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Tropical Storm Debby blew Gulfport sailboat owner ashore for good

ST. PETERSBURG

From his hospital bed, the broken-jawed captain watched a live television broadcast as several dozen people dug out his beached sailboat. A tear rolled down his leathery face as the Promise, a 46-foot sloop he called home, floated free once more in Boca Ciega Bay.

But he was still trapped on land. It felt like goodbye.

For "Captain Jay," born John Jay Burki, a boat was more than a vessel. A boat was a place to pretend. Aboard Promise, he was a colorful character free to tell tales of round-the-world voyages, encounters with celebrities and plan exotic trips that never got farther than a shore-side bar.

On land, people gossip. Ever since June of last year when Tropical Storm Debby blew Promise onto the beach in Gulfport, it seemed like everyone was looking down their nose at Burki, 67.

"They said I wasn't a real sea captain and my boat was loaded with roaches and rats and mice. A lot of the talk was pretty nasty. They called me a scalawag," he said.

They said he couldn't take care of his deaf bulldog, Dreamer. Some suggested he should give him to a "good home." Gulfport had been fining him $93 for every day he didn't move his boat. He owed nearly $2,000.

Then, two days after Promise was freed, the city sent him a letter calling the sailboat an "At-Risk Vehicle." They said Promise was among the kind of boats that "have a tendency to become derelict and threaten Florida's waterways." They cited 18 violations and hauled him to court. The judge said he would waive the fines and violations if he would move Promise out of Gulfport within five days.

But he couldn't do much about that while he was nursing a broken jaw from a one-sided fight. He had no money to repair the broken mast and motor. He didn't even have a dinghy to get out to her.

Land was nothing but bad luck.

"I was tired and exhausted. People were down on me everywhere I looked," Burki said. "I had to have a place to live immediately. I wasn't going to be dependent on anyone."

So he sold Promise for $2,750 to a man who promised to move her.

He spent the money on a 1988 Pace Arrow motor home and picked up Dreamer from a friend. The RV spewed black smoke, but made it to a trailer park in Lealman, 9.8 miles from shore. It may as well have been a different planet.

• • •

Eventually the inside began to resemble the familiar confines of one of Burki's ship galleys: Dreamer at his feet, cold pinot grigio, an old radio playing NPR, dishes in the sink, tobacco in a tin, stacks of books, half a package of crackers with something little crawling inside the wrapper, a half-full ashtray.

Outside was a different story.

"This is not my environment," Burki said. "I'm scared to live here. They'll steal anything that isn't nailed down.

"Boat life is different. On the docks you have a lot of homeless men, because of drugs, alcohol, who knows what. They'll rip you off, but I've learned how to deal with them. Here it's all women, and they're all on pills. They're a lot harder to deal with. As long as I'm in this motor home, I'm going to get old really fast."

He picks up a few electrician jobs to stay busy. A few old friends from Gulfport stop by every once in a while. But mostly it's just him and Dreamer.

He tries to spin his luck into something positive.

"I've had really nothing but good times overall. Now I don't have to worry about wind, storms or anchors anymore," he said.

A gust of wind shook the RV slightly.

"I guess that storm didn't stay off shore after all," he said, peering out the window at a row of beat-up trailers.

"Right now I wish this was a dream and I could wake up back on a boat doing what I used to do. It's been a nightmare," Burki said.

"It's like that poem about the albatross around the sailor's neck. I just want to wake up at sea again and have all this behind me like it never happened. I just want to say one, two, three wake up! One, two, three wake up!"

And get back to dreaming.

“Captain Jay” Burki, 67, talks to Dreamer, his deaf bulldog, in their motor home in St. Petersburg recently. “As long as I’m in this motor home, I’m going to get old really fast,” Burki says, a year after Tropical Storm Debby grounded him for good.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

“Captain Jay” Burki, 67, talks to Dreamer, his deaf bulldog, in their motor home in St. Petersburg recently. “As long as I’m in this motor home, I’m going to get old really fast,” Burki says, a year after Tropical Storm Debby grounded him for good.

Tropical Storm Debby blew Gulfport sailboat owner ashore for good 06/21/13 [Last modified: Saturday, June 22, 2013 9:37pm]
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