After Fort Myers Power Squadron Commander Gene Kent’s beloved 1976 Irwin sailboat, Pauline, sank at the dock during Hurricane Ian in September 2022, he told me he planned to raise the 37-footer himself. Gene is one of the most skilled people I know, so I didn’t doubt him. (Well, maybe just a little. He said he’d raise it using sandbags and two rented 3-inch pumps and sandbags. Who wouldn’t be a little skeptical?)
Setting the scene
Roger Desjarlais, Lee County manager, told the Fort Myers News-Press that Hurricane Ian left thousands of boats scattered about the county, some sunk, others piled in driveways, backyards and ecologically fragile mangroves. BoatUS Vice President of Public Affairs Scott Croft told WGCU’s Mike Kiniry that raising sunken boats is not a DIY project. “Boat owners can’t do it,” he said flatly.
Croft told Kiniry that the responsibility for removing sunken boats rests with the owner and added, “You can’t leave it there, no matter what.”
Right on to that, I thought. For the past 25 years, a boat has been sitting on a lift, quite dead, next door to my home on Whiskey Creek. When Ian struck, the boat made its last voyage, sliding off the lift and slipping about 20 feet back to the bottom of the canal behind my home. I found this out when the U.S. Coast Guard knocked on my door and asked me about the owner, an absentee landlord not well known for keeping the place tidy. The Coast Guard placed a boom around the boat to mitigate the inevitable seepage of fuel and fluid into the canal, though I occasionally see a sheen of oil floating past my dock. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has been monitoring the situation and has prioritized the boat for removal.
To the organization’s credit, the FWC tossed a life raft to stricken owners of sunken boats. In a recent press release, it reminded owners unable to salvage their vessels that Hurricane Ian waivers were available. With the waiver, all removal costs would be covered, but the offer came with two big caveats: The deadline for applying was Nov. 30, 2022 (it was later extended to the end of the year), and the boat’s ownership must be turned over to the FWC for disposal.
As of Nov. 14, the FWC had received only 45 waivers. Insurance companies had removed 77 other boats, and 512 active derelict vessels without waivers had been identified. The FWC says it doesn’t intend to criminally charge individuals who are making a concerted effort to remove their vessels either by waiver, by insurance claim or by hiring a salvage company.
FWC Field Lieutenant John Allen cautioned that boaters who didn’t take advantage of the offer would be held responsible for costs associated with the boat’s removal and recovery and could face criminal charges. He added that not hiring a salvage company is not in and of itself a violation. (For more information, call the FWC’s Hurricane Ian Vessel Hotline at 850-488-5600.)
“The Coast Guard is partnering with FEMA, NOAA, the EPA, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and contracted agencies, and using satellite imagery to identify, track and assess potential marine environmental threats from Ian,” said Coast Guard Hurricane Ian Response Cmdr. Joe Smith. As of Nov. 13, they had identified 7,302 threats, including boats, cars and trailers affected by Ian. Of those, 1,368 targets had been identified as requiring further action such as oil and hazmat recovery or vessel debris needing removal.
Gene wasn’t waiting for anyone to raise his boat for him. He made a plan, not a call. But why would he even consider a project like this?
“Pauline was named after my mother,” Gene explained. “She died when I was 8 years old. On Christmas Day. It was a thing of pride for me. I wanted to honor her name. She’s gonna come back to life. She has to.”
His restoration plans began before Ian arrived. He had already removed the motor, a four-cylinder Yanmar diesel original to the boat, and was preparing to haul it out for a rebuild when the storm hit. (Gene rebuilds engines, too. Did I mention that?) He had already laid new teak flooring, with just a small area remaining.
Gene and his partner, Jen Martel, have owned Pauline for about 10 years, and the blue water boat has taken them on many memorable voyages. A few years ago, they sailed Pauline from their home near Portland, Maine, to their home in Fort Myers in the dead of winter. Many mornings, they had to chip the ice off the rigging and decks or shovel snow before getting underway. Gene wore his snowmobile suit and lashed himself to the helm so that he wouldn’t slide off the slippery deck or be blown into the sea by the 7- to 8-foot swells that roared over his bow and the top of his bimini. This boat is personal.
Pauline’s resurrection began with Gene pulling the sunken boat closer to his seawall to get the cockpit out of the water. Then he checked the tides and waited days for the lowest tide to arrive at his dock. When that day came, he placed sandbags below deck to block points of entry and fired up the big 3-inch pumps that I helped deliver dockside that morning. An hour and a half later, the boat began to rise.
“The bow came up like it was riding a big swell,” Gene said. “It just floated up to the surface. Quite a thrill!”
District Past Commander Sam Bonilla was also at the dock that day, ready to assist. Our squadron is like a family. We help one another.
“It was the most exhilarating feeling standing on the boat and watching the bow rise above the waterline and then, just a few minutes later, the stern just popped out of the water,” Sam recalled. “Gene beamed a great big smile and breathed out a sigh of relief. It was time to celebrate the resurrection of Pauline.”
“The new flooring still looks great,” Gene said, “even after being submerged for six weeks. Might need a little sanding and refinishing, is all. And the batteries took a charge, too!”
Pauline has returned to its berth dockside, and Gene is eager to begin the restoration—right after he restores his home, which took 5 feet of storm surge, and the other two boats at his dock awaiting engine rebuilds. Don’t bet against him.