TARPON SPRINGS — Eleven hours after a fire destroyed the boat that he and his dog have lived on since 1997, Ralph Carson stared at the charred remains.
"That's all I have in my life," he said Thursday afternoon.
According to a Pinellas County Sheriff's Office report, Carson, 61, and his dog, Alice, a short-haired pointer, were on the 40-foot vessel docked behind a house at 1102 Island Ave. Just before 3:30 a.m., a fire broke out on the boat, a 1977 Lindsey cabin cruiser Carson called the Reef Seeker.
"It was so hot you can see the bubbles on my hands," he said, pointing to the marks. "I couldn't even reach the fire extinguisher. It was right above my hand, but I couldn't get it because the flames were so bad."
Carson had no time to retrieve clothes, records and other personal items. He threw Alice off the boat, which was docked near the shore. Deputies found her more than a half mile away on Dodecanese Boulevard at the Sponge Docks and returned her to Carson, who was able to escape the boat unharmed.
Detectives said a space heater caused the blaze, which also damaged a 50-foot vessel docked next to the boat.
"The only explanation I have for it is that possibly the blanket slid over the top of the little heater I have in the cabin and caught fire," Carson said.
He said he couldn't afford insurance. He's a commercial fisherman by trade.
"Fishermen can't afford insurance," Carson said. "Can you afford to pay $600 a month? That's what it costs for an offshore boat."
He had no savings, either.
"We make ends meet and that's about it," Carson said. "We don't make any money. We like what we do. That's why we do it."
He and Alice plan to spend the night with friends, then start over. But how do you do that when you're broke and one week shy of your 62nd birthday?
"Don't know," he said. "I'm going to do whatever I got to do, I guess. It's hard to start over."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.