When the bruised sky became black and the winds whipped up to 50 mph and waves began breaking across the side of his sailboat, John "Captain Jay" Burki decided to head for open water. • He thought he would be safer out there, away from seawalls and docks and things to smash into. He couldn't risk losing his boat, Promise, which is also his home. • But his boat's engine wouldn't work, and the gusts were too strong to raise the sail. So on June 24, as Tropical Storm Debby churned offshore, Burki, 66, called a tow boat to take him away from Gulfport's pier.
He dropped four anchors in the middle of Boca Ciega Bay — then went below deck to ride out the storm with his bulldog, Dreamer.
"We were doing fine out there," he said, "until all the anchors ripped away."
Burki stumbled onto the pitching deck. Through the dark and the rain, he watched helplessly as his sloop sped straight for Gulfport Beach.
The boat tore across the waterway for more than a mile, over the buoys that outline Gulfport's swimming beach, then sliced into sand near the picnic tables. It spun then tipped onto its side, listing about 30 degrees.
Burki was relieved. At least his house was in one piece. He propped himself up in his crooked berth and fell asleep.
The next morning, he called the same tow boat to pull him offshore. "We tried and tried, but she wouldn't budge," he said.
High tide straightened the tilt a bit but wasn't enough to float his boat. He slept little that night, struggling not to slide off the bed, and the next morning, called the tow again.
"Nothing doing," Burki said. "She weighs 25,500 pounds empty and draws 7 ½ feet but she's stuck in three feet of water here. We got four feet buried in sand."
• • •
The city told him he has to go. You can't park your boat on the beach.
For every day he doesn't move his boat, he is being fined $93.
"It's a rough situation. I want to get out of here. We even got a bunch of people out here one night and tried to dig her out," Burki said Wednesday. He was walking on Gulfport Beach; he had come ashore to use the bath house. Behind him, Dreamer barked from the boat's tilted deck.
"I don't know what it'll take to shove her out of here. Maybe another storm, or else a barge with a crane or something. But I don't have money for that."
He sighed and tugged down his moldy captain's hat. "I'm down to $1.25 and all I have in the world is there in that boat."
• • •
After graduating from Northeast High, Burki joined the Navy — and served 16 years, mostly in the reserves. He married five times, became an electrician, raised a daughter who is now 44.
In 2006, when he retired, he got restless. "What am I going to do?" he asked. "Sit in front of the TV all day or plant flowers?" So he sold his house near Lake City and moved to Gulfport, where you can anchor offshore and live on your boat for free.
He has had eight boats in the last six years. Two years ago, after a tornado snapped the mast, a friend asked Burki to move aboard Promise.
"She's 45 feet, very solid, but she was leaking fierce when I got her," he said. The water in his cabin was waist-deep. "I pumped her out, fixed the leaks, and that's been our home since April a year ago. You can live pretty cheaply living on the water."
Burki gets $800 a month in disability, "from when I broke my back." He had been stretching that just enough to make it, he said. "Until we got grounded."
Tilted on its side, the boat's generator won't run. He lost $300 worth of groceries. His computer smashed into the wall. "I can't cook anyway," he said. "Can't run the propane when she's listing so bad."
He has one gallon of gas left, to run the dinghy. One box of macaroni and cheese, which he can't boil. "The worst part is trying to live on that leaning boat," he said. "It's hard to sleep, holding on. And the dog keeps slipping on the deck. But there's nothing I can do to get her back in the water. I don't have any insurance on her. And I called about a barge — that would be $5,000 to $8,000. Who's going to pay for that?"
• • •
Not the city.
"We know he doesn't have any money to remove his vessel, but that's not the city's fault," said Denis Frain, who has been Gulfport's Harbor Master for 29 years. "I feel for him, but that boat has been out there almost a month, and it already was a problem for July 4th.
"We don't want it to ruin the city's Labor Day."
Frain has known Burki for years and said he has always been kind and helpful, towing other people's boats and checking on vessels for absentee owners. He is one of about eight people who live off Gulfport Beach, and his thin, craggy face is well known around the waterfront.
Burki has until the end of the month to come up with the money to hire a barge or find another way to pry Promise from the sand. If not, the city will call in a crew to tear it apart and haul the pieces to the dump.
"I'm meeting with a salvage company this week to get an estimate," the harbor master said. "I hate to do that. I know it's the guy's house. But what are you going to do?"
Burki doesn't know.
For now, he said, he is just trying to enjoy what might be the last week of sitting on his slanted deck, watching the sun rise over the gray-green bay, cranking his CD of Broadway's greatest hits through the boat's battered speakers, "Oh, what a beautiful morning ..."
Lane Degregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.