MADEIRA BEACH — For seven years, a group of merchants and residents in this beach community have tried to erect a statue to honor fallen fishermen. They wanted it in John's Pass Village, by the channel through which the world's top-producing grouper boats passed on their way out to sea.
Many never came back.
On Sunday, a closely knit — if sometimes divided — fraternity of commercial and recreational fishermen, politicians and those merchants celebrated as the efforts paid off. To shrieks, cheers and some tears, a drop cloth surrounding 6-foot statue, The Hand of Fate, fell.
"It's a triumphant day to have this completed," said Mark Hubbard, who runs a charter boat business out of Hubbard's Marina and is the driving force behind the Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea Memorial. "The people who lost loved ones motivated us."
The statue presents a ghostly image: a tiny boat leaning precariously on a gathering wave, cradled in a blue-green hand rising from the sea.
The monument honors fishermen of all types from West Central Florida who have perished at sea. The statue rests on a 5-foot concrete base, on which the names of nearly 150 lost local fishermen going back nearly 80 years are inscribed.
The Times compiled the basis of the list two years ago, 142 names going back nearly 80 years. A half-dozen more have been added since.
They range from the crew of the Xios, a sponge fishing boat that left Tarpon Springs in 1933 and was never seen again, to Tampa Bay Buccaneer Marquis Cooper, whose 21-foot boat capsized 70 miles off the coast in 2009.
Among the many who addressed a jubilant crowd Sunday was a subdued Nick Schuyler, the only survivor who was in the boat with NFL players Cooper, Corey Smith and former University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley.
Schuyler reminded the crowd to follow basic safety procedures. "It's about being prepared and cautious of the elements," said Schuyler, who was found weak and shivering atop the boat 40 hours after it capsized. "And educating as many as possible so that they don't have to make the same mistakes as myself and my friends did."
The Outdoor Arts Foundation and the John's Pass Village Merchants Association contracted with Seminole artist Robert Bruce Epstein to pull off the project. The entire effort cost $50,000, and they have raised $40,000 so far.
Also working hard for years was Shirley Costello, who runs a cleaning business. In 2005, her son, Mike Costello, 29, disappeared with a mate, John Molina, 42, while fishing for amberjack.
Molina's body was found, but Costello's never was. Like many others who have lost family members at sea, Shirley Costello spent years wondering what happened, or if her son could still be alive.
In a crowning moment of the festivities, Shirley Costello and her husband, John, pulled the cover off the statue as if they couldn't wait a second longer.
"I am so excited it finally happened," she said. "Our fishermen up there that we lost are just singing and dancing and so happy that we are finally acknowledging them. We are proud of them, and they haven't been forgotten."
Schuyler, who apart from his talk watched quietly, later said he appreciated being part of the event.
"I think it's awesome for people to gather around who have lost somebody — to be a part of it, I'm honored. It'll never be okay, but this is one of those things where you kind of sit back and take it all in."
The monument means something for the town, too, riven over the years by a series of conflicts between fishermen and the city. Commercial fishermen have seen their own numbers dwindle due in part to government restrictions.
The Hand of Fate goes up in the same spot where previous efforts failed. In the 1980s, Bob Spaeth, an owner of Madeira Beach Seafood Co., paid for a sign at John's Pass Village to memorialize fishermen lost at sea.
Somehow, the sign disappeared during remodeling.
To Spaeth, the permanent reminder and tribute signifies a reverence for an industry that has supplied this area and beyond with seafood, even as it teeters under financial pressure.
But for the real estate slump that spared any redevelopment, the area's commercial fishing houses might not be here at all.
"We have a heritage that nobody else has and can claim," Spaeth said. "And I think it's finally come around that people are looking back at history and saying, 'Man, this was a fishing village. We have a hell of a history. Maybe we should try to keep it.' "
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.