On way to Tarpon Springs, boat wrangled with hurricane Ike

TARPON SPRINGS — Pete's Dream was bobbing in the angry surf like a child's bathtub toy in a whirlpool.

Torrential rain poured into the gaping hole on the starboard side of the cabin, caused by a direct hit from a monster wave churned up by Hurricane Ike.

Capt. Kris Geidel's crew worked furiously to bail water from the engine room, while Geidel tried to steady the vessel as it tossed and turned in the 50-foot waves.

The 62-foot, 65-ton commericial fishing boat was operable, but the force of Ike was swallowing it up, bringing it closer and closer to the eye of the Category 2 storm.

It was Sept. 10, Ike's wind field was growing and Pete's Dream was still 300 miles from home.

• • •

With Kris for 25 years, Marianne Geidel is used to going days, even weeks, without hearing from her husband.

But she was not prepared for the phone call she received from the Coast Guard at 3:48 p.m. Sept. 10, said Marianne, 47.

The caller asked for her husband's name and a description of his boat, then hung up before she could ask what was wrong.

When she called back, the news was grim.

"They said they couldn't help him," she said. "My knees went out."

• • •

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement in St. Petersburg, technicians who monitor the location of commercial boats saw Geidel was awfully close to Ike. They notified the Coast Guard.

For the next two days, vessel monitoring system technicians kept a watchful eye on Pete's Dream, periodically relaying its coordinates to the Coast Guard.

"I'm truly amazed," said Pat O'Shaughnessy, southeast Vessel Monitoring System program manager. "I've got more than 10 years of sea experience and I'm amazed they made it through."

Since the National Marine Fisheries Service started requiring commercial fishing boats to use Vessel Monitoring System several years ago, some anglers have complained they operate like "Big Brother" surveillance systems.

The systems allow the agency to keep an eye out for boats straying into areas closed to commercial fishing.

Geidel, 49, said he's never opposed them, but now sees his Vessel Monitoring System through new eyes.

"It literally saved our lives," he said.

• • •

Geidel, of Holiday, fished in the Caribbean Sea for 17 years before turning his attention to the Gulf of Mexico, so he could be close to home to help care for his two disabled sons. But tighter regulations in the gulf in recent years forced him to travel south to make a living, he said.

Geidel and his crew left port in Tarpon Springs on Aug. 21. In the Caribbean, they hauled in 21,800 pounds of queen and silk snapper.

On Sept. 9, Geidel swung Pete's Dream around and headed for home.

Based on the weather information he was receiving, Geidel thought he could safely outrun the storm.

"It was going to be over (Cuba) for two days and I thought in two days I should be close to home," Geidel said. "I decided to go for it. I thought I had plenty of time."

• • •

Shortly after Geidel rounded the western edge of Cuba, about 30 miles into the Gulf Stream, Pete's Dream started struggling.

"We went from 8 1/2 knots down to 2. It just kind of stopped me in my place and held me there," he said.

The horizon disappeared, replaced by walls of waves five stories high, Geidel said. The wind picked up to 100 mph and rain started falling sideways.

"The waves were so big and it was raining so hard. I've never in my life seen so much rain," he said.

Early on the morning of Sept. 10, disaster struck. An enormous wave crashed into the boat, ripping a hole in the cabin.

"It was almost like a Mack truck hitting us," he said. "The boom it made was astronomical. It sounded like an explosion."

Geidel was shocked when he saw the damage.

"The whole side of my boat was gone."

• • •

Debris clogged Geidel's pumps as water continued to pour into the boat.

"It was like a swimming pool on deck," Geidel said.

Geidel hit the emergency distress button on his Vessel Monitoring System.

"If the Coast Guard didn't pick up the message, that was going to be the end of it," Geidel said.

Late on the night of Sept. 10, Geidel heard the roar of a Coast Guard jet. After four or five passes, the Coast Guard crew dropped a pump into the water just 5 feet from the side of Pete's Dream.

"If you measure my boat from stem to stern and put a hash mark right in the center, that's where he put it," Geidel said.

• • •

For the next 36 hours, Geidel's crew pumped water from the bilge and limped toward home.

On the morning of Sept. 12 — as Ike neared Texas — the weather in the gulf broke and Geidel made a beeline for Tarpon Springs.

He got home later that day with tens of thousands of dollars in damage and very little fish to sell because much of the haul was ruined during the storm.

The Geidels, who said they couldn't afford to buy insurance for Pete's Dream, said they were just becoming financially stable again after sinking $100,000 in repairs into the boat earlier this year.

"The vision was in sight to get out of debt," Marianne Geidel said.

"This just polished us off," Kris Geidel added.

• • •

Geidel, still shaken from his ordeal at sea, cringes when he looks at the damage to Pete's Dream, which he bought in 1994.

The boat is somewhat of an icon in Tarpon Springs, Geidel said.

It was designed and built by longtime Tarpon Springs master boat builder George Saroukos. The 65-ton wood vessel, completed in 1986, was made to withstand hurricanes, according to archived news reports from the St. Petersburg Times. It was named after Peter L. Rathey, a former boat captain for the Saroukos family.

The boat made local headlines in the late 1980s when it was detained by Nicaraguan authorities who claimed its crew was fishing illegally. The boat and its crew were released a month later.

The Geidels estimate structural damage caused by Ike could cost $50,000 to repair, and waterlogged electronics another $30,000.

They've sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist, asking for help, after getting no response from their request for assistance to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"The longer this boat sits here, the worse it gets for us," said Marianne Geidel.

The Geidels also have started a donation fund and are looking for donations of labor and materials to help fix the boat that is their only livelihood.

In the meantime, they praise their crippled Pete's Dream for bringing Geidel and his crew home safely.

"It's just the grace of God," said Marianne Geidel, with tears in her eyes, "that he's here."

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

>>Fast facts

How to help

Contact any local branch of Wachovia to donate to Pete's Dream Rebuilding Fund or contact the Geidels by phone at (727) 934-4731 or by e-mail at petesdream@aol.com.

On way to Tarpon Springs, boat wrangled with hurricane Ike 10/04/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 11:06am]

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