons of sewage pumped out of vessels statewide in 2013 was offloaded into treatment systems by pumpout boats. The rest came from land-based systems located at marinas.
"It's very convenient for the boaters," Brown said. "And removing all that highly concentrated waste means a lot of nitrogen and bacteria is not going into Long Island Sound because of this. I think it's making a big difference improving water clarity and fish habitat."
This summer, the network of pumpout boats is being expanded, with vessels being added to service Madison, Clinton, Westbrook, East Haven and Guilford, Brown said. About $750,000 of the total $1.5 million budget for the state's pumpout services goes toward the boat program, paid for through U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service grants and taxes on marine fuel and fishing tackle.
While summer is the peak time for the pumpout services, Vandal said that making them available year-round helps keep people in good habits.
"The more you can get folks on a routine, the higher rate of success you have," he said as he tied up his boat to Mimosa Morning, hooked up the long hose on his vessel's vacuum pump to the opening of the holding tank, and switched on the pump to start its rhythmic thumping. After a few minutes, the process was complete. The pumpout boat's tanks, in turn, would be emptied into the municipal sewer system through a hook-up at Mystic Seaport, Vandal said.
Even though the service is free and easy, there are still boaters who don't make use of it, and discharge their raw sewage overboard - even though it's been illegal since the Clean Vessel Act of 1992. After seeing some discharge in the river this winter, Vandal grew irked and contacted the marinas to urge all their live-aboards to use the pumpout service.
"There was this acrid smell, and you could see it in the water," he said, recalling the incident that prompted him to call the marinas. "Obviously it was coming from one of two places. It's just so silly."
The Coast Guard can impose fines upwards of $1,000 for illegal discharges, and Vandal said he maintains a good relationship with the New London Coast Guard station and local marine patrol officers. But he's not looking to turn in violators.
"We're not here to bust your stones," he said. "We want to be the friendly folks on the water. We'd rather just convert you to the merits of clean boating."