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When storm comes, don't take chances in boat

ST. PETERSBURG — The thunderstorm seemed to appear from nowhere.

"I'm in my boat, stuck under a bridge," my friend Dean Pickel told me. "I've got my son with me."

A quick look at the radar showed that storm cells were scattered about the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico. I was sitting at my desk at work, trying to decide whether to take my kids to a fishing day at a friend's house, when I received Pickel's cell phone call.

As we were talking, a lighting bolt struck what appeared to be right across the street from my newspaper office.

"You better stay put," I told Pickel. "This is the most dangerous time to be on the water."

Pickel, a diehard angler, had just bought the boat of his dreams, a 23-foot skiff with a 7-foot tower. He planned to modify the aluminum tower so it could fold down and get beneath the bridge near his house.

"Right now, the tide is too high," he said. "I can't make it all the way under."

Pickel thought about tying his boat to the seawall and walking his 7-year-old two blocks to his house, but to do so, he would have had to cross a few feet of private property.

"The owner of the house came out … I thought to check on us," he said. "But he said that if we got out of the boat he would call the police and have us arrested for trespassing."

So Pickel motored off through the storm and tied up underneath the bridge.

"I had three different people stop and ask me if I was okay," he said.

Perhaps Pickel was a little overcautious. Or maybe 30 years of boating experience has taught him that you can't play with springtime storms.

I know my kids were upset when I told them they couldn't go fishing. As it turned out, the storm passed, the sun came out and I looked like an overprotective father.

My 20 years as the Times' outdoors editor has probably made me a little overcautious. But as my scuba diving instructor, Jon Willis, once told me, "There are old divers and there are bold divers, but there are no old, bold divers."

I am extra careful whenever I have children in the outdoors. As a scoutmaster, I often find myself responsible for children who are not my own. It is an awesome responsibility, one that should not be taken lightly.

That is why my heart sank last week when I heard about a boating accident in Lake County. On May 24, the day after my friend Pickel got caught out in a storm, another family was enjoying the water at the mouth of Silver Glen Run on Lake George.

Dennis Todd Lennon, 37, and his wife, Ann, 36, had five children aboard their 20-foot Sea Ray cabin cruiser when a thunderstorm rolled in, kicking up some large waves.

According to a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission report, two waves came over Lennon's bow. His wife and the children were below when a third wave came over the side and capsized the boat.

Rescuers arrived and helped overturn the boat. But Lennon's son, 4-year-old Dennis Clayton Lennon, and Ciara N. Puskas, 14, both of Eustis, died as a result of their injuries. The next day, 5-year-old Cole Bizuk of Fernandina Beach, died at Florida Hospital in Orlando, according the FWC.

"This is a sad, sad situation, and our hearts go out to the families and friends of these young children," FWC Lt. Don McMillen said in a news release.

All of the children, except Ciara, were wearing personal flotation devices. The two remaining children — Cole's sister, Cayla, 7, and Morgantina Garofono, 11 — were uninjured.

The accident is still under investigation. No charges have been filed.

People will undoubtedly second-guess Dennis Lennon's actions. I am sorry for his loss, and those of the other families involved.

But I will continue to be what some may consider an overcautious and overprotective scoutmaster and father, and better safe than sorry.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at (727) 893-8808.

When storm comes, don't take chances in boat 06/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 4, 2009 4:30am]
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