After years of planning, a long-time item on the city’s checklist was accomplished Thursday evening with the sinking of the P/V Wild Alaskan 75 miles southeast of Kodiak.
Deputy City Manager Josie Bahnke made the announcement at a city council work session Thursday night. The vessel had been placed into the water at the city docks in St. Herman Harbor on Near Island Wednesday and subsequently hooked up to Resolve Marine’s tug Makushin Bay.
The Makushin Bay set sail around 6 a.m. on Thursday and pulled the former crabbing vessel-turned-floating-strip-club into open waters. It was reported completely scuttled by 9 p.m. that night.
“This has been a long time coming with a lot of preparation,” Bahnke said. The city had to coordinate with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The city Harbormaster’s Office had to coordinate with regulatory agencies to remove all hazardous materials and debris from the ship’s hull prior to sinking it in U.S. waters.
“We are pleased the vessel has been safely and responsibly removed from the community and city of Kodiak,” Bahnke said.
Bahnke had previously told the Kodiak Daily Mirror that the vessel would be scuttled by opening the sea valve chambers in its hold to allow seawater to enter.
In a written statement provided by the city, Harbormaster Michael Sarnowski noted the importance of the derelict ship’s removal.
“This has been a long time coming and we appreciate the coordination and cooperation between all federal and state agencies involved during the approval process for scuttling the Wild Alaskan,” Sarnowski said. “Removing derelict vessels is a lot of work that requires a great deal of human and financial resources.”
In the statement, City Manager Mike Tvenge commended harbor staff for the effort.
“I am very proud of the successful mission. Special thanks to Harbormaster Sarnowski, Deputy Harbormaster Monte Anderson and harbor staff for their accomplishment with the preparation and determination they put into this saga of the Wild Alaskan,” Tvenge said.
Darren Byler, who owned the ship and operated the floating casino from June to November 2014, said on Friday he had not been informed of the action.
“This whole thing is sickening,” Byler said by phone. “I was not treated equally at all.”
Byler said the scuttling of the Wild Alaskan was just another chapter in what he claims was the city’s bullying and harassment for the nature of the former business and that “they shot me down and cut my legs from beneath me.”
“No one in the city could handle people going out to look at beautiful, naked women,” he said.
A written statement followed Sunday, in which Byler said the sinking of the vessel was truly “shameful.”
“This outcome of my 7 year fight with the City was nothing more than political bullying by the overzealous, narcissistic City Officials that still had an ax to grind over my entertainment charter of 2014 and 2017,” Byler said in the statement.
“No matter which side of the fence you are on regarding your approval or disapproval of the past entertainment charter, I think it is safe to say that no boat owner and tax paying citizen of Kodiak would want to be singled out, harassed and illegally targeted, put out of business and have their vessel stolen from them and destroyed as has happened to me and my family.”
The 124-foot crabbing vessel has had a contentious history dating back to June 2014 when it was converted into a strip club by owners Darren Byler and Kimberly Riedel-Byler.
The Wild Alaskan first opened in June 2014 as a charter adult entertainment venue after it anchored outside the city of Kodiak harbor. The Mirror reported that Byler, a long-time Kodiak resident and former crabber, had purchased the vessel for $100,000.
The Wild Alaskan was set up as a charter business, charging $20 an hour for each hour spent on the vessel. Additional fees were set up for private dance shows. Capacity was limited to 12 customers and 12 employees.
Within a few days of opening, the business was briefly shut down by the U.S. Coast Guard after receiving reports that the water taxis carrying customers to and from the ship were overcrowded. Byler disputed the reports at the time, as well as rumors that a taxi captain was drinking.
The club reopened a few days later.
The Wild Alaskan hit another snag in December 2014 when the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board suspended the charter’s liquor license. Byler at the time said he would appeal the ABC ruling.
In March 2015, the Bylers were indicted by a grand jury on three counts of illegally discharging human waste in the waters around Kodiak, violating the Refuse Act and lying to federal authorities about it. The charges included allegations that some of the ship’s toilet facilities were dumping raw human waste directly into the water.
The owners disputed the charge, claiming the grand jury was provided false information prior to the indictments being issued.
Byler was convicted of the charges in December 2015 in the U.S. District of Alaska Court. Riedel-Byler was found not guilty of the same charges.
In January 2017, U.S. Superior Court Judge Sharon L. Gleason sentenced Byler to five years’ probation and a $10,000 fine to be paid out over five years. Federal prosecutors had requested an 18-month prison sentence.
Between conviction and sentencing, Byler requested a new trial.
The ship continued to generate concern and controversy when the city of Kodiak seized the vessel Dec. 20, 2017 on the grounds that it had become a port hazard.
Byler had told the Mirror in a January 2018 statement that on Nov. 4, 2017, he had notified the Harbormaster’s Office he was entering the harbor and needed a transient slip. Byler also said that he received no responses until later that evening when the harbormaster told him to leave the harbor.
Byler claimed that his anchor line had broken, the ship had no fuel, the fuel station was closed and he had air in the steering line, and that it was unreasonable to be denied safe harbor during high winds.
Byler said in his statement that he had offered to pay moorage fees and offer proof of insurance on Nov. 6, 2017, when the Harbormaster’s Office reopened, but was not accepted. Byler claimed that the harbormaster and Kodiak police officers boarded and searched the vessel’s interior on Dec. 13, 2017.
A Dec. 18, 2017, email from then-harbormaster Lon White — provided in a packet of materials by Byler — indicated that the city requested Byler to pay a $10,297 moorage fee, provide proof of insurance and relocate the vessel to a new spot because it was illegally moored.
The city’s harbor code allows the harbormaster and other city officials to board a vessel “for the purpose of enforcing municipal ordinances.” Byler claimed it was an illegal action because he never signed a moorage slip. He also claimed that he owed $33,000 in moorage and impound fees.
The ship was hauled out of the water Dec. 20, 2017 and placed in the ship’s boat yard. Byler on Friday said this ruined a deal he had to sell the ship to another owner with the intent of eventually towing it to Seward.
In a January 2018 hearing, a hearing officer rejected Byler’s complaints and ruled the city’s reasons for impounding the Wild Alaskan were just. Tvenge, the city manager, said at the time that the hearing officer found “the harbormaster had probable cause to impound the vessel based on nine different grounds.”
Byler at the time claimed his ship was not a derelict.
However, the Mirror reported on a letter of opinion dated Jan. 8, 2018, from Alaska Marine Surveyors, which assessed whether the vessel was a “port risk.”
The letter said the vessel’s hull had wasted away due to a lack of primer or bottom coatings, causing some flooding to the inner compartments and engine room space.
The letter said, “The vessel hull is not sound in its present condition, to remain afloat. … The condition of the hull bottom and waterline shell plate, with known deterioration, results in high risk to the owner and the City of Kodiak to moor the vessel afloat in her current condition.”
The city attempted to sell the ship later in 2018 but found it difficult to find a new owner because of its aged condition and deterioration. It sat in the boat yard for the next few years until it was scuttled on Thursday.
Byler claimed in his written statement Sunday that the ship had hundreds of thousands of new investments prior to it being seized in 2017, as well as “a new building and family heirlooms that can never be replaced.”
“City Officials stole this equipment by keeping it themselves, selling it or destroying it,” Byler said. “When I asked for my personal property back the Harbormaster officials refused to tell me what happened to it.”