HOMOSASSA — Locals call that stretch of the Homosassa River "Hell's Half Acre."
Replete with large rocks, it's a narrow channel that can be a dangerous passage for inexperienced captains.
But Robert Wade Phillips — who died Sunday afternoon when his 39-foot Contender offshore fishing boat capsized — knew that water as well as anyone.
The 48-year-old was an experienced, cautious boater, friends say. The well-known Citrus County car dealer had grown up on the lakes surrounding Leesburg and spent most weekends over the last two decades navigating the Homosassa.
His nine passengers, including four teenagers, all survived, but Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spokeswoman Karen Parker said investigators told her as of Sunday night as many as three people could have suffered serious injuries. Friends believed Phillips' wife, April, 43, and his two kids, Wade, 18, and Aspen, 15, were not badly hurt.
As he piloted the boat near marker 19, around the mouth of the river, Phillips veered outside of the channel, investigators said. During an evasive maneuver to return to the channel, the vessel flipped and ejected everyone inside it. The FWC is investigating the accident.
Other passengers on Phillips' boat were Roberta G. Anderson, 49, of Homosassa; Payton Valls, 20, of Homosassa; Samantha Pauley, 16, of Beverly Hills; Reid Callahan, 47, of Homosassa; Delaney Owens, 15, of Homosassa; and Lester Kemp, 57, of Homosassa. Phillips had owned the Eagle Buick GMC in Homosassa for about 20 years. A loving father and husband, almost everyone in the community knew him or of him.
As much as anything, friends say, he loved his work.
"He just had such a passion for this business," said manager Russ Baldner. "He just had a will to make things happen."
Phillips spent long hours at the dealership and was hands-on with customers and employees.
Though most folks never knew it, he was generous, even with strangers.
Routinely, Baldner said, his boss fixed people's cars for free or, if they really needed it, gave them used ones.
Phillips once met a family whose house was in disrepair and nearly unlivable. He bought them a mobile home.
"He believed he could make a difference," Baldner said, "and he did."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.