TARPON SPRINGS — Mike Dawson didn't know where the boat came from, but there it was, a 16-foot skiff perched more than 10 feet up, pinned in the limbs of a rambling old oak in front of his bar. It was March 13, 1993, and the area had just been devastated by a deadly storm.
"It came in the middle of the night," Dawson said. "It came out of nowhere."
Winds gusted to 144 miles per hour and the storm surge rose to 12 feet, with many coastal areas submerged. In Florida, it was called the no-name storm. As it traveled north, it became the blizzard of 1993. From Cuba to Canada, it killed at least 270 people, 44 in Florida.
It became a benchmark storm, the one others were compared with when measuring devastation.
Amid the wreckage, the storm also cemented the identity of Dawson's funky dive bar, the Boat Club, which was named that decades before an old boat washed up in his tree.
Dawson's life is on the water. His home and work are both on the Anclote River. His house is in Holiday and the bar is just south of the Pinellas-Pasco county line. Boaters can motor up, dock outside and come in — hence the name the Boat Club. Dawson's house was built high and wasn't flooded in the storm. But he worried about the bar, a local haunt built in 1926, and drove his boat to see what the storm had done.
He was lucky.
There was a lot of mud. Crabs scuttled up the walls. But the damage wasn't terrible.
"The water came in and out," said Dawson, now 62.
He said he decided to keep the boat in the tree, but had someone climb up and "jam it in there" so it would stay put. The person painted "HIGH WATER LINE" on the boat and "NO NAME STORM" with the date, "MARCH 13, 93" on the side. The boat would be a tourist draw if the bar was visible from a major road, but it's not.
Finding the bar is a quest on its own. The Boat Club is behind the Tarpon Animal Hospital, on the east side of U.S. 19. A narrow road winds behind the clinic and along the Anclote River. The bar doesn't look like a bar from the outside. It looks like a shack.
"This is without a doubt the dumpiest bar in the world," a TripAdvisor review states, "and the patrons like it that way."
Dawson, who also has an excavating business, bought it in the late 1980s when he was hired to raze the building. He said it was a spur of the moment idea, to save the bar he'd been a patron of. He put in new electrical wiring and got the licenses he needed, but didn't do much else. He said most of the structure is original — walls of rounded wood pilings and a low roof of rafters, a slanted floor that leads outside to the river deck. There is an ancient Franklin stove, which is the only way to heat the place in cold weather. The walls and ceiling are covered with beer pennants, posters of scantily clad women and the scrawlings of patrons: "Mike and Heather were kissing here" and "Super Drunk." The juke box works. The old video game on the bar doesn't.
Dawson said the Boat Club has a laid-back, Key West feel.
The place only serves beer and wine. Bras hang from the bar. All women who relinquish their bras get a free T-shirt, Dawson said.
The 20th anniversary of the no-name storm is Wednesday. The boat still seems as stable as ever. During the past two decades, there have been additions to the boat — a redneck parking only sign, a Bob Marley bumper sticker saying, "Dude . . . Don't be such a dink!" Dawson doesn't know who put them up there and doesn't care. The patrons feel ownership of the bar, he said. It's a home for them, one that can seemingly weather most storms.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Erin Sullivan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6229.