MADEIRA BEACH — Shirley Costello never worried about her son, Michael, when he ventured offshore in search of grouper and snapper. Like many of the young men who grew up fishing the west coast of Florida, he was a seasoned mariner and accustomed to the unpredictability of the Gulf of Mexico.
But on Feb. 27, 2005, the 29-year-old commercial fishing boat captain and his mate, John Molina, 42, were catching amberjack more than 70 miles offshore at a spot known as "The Elbow."
They radioed that they would be back soon. When they didn't return the next day, Shirley Costello began to worry. On March 1, the U.S. Coast Guard found Molina's body and what was left of the Gulf Coaster, her son's boat. Her son's body, however, was never recovered.
"It was hard," Shirley Costello said. "I never thought that I wouldn't see him again."
Shirley Costello isn't alone in losing a loved one to the sea. Since 1933, more than 140 Gulf Coast fishermen, both recreational and commercial, have died on local waters. Nearly two thirds of them were never found, leaving family and friends to wonder about their fate.
That's why Shirley Costello and other representatives of the local fishing community have joined forces to help erect a memorial at John's Pass to those who have been lost at sea.
"We want them to be remembered," said Mark Hubbard, whose family has been working the waterfront for more than 50 years. "People don't realize just how dangerous the Gulf of Mexico can be. Many lives have been sacrificed so consumers can enjoy their fresh seafood."
On Sunday, the Outdoor Arts Foundation will unveil the long-anticipated monument Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea. The ceremony will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. and will include speeches by survivors, loved ones and leaders in the fishing community.
The unveiling at sunset will take place in front of the Bell Tower and main entrance to the John's Pass boardwalk. The memorial, a joint effort between the John's Pass Village and Boardwalk Merchant's Association, the Arts Foundation and artist Robert Bruce Epstein, costs nearly $50,000, with roughly $40,000 of the funds already raised.
Shirley Costello hopes the memorial will cause boaters and fishermen to think twice before they head out on the ocean. "The gulf can look so flat, but people don't realize that it can change in a matter of minutes," she said.
Her husband, John, echoed her sentiments. "It doesn't matter if you are just taking a ride in the bay," said John Costello of Seminole. "You have to keep your eye on the weather. There are too many nice days to go fishing on a bad day."
Tragedy, however, can be averted if boaters/divers/anglers follow the basics of boating safety. Much of it is common sense, such as checking the weather.
Even veterans often forget some the basics. For example, file a float plan. Tell a responsible person where and when you are leaving, where you are going and when you plan to return. Make sure your VHF radio is in working order. Carry a cell phone as a backup if will be within a few miles of land.
Know your boat. Don't overload it with people or equipment (check the capacity plate). Make sure your safety equipment — flares, fire extinguisher, horn, signaling mirror — are in working order. When in doubt, sit it out. The sea will be there tomorrow.
Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea is a not-for-profit organization, and donations can be mailed to the Outdoor Arts Foundation, P.O. Box 323, Safety Harbor, FL 33759, Attention: Florida Fisherman Lost at Sea. For information, visit floridafishermenlostatsea.com.
. fast facts
PFDs save lives
State records show that more than 80 percent of boating-related deaths could have been avoided if the victims were wearing personal flotation devices. So make sure your PFDs are readily accessible and wear one any time you are under way. A PFD is more difficult to put on once you're in the water. Make sure the PFD is the proper size for the person wearing it. The label gives weight and chest size information. This is especially important when it comes to children. To ensure a snug fit, pick the child up by the shoulders of the PFD. If you can still see the child's chin and ears, it fits. Keep the PFDs in good condition. Test the buoyancy in a pool. Over time, the sun can break down the synthetic material inside. Look for rips, tears and weak straps or zippers.