Updated, 1 a.m. Thursday with additional comments from James Harding.
NORWALK, Conn. — James Harding says the City of Norwalk is stealing his half-million-dollar yacht, and, “Their aggressive behavior is pretty dysfunctional.”
Harding is a “real sh—bag,” said Harbormaster Greg Scully, a Norwalk Police Officer. Harding’s sailboat was declared an abandoned vessel under State Statutes because Harding tied it to City property without permission and didn’t make good on multiple promises to remove it, Deputy Corporation Counsel Jeffry Spahr said, describing it as “like a schooner.”
Harding had 45 days to retrieve his boat or face a fine and see its ownership “transferred to another party,” according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
That deadline was Memorial Day, but the vessel is still where harbor police put it, off Sheffield Island, according to Spahr.
“The City does not wish to become the owner of this vessel. We would prefer for Mr. Harding to retrieve the sailboat, pay his fines, and be on his way,” Spahr wrote Tuesday.
‘Blah, blah, blah… and on and on’
Harding, a lifelong Norwalk resident, brought the boat to the Veterans Park visitors dock in the first week of March, he said May 6. That was the “best and safest place for it,” across from the Marine Police office and the Harbor Master’s vessel.
“Swany,” a 72-foot twin-masted sailboat built in 1978, had been moored in Stamford, Harding said. “It was a pretty bad situation … I was not able to get to the boat for a long period of time. There was a lot of damage that was caused because… it was just stuck on pilings.”
A police report dated March 12 quotes Scully as saying that the boat had been at the visitors dock for three weeks. Officer Michael Silva wrote that he had contacted Veterans Park Dockmaster Mike Griffin, who said the boat was there illegally and the Recreation and Parks Department wanted it removed.
Silva wrote that he had tried unsuccessfully to contact Harding and then tagged the sailboat as abandoned.
Scully’s salty commentary about the situation came during a May 5 Harbor Management Commission meeting, after Commission Chairman John Romano asked for an update about the abandoned vessel. The meeting was streamed on YouTube from the City’s Zoom account and is available online.
Scully quoted Harding as saying he doesn’t need permission to tie the boat up at the visitors dock, because, “’I’m a Norwalk resident, I can do whatever I want. The docks belong to me. Nobody can make me pay’ blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, on and on and on.”
“There’s no there’s no reasoning with the guy,” Scully said. “And then you know, his, his answer always is, go f— yourself. I’m gonna do what I want to do. F— off.”
Romano, amused, said he’d gotten the lowdown during a group haircut that afternoon with Norwalk Police officers. The funniest part was that Norwalk firefighters had tied the boat to the visitor’s dock, Romano said.
Scully said that was true, and made many disparaging remarks about firefighters on the marine boat as “wanna-be cops,” who are “mad that their hands are tied, you know, because they’re only a fire boat.”
Norwalk Fire Chief Gino Gatto and Deputy Chief Ed Prescott did not reply to an email asking about the comments.
Harding said the fire boat had followed him into the harbor, but people who were on the dock helped him tie Swany up.
“The bottom line is we did get that boat out of there,” Scully said during the May 5 meeting. Norm Edwards had loaned him a 1,000-pound mushroom mooring at no cost. He didn’t say where the boat was.
Spahr, on May 6, said Harding has “chutzpah.”
Swany had sat at the dock for weeks but with Memorial Day coming, the City needed to make room for people to use the launch ramps, he said. The City had authority to move the boat under State Statute 15-140c, which states that a vessel left at a location without the consent of the property owner for more than 24 hours shall be declared abandoned.
Scully had told Harding “in no uncertain terms” that he wasn’t allowed to leave the boat there, ordering him to remove it, Spahr said.
“I’ve been trying to get a place, a mooring, in town here for about five years,” Harding said on May 6, calling Silva a “bully.”
“I’ve been on the water all my life and I don’t know what this dysfunctional situation is going on,” he said. “My guess is it’s from (Griffin)… I came in there, they say the boat’s too big. The boat’s too big because they don’t know how to deal with it. They should learn more about stuff.”
Rowayton and Newport, R.I., have “packed harbors” because “functional people….know how to work with it,” he said. He’s met people from Africa and Canada in Norwalk Harbor but “they’re being shut out of here” because of Scully and Norwalk’s rules and regulations.
He asked why the Norwalk Seaport Association stopped bringing tall ships in for the Oyster Festival.
“Cost and Seaport went in different direction on events,” Seaport Association Vice President Rick McQuaid said in an email. “Remember docks were rebuilt and out of service for a time.”
‘We’d give him a ride’
“It’s a public dock,” Harding said. He worked in Norwalk code enforcement in the late 80s and early 90s and he knows that Swany could have moored at the visitors dock under a special permit, but “this dock master is very angry. I don’t know what his problem is but it’s not how people work in Norwalk.”
Norwalk’s fireboat is higher than the freeboard on his sailboat, he said, alleging that police broke into his boat twice.
“It’s sitting out there in the water at Sheffield Island and I’ve got lots of equipment on board and they are not tending it, and there’s no way I can get out there and tend it,” he said. The anchor was tossed off the stern, which isn’t appropriate with weather conditions, and he didn’t know if would be legal for him to check on the boat even if he could. He might get arrested.
Asked about these comments, Spahr on May 22 wrote, “He is free to take the boat anytime he wishes. We would give him a ride to it if needed. Throughout this whole ordeal he has struggled to acquaint himself with the notion of telling the truth. It appears to be a foreign concept to him.”
Norwalk Police Deputy Chief James Walsh and Silva were copied on the emails to Spahr but declined to comment. Griffin has not responded to multiple phone calls.
Spahr said in early May that the 30 batteries Harding has on the boat might be a fire hazard.
“The hazard is people like that who are unfamiliar with the marine industry,” Harding said on May 7. “…They are not a hazard unless somebody tries sinking the boat. It’s a very well-built, aluminum hull vessel, it has no business being out there at this time where they put it. Whatever some lawyer for the town is saying, he needs to be a little more educated about vessels and things.”
“Why are they so up in arms?” he asked on May 6. “…I don’t understand and my lawyers don’t understand either and so there’s a lot of people aren’t understanding it, people who grew up on the water here also.”
Romano said on May 5 that the City feels Harding is litigious.
On May 7, Harding said he wasn’t sure who his lawyer would be. “I do have one. I’m not sure how things are going with it. I’m going to move slowly and cautiously. But it is a tough scenario of what’s going on in our state, our town, and country and world…. The lawyers I spoke with don’t understand why they are demanding me to sign over my 72-foot yacht.”
Peoples Bank filed a lawsuit against Harding in January 2018, alleging that he hadn’t made mortgage payments on property he owned in Darien. The case was settled about a year ago, when Harding sold the property at market value, according to statistics available on Zillow. The court vacated a foreclosure order.
Peoples Bank would be paid in full by the sale, but a second mortgage holder would not, according to court documents.
Harding took two calls from NancyOnNorwalk in early May. Although he had not responded to multiple phone calls when this story posted Wednesday morning, he did call Wednesday afternoon to say the foreclosure “was dysfunctional, as a lot of things are these days.” He said he had owned the property for a long time, fixed it up, and finally sold it in a short sale.
Spahr said Tuesday that he’s not sure how much Harding owes Norwalk in fees and fines for Swany.
“He was issued a summons I believe for trespassing,” Spahr wrote. “At some point I think they may have also ‘started a tab’ for his being tied up at the Visitor’s Dock. Per Statute he is also responsible for reimbursing the City for any and all costs and expenses incurred as the result of his abandonment of the boat.”
On May 6, Spahr said he thought some people might be interested in buying the boat from the city for $10,000, and quoted Harding as saying it’s worth $170,000.
Harding on May 7 said people have been trying to take his boat, suggesting he donate it to a nonprofit organization.
It’s not too big for the harbor, he said, pointing out that tall ships used to come in. It could go across the way in a “great spot.”
Spahr said Harding told Norwalk Police that he had an agreement with the owner of a vacant Water Street lot, where there used to be a gas station, and he would move the boat there. Police called the owner, who said that wasn’t true.
Swany would be in the way of Walk Bridge construction activities in that spot, Spahr said. Plus, Swany has a 15-foot draft and would be on the bottom there.
The police report quotes Scully as saying the vessel’s length and draft “make it impossible to moor in any of the city’s mooring fields.” The U.S. Coast Guard states that Swany has a depth of 15.5 feet.
Harding said he bought the boat from a Norwegian person in 2006 and sailed from Bermuda to Newport. “It’s an awesome yacht, I mean, you would love to sail on it…. The whole state is in financial trouble… everybody’s a tough time but why do they want to try to steal this vessel, Swany?”
‘I’m a survivor. I was sexually abused by a priest’
On Wednesday, Harding said he got the money to buy Swany through a lawsuit filed against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport. “I’m a survivor. I was sexually abused by a priest,” the Rev. Walter Phillip Coleman at St. Aloysius Church in New Canaan, and the law firm Tremont Sheldon Robinson Mahoney “worked hard and … so I was able to have some money to buy a sailboat like that.”
It was 14 years ago Tuesday that he and his wife had gotten married in Newport, after buying Swany in Bermuda and sailing it across the Atlantic, he said.
“Why did they steal Swany if they don’t want Swany? It doesn’t make sense to me,” Harding said. “And actually I had one lawyer, but we’re working on two different other law firms. And so in time, they will get things squared away.”
“It should be noted that the City is not trying to take Mr. Harding’s abandoned boat,” Spahr wrote Wednesday in a comment on this story. “In fact, the City would very much like for him to remove the vessel and moor/dock it at an appropriate location or facility. He cannot just tie up his 72′ sailboat to the City’s Visitor’s Dock and expect to be allowed to leave it there for free. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Harding, in the Wednesday voicemail, said Swany was only at the visitors dock for three days before the coronavirus shutdown started.
“I’ve never seen you know, work with people like this before in the town,” he said. “And it sounds odd. Everything’s odd these days with the Coronavirus going on… those marine police officers and the harbor master and dock master, their aggressive behavior is, you know what it is? They’re old school, maybe. No school, maybe? I don’t know.”
Story copy edited at 4:55 p.m. May 28.