MILTON — Stepping into his patrol boat from the weathered gray boards alongside the boat ramp at Brown's Fish Camp, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission Officer Robert Ramos pilots the craft in a lazy circle halfway across the Little River.

As he approaches what looks like a large rock, its grayness punctuated by a sharp crease along its top, Ramos idles the boat and makes a short jump to affix a laminated orange sheet to what is actually the upturned hull of an overturned houseboat.

Some days earlier, a storm had flipped over the houseboat and ripped it loose from its nearby mooring. At that moment, under Florida law, the houseboat — Ramos reckons it's a 30-footer — became a derelict vessel. The orange sheet that Ramos attached to the hull notifies the owner that he or she has 45 days to get the boat out of the water.

The story is a fairly typical tale for a derelict vessel and one that is repeated frequently across Florida, Ramos said.

The houseboat had been moored on private property for more than a year, Ramos said, apparently as the owner planned to refurbish it. Often, though, "Things happen, they don't get it done," and the boat is either ignored or forgotten until it sinks, becomes unmoored, or otherwise presents a hazard to safety and navigation, he said.

That's a separate issue from boats that become derelict vessels as a result of storms, Ramos added. When tropical storms or hurricanes rip boats loose from their moorings, the FWC routinely forms a task force to address the large numbers of boats that can become derelict.   

On the Little River, authorities and the boat owner have caught a couple breaks. First, the area where the houseboat sits already is an "idle speed" zone, Ramos said, meaning that boaters are moving slow and can more easily see and avoid the hazard. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, the houseboat is staying in place rather than floating along the Little River and possibly making it into the open water of nearby Blackwater Bay and beyond.

"The theory is there's an old Hummer (an SUV) out here," Ramos said. The best guess, Ramos continued, is that the houseboat, which does move back and forth in the water, is hung up on the SUV, which reportedly catapulted into the river some time ago after running off State Road 89.

The road dead-ends at the water, and according to other local reports, the river may also hold any number of vehicles that ran through the dead-end.

The FWC is working to track down the houseboat's owner. Thus far, Ramos said, the FWC has found someone he is calling "a person of interest" — deliberately stopping short of calling him the boat's owner — who apparently now is working or living overseas.

A definitive determination of ownership will have to wait until the boat's registration number, which should be displayed on the vessel — is uncovered. That could be problematic if long exposure to the elements has erased the number. "Sometimes, those identifiers disappear," Ramos said.

If the owner can't be found within 45 days, the boat then becomes an issue for the FWC and the local county government, which will end up bearing most of the cost to remove it, Ramos said. The FWC can charge owners of derelict vessels with a second-degree misdemeanor, Ramos said. Those misdemeanors carry a penalty of a $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail.

But state attorneys can file other charges with stiffer sanctions, Ramos added. But for the FWC, the bottom line is simple.

"We just can't go around moving other people's boats," he said.