By Tom Shevlin
NEWPORT – By all accounts, the sailing vessel Cha Cha is an enviable craft.
Seaworthy, boasting a steel hull, enclosed cockpit, and radar mount, she's been anchored off King Park for the better part of eight months. At 52-feet, she's easily capable of making the trek down to Bermuda, the Caribbean, or even further. And research into her past suggests she had done just that – several times, in fact.
But Newport could very well be her final destination.
As Harbormaster Tim Mills notes, Cha Cha has been abandoned since early last fall. She's racked up thousands of dollars in fines; and her skipper appears to have jumped ship.
Now, proceedings are underway to determine how the city should go about dealing with the distressed cutter before the summer sets in.
However, as Mills has discovered, uncertainty and Cha Cha seem to go hand-in-hand.
Last skippered by Richard Littauer, the vessel arrived in Newport some time in September 2011 flying a foreign flag. She dropped anchor in the federal anchorage just off King Park – a popular spot for live-aboards and seasonal cruisers – and she's been there ever since.
But soon after she arrived, it became clear that she wasn't being tended to.
Nor was the captain responding to Mills.
That proved cause for concern, as under city ordinance, any vessel deemed derelict or abandoned may be subject to removal by the harbormaster.
After multiple attempts failed to illicit a response from Cha Cha's skipper, Mills began issuing him tickets to the tune of $300 a day. Those fines, which totaled some $65,000, have now at least doubled.
Should Littauer fail to respond, Mills could very well claim the vessel for the city, haul it out, and either scrap or auction it off. He's done the same for several other boats in the past – albeit none nearly as large or as potentially valuable as Cha Cha.
According to several reports posted online, Cha Cha has not been blessed with much good luck.
As the blog Wavetrain recounts in a 2009 article, in November of that year, Cha Cha had been en rout to Bermuda from Newport when she was caught up in a squall. By the time the winds died down, her engines had given out, her sails were disabled, and Littauer was knocked unconscious.
After a few days listless at sea, she was towed into port by a pair of passing yachts.
After undergoing repairs, Cha Cha would again make port for Newport, where she's remained a familiar visitor over the last few years. However, according to Mills, the cost of upkeep for a boat her size may have simply been too much for the owner.
After receiving permission from the Coast Guard, Mills boarded the ghost ship for the first time earlier this month.
"It was in surprisingly good condition," he said. "It looked like you'd expect it would if you had someone living aboard."
Still, with several new arrivals making their way into port over the last few days, he noted that Cha Cha could still prove to be a hazard to the harbor.
Last month, Mills appeared before Judge J. Russell Jackson in Newport Municipal Court hoping to secure permission to push forward with reclamation.
As Mills reported, he's still waiting on several key pieces of information from the U.S. State Department and Coast Guard to determine the origin of the craft and what further steps need to be taken before the city can dispose of the vessel.
Stopping short of giving the city the authority to claim the vessel, Jackson granted Mills permission to relocate it to a more secure location.
As Jackson noted, claiming the vessel outright would represent "a significant taking."
"I want to make sure that all avenues have been exhausted," he told Mills.
In the meantime, the city is hoping to hear back from federal authorities within the next few weeks.
The matter is set to appear again on the court's calendar June 4.
Efforts to contact Cpt. Littauer proved unsuccessful for this article.