A federal lawsuit filed over an unpaid bill has led to the sale of a legendary U.S. Coast Guard Cutter (USCGC), which will be auctioned off on the steps of Mobile’s federal courthouse Dec. 4.
In 1957, the USCGC Bramble was one of three ships to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage — a dangerous trek from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific by way of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago — making it one of the first U.S. surface ships to circumnavigate the North American continent.
The Bramble continued to serve the Coast Guard on other assignments and was used as an icebreaker on the Great Lakes until it was decommissioned in 2003 and became the property of the Great Lakes Maritime Center in Port Huron, Michigan. It was eventually closed to the public in 2011 due to a lack of funding.
Initially, a businessman from the area purchased the 70-year-old ship to keep it open to the public, but it was eventually sold again in 2018 to Tom Clarke, an entrepreneur from Virginia, who purchased the vessel in hopes of restoring it and retracing its historic journey through the Northwest Passage.
Clarke is also the chief executive officer and co-owner of Epic Companies LLC, a subsidiary of which purchased BAE Systems’ shipyard in Mobile after it closed down last summer. This spring, the Bramble sailed from Lake Huron to Epic’s shipyard in Mobile — a 3,000-mile journey on the St. Lawrence River through Canada and around the entire Atlantic Coast.
However, that’s about the time trouble started occurring for Epic Companies, which has been tied up in bankruptcy proceedings in Houston for months. The company Clarke established to deal with his maritime pasion project — Bramble Historic Epic Companies (BHEC) — has also been hit with lawsuits from multiple companies claiming they were never compensated for work related to the vessel.
One of those companies, Inchcape Shipping Services Inc. — a Canadian-owned company with a branch in Mobile — claims in a federal proceeding filed earlier this year it was never paid for $178,000 of work performed for BHEC. Under federal maritime law, a company with a lien on an active vessel can take legal action to have the ship “arrested” — meaning it can’t be moved or traded until the debt is resolved.
Attorney John Kavanagh Jr. has represented Inchcape through its claim against the Bramble, which culminated earlier this month when a judge ordered U.S. Marshals to arrest the ship on the Mobile River.
“This isn’t something you undertake lightly, but there was enough money involved, in my client’s opinion, to proceed this way. Usually what happens in these cases is the owner or an insurance company will post a security to have the vessel released,” Kavanagh said. “[The owner] was refurbishing this to recreate the passage and had done a lot of work on it. Everybody was surprised he sort of walked away.”
The return voyage to the Northwest Passage the Bramble was preparing for was also being chronicled by a documentary film crew, which had previously released footage of its trek to Mobile as well as interviews with former crew members and with Clarke himself. It’s unclear who was funding the “Bramble Reborn” project, as messages to some of those involved have yet to receive a response.
However, a blog post from the director last month did acknowledge the Bramble’s uncertain future.
“The film production is independent and not affiliated with the owner of the ship,” the post read. “The film crew shares your passion for the ship and remains hopeful that the voyage will live on.”
Currently, the Bramble is still scheduled to be auctioned to the highest bidder at noon, Dec. 4, on the steps of the U.S. District Courthouse on St. Joseph Street. At this point, it’s unclear what the ship might wind up selling for, but Kavanagh said multiple potential buyers have expressed interest.
When the Port Huron maritime center sold the Bramble in 2013 the price wasn’t fully disclosed, though it was said to be in the range of $200,000 to $300,000. It’s unclear what Clarke paid for the vessel last year, but BHEC has put a lot of work into refurbishing it since that time.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Kavanagh said he’s hoping the sale generates enough to cover the $178,000 his client is owed as well as the additional costs that have been incurred going through the process. He said plaintiffs in these admiralty proceedings typically have to pay for a custodian to monitor the ship in addition to the other legal expenses associated with filing an action in federal court.
However, there’s no guarantee those costs will be recouped. There’s no minimum bid, though the court does have to approve all sales. Legal ads giving notice of the sale have been published in multiple outlets along the Gulf, including in Lagniappe, and Kavanagh said he’s hoping for a good turnout at the sale.
“You hope to generate enough interest so people will show up and bid [the price] up, but somebody will go home with the boat,” Kavanagh said. “Ideally we would have liked to have seen the [owner] come in and pay what he owes. It’s a cumbersome process having a ship arrested and going through the court to sell it, but my [client] felt like they didn’t have any other choice.”
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