Several weeks ago, some 30 members of the fishing club from the Villages were piled onto Capt. Michael Senker's 42-foot party boat, Thunder, for a day of fun and fishing on the Gulf of Mexico.
Just as Senker was cruising by the Hernando Beach Club, the hull hit rock. His passengers, many of them regulars on their monthly trip to catch sea bass, Spanish mackerel and grouper, exchanged worried looks.
With the boat's momentum, Senker was able to power across the rocky spot and back into the passable area of the access channel. His ego took some bruising as his guests joked about the cruise ship that had run aground in Italy days earlier, but at least his boat was not seriously damaged.
Others haven't been so lucky, nearby residents say.
Senker, whose boat docks off Calienta Street, is among numerous business owners and residents who reach the newly dredged Hernando Beach Channel by snaking around the community's waterfront, using an access channel that hugs the shoreline to the south.
The problem is that the rocky wall Senker hit and another area of unseen rocks at a point formed south of the beach club are so high that no boat that draws 31/2 feet of water or more can pass at low tide.
While boaters in that short stretch can see the start of the newly dredged main channel, they can't get to it when the water is shallow.
"That's where I hit, right there,'' Senker said Friday as he stood on the seawall of the beach club.
Hernando Beach resident Frank Santo stood beside him, recalling being stuck at the site himself, forcing him several times to spend the night on his boat.
Santo had been involved in the second incarnation of the main channel dredge years ago, and in that version, he said, dredging of the high points in the access channel was part of the work that was planned.
But the access channel wasn't part of the dredge that was just completed, though Santo and others worked feverishly in recent weeks to try to get it included before the last of the dredging equipment pulls out of town. They had hoped to save the cost of remobilizing the equipment.
Now the residents are beginning a campaign to raise money to have the two points dredged, frustrated because had the county listened to their pleas early on, the dredging company likely would have cleared the passage at no cost, they say.
Hernando Beach resident Steve Barton said that for months officials had been telling residents that the high points would be removed. But as the project wound down in recent weeks, it became clear that wasn't going to happen.
"It's sad,'' Barton said.
Gazing across the water, he decided to demonstrate the danger for the Times on Friday. He walked down the steps to the water's edge, then continued into the channel.
He found himself almost neck-deep in the deepest part of the access channel. But as he walked farther into the passageway, his shoulders appeared above the water line, and a few steps later he stood in chilly water just a few inches above his waist.
The 6-foot-tall Barton was standing where Senker's boat had gotten hung up, in the middle of the access channel. And, as Santo pointed out, it wasn't even low tide Friday.
Senker said it made little sense for the county to have spent more than $15 million to create a deep channel into the gulf, then not make it possible for residents with larger boats to have full use of it.
"We have this great expressway," he said, "but all of the exits are closed.''
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Santo looked at a map of Hernando Beach unfurled on his kitchen table and used his hand to show the property that lies south of the main channel. He estimated that 90 percent of the Hernando Beach community has to pass by the high points in the access channel in order to get to the gulf.
Also south of the line are the only marinas in the area that provide gasoline to boats.
"We basically dug a channel to nowhere,'' Santo said.
County officials pushed the pricey channel dredge in hopes that Hernando Beach would become a lure for boating interests and a boon for the local economy. But with the blockages, Santo said, the message to large boat owners is discouraging.
"Marinas advertise their controlling depth,'' he explained. "Controlling depth is the shallowest spot.''
The marinas south of the main channel would have to consider their controlling depth just 3 1/2 feet, Santo said. The main channel was dredged to 6 feet at the low-water mark.
"These rocks block the way, and they simply can't be navigated,'' he said.
Hernando Beach already has a bit of a reputation for hazardous boating conditions. Senker said that in some literature, boaters are warned not to try to navigate the waters ''without local knowledge.''
With the dredge equipment still in the area, Santo had hoped that the county would support adding the work in the access channel to the project. But county officials insisted that the job had to be separate.
Santo said he had talked for months with David Hamilton, the former county administrator, but had no success.
Frustrated that the county wouldn't even make a phone call to state environmental regulators, Santo and others went to Tampa to visit with officials from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to find out what extra permitting requirements might be needed.
Santo said his group was told that all they needed was a letter from the county, saying that they were simply seeking permission for a maintenance dredge and that the access channel had in place prior to 1971. No new permit would be required.
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Susan Goebel, the county director who has been overseeing the main channel dredge, said last week that the county is willing to provide that letter, but that the work in the access canal cannot be combined with the main dredge project.
"I think that everybody understands that this project needs to be done,'' Goebel said. "It just needs to be a separate project.''
She said she was not aware of what, if any, public money could be put toward the work, but noted that no funding mechanism has been set up. One possibility would be to form a special benefits unit, similar to how homeowners on limerock roads get their roads paved. Each homeowner pays an assessment.
Santo is confident the community can make the dredge happen, and he is already gathering donations for it.
Members of the group have made a pitch for the project to the Hernando County Port Authority, of which Barton is a member. He said most of the authority members support the effort.
The men are also talking about taking the project to the community's homeowners association to gather support.
Senker has spoken to the dredge subcontractor on the current job, who provided a price for renting the equipment and paying people to operate it and perform other tasks. The job could cost $100,000 or more.
An excavator from the company still sits on a barge near the beginning of the channel.
Fundraising will be the final task, Santo said. He is confident that state permission will be simple to obtain.
"(The county) wanted to make this into a big effort, but it's not that big a deal,'' he said.
The county just wanted to focus on getting the main channel dug, he said.
"That's all they thought about. But they didn't think how people were going to get to it,'' he said. "That's where they missed the boat."
Santo said he didn't blame Goebel for blocking the effort to clear the access channel because she only recently got pulled in on the issue.
"The fact was, she was in over her head and she didn't want to add anything on her plate,'' he said. "I don't know that I blame her, but the fact is we lost an opportunity.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.