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Battle over a boat: The lawsuit centers on the Harbor Town Belle

Rochester Business Journal
February 21, 2014

The Harbor Town Belle excursion boat could be seized and sold off to pay a local salvage company’s bill for towing the stranded 125-passenger vessel to port last year after its engines cut out.

The Harbor Town Belle, a locally built replica of the paddlewheel steamers that famously plied the Mississippi River a century and a half ago, is operated by Harbor Town River Boat Co. Inc. Since 1998, it has offered catered cruises and special-event charters on the Genesee River, Lake Ontario and Irondequoit Bay.

Starting in June and continuing until sometime in October, the boat embarks from Charlotte on two-hour cruises, setting sail up to three times a day as weather permits.

Jakob Van Reenen filed papers in U.S. District Court last month claiming a right to put a lien on the 80-foot vessel and “all her engines, tackle, apparel, furniture, equipment and all other necessaries.”

Van Reenen runs Rochester Marine Service, a boat towing and salvage firm based in the Port of Rochester.

His rescue last fall of an incapacitated Harbor Town Belle as it was battered by heavy weather and pulled by treacherous currents entitles the salvage firm to collect a $42,500 fee, which the excursion boat’s owner has refused to pay, Van

Reenen maintains in the lawsuit.

A separate motion filed by Van Reenen’s lawyers with the Jan. 8 complaint seeks a warrant for the Harbor Town Belle’s arrest, or seizure, and condemnation of the boat.

The excursion boat’s seizure would be a prelude to a sale of the vessel in a court-supervised auction. The salvage fee is 8.5 percent of the Harbor Town Belle’s estimated value of $500,000, the lawsuit states.

Van Reenen’s claim to have salvaged the Harbor Town Belle—as opposed to simply providing a tow for a few miles to the disabled boat’s home dock—is bogus, asserted the vessel’s owner and operator, Alfred Gilbert, in an interview this week. He looks forward to fighting the salvage claim in court, he said.

Gilbert spent several years building the paddle wheeler before its 1998 launch into the Genesee on a bed of bananas.

Van Reenen’s local attorney, Jerauld Brydges of Harter, Secrest & Emery LLP, declined to comment, deferring to the salvage firm operator’s main counsel, Brandon Wilson of Howard & Howard Attorneys PLLC in Royal Oak, Mich.

Wilson did not respond to a request for comment.

In court papers, Wilson described Van Reenen’s claim as resting on a provision of admiralty law, also known as maritime law, that gives parties who salvage property abandoned at sea or rescue a vessel in distress a right to claim a fee.

Admiralty law is based partly on international law and partly on U.S. legal provisions. Salvage claims brought under the law in which parties did not have a prior agreement are typically settled in court.

Salvagers might claim fees equal to as much as 50 percent of a rescued vessel’s value. The degree of danger a rescuer faces can be a factor in determining how much a rescued vessel’s owner should pay.

Van Reenen’s complaint describes the incident that led to Rochester Marine Service’s towing of the Harbor Town Belle as fraught with peril.

“On October 26, 2013, at approximately 4:42 p.m., Rochester Marine received a distress call on VHF Channel 16 from the vessel after it lost power on the Genesee River inlet. At that time there were gale force winds and strong currents on the Genesee River,” Van Reenen’s court complaint states.

A Rochester Marine Service crew attached a line to the wind-buffeted Harbor Town Belle and pulled it away from a rock jetty moments before it would have been driven aground, the court papers state. Then the crew turned the excursion boat 90 degrees and towed the Harbor Town Belle to its home berth, “all the while facing gale force winds and strong river currents.”

The operation lasted 59 minutes, the complaint states. It began when the rescue boat hove up to the idled paddle wheeler at 4:46 p.m. and ended with the docking of the Harbor Town Belle in Charlotte at 5:45 p.m.

Van Reenen’s version of the events wildly overstates the danger, Gilbert maintained. A more accurate version of the day’s events will come out at trial, he said, declining to elaborate further.

“(Van Reenen) has greatly exaggerated his equipment’s value, the weather conditions at the time … and the condition of the (Harbor Town Belle) upon first contact,” asserts an answer filed this week by Gilbert’s lawyers.

No trial date has been set.

2/21/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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