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Strand of hope binds friends of restaurateur

Several of Chris Parker's friends huddled together early Monday at a wind-battered boat ramp off the Gandy Bridge. They brought coffee and whatever hope they could muster.

By noon, with no news of Parker's body being found in Tampa Bay, their mood grew more somber. Every few minutes, someone would drive up and join the group. They hugged and shed tears together.

"Right now," his former stepmother, Beverly Parker, said later Monday, "I'm just hoping for a miracle."

Choppy waters frustrated the search for Parker, 37, a successful restaurateur whose boat flipped a day earlier while traveling nearly 100 mph south of the Gandy Bridge. Search teams with three law enforcement agencies spent the day looking for Parker, who is presumed to have drowned.

As daylight faded and an approaching storm system produced rougher seas, officials halted their search for the St. Petersburg High graduate, who skipped college and went on to become co-founder of the popular Bonefish Grill restaurant chain.

The search will resume today, weather permitting.

"It may be three or four days before anything is found," said Gary Morse, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Other search leaders offered similar warnings.

"We want to locate Mr. Parker for the family's sake," said Tampa police Sgt. Alan Draffin, head of the agency's marine unit and dive team. "But we might have to let nature take its course."

Parker has been missing since about 2 p.m. Sunday, when his 36-foot speedboat flipped as it sped alongside another boat about a mile south of the Gandy Bridge.

The front of his Spectre boat lifted out of the water, came back down on a wave and lifted again.

The underside of the aerodynamic boat was hit by enough air to flip it over backward.

Morse compared it to "skipping a stone across the water."

The occupants of the second boat weren't hurt. They couldn't find Parker, but they were able to pull Parker's female passengers, South Tampa residents Jodi Forca and Helene "Chris" Sears, from the water.

Forca, 27, was treated and released from Tampa General Hospital. She is a former physical education teacher and fitness instructor who quit her teaching job to co-found Premier Concierge, an errand-running company.

She was recuperating at home Monday. A friend described her as "okay" but shaken by the ordeal.

Sears, 29, who lives near Forca in a townhome, remained at Tampa General in serious condition, officials said. Records show she has an occupational therapy license.

Neither Parker nor the two women were wearing life jackets Sunday, Morse said.

"The primary factor (for their survival) is because the other vessel reacted so quickly to pull them out of the water," Morse said.

Parker's boat was made in Clearwater by Jay Pilini, who owns Spectre Powerboats. The boats feature tunnel hulls, or catamaran-type hulls. The 2002, 36-foot Spectres retail for about $320,000 and typically feature two 500-horsepower engines.

"If you're going to run over 100 mph in a catamaran, it is inherently dangerous," said former power boater Michael Allweiss, former chairman and CEO of the American Power Boat Association's Offshore Division.

"You're talking about a combination of a boat and an airplane."

Although Parker had owned the boat for about six or seven months, friends said he was an experienced boater who had previously owned a pair of smaller Wellcraft boats.

Allweiss was on his 28-foot boat heading toward the Harborage Marina in St. Petersburg on Sunday afternoon when he noticed Parker's boat and another go past, about 2 miles out in Tampa Bay.

"You could hear and see the two of them running across the bay," said Allweiss, 40. "They were hauling the mail. Really going fast."

Morse said there is no speed limit for boats in that part of the bay, "but the nautical rules of the road say you must maintain a safe and reasonable speed."

Morse would not say whether the two boats were racing, only that witnesses placed the second boat at least 75 feet away from Parker's.

Morse also would not release the names of the people in the second boat.

Draffin, of the Tampa police marine unit, said occupants of the second boat returned to the crash scene with searchers after the accident to try to pinpoint the location where Parker's boat flipped.

Chris Parker lived a success story.

Fast boats, pretty women, plenty of longtime friends, a half-million-dollar home in St. Petersburg's Tanglewood neighborhood.

All by the age of 37.

Less than two years after launching Bonefish Grill restaurant on Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg, and then another in Sarasota, Parker and co-founder Tim Curci were approached by Outback Steakhouse.

As part of a 50/50 partnership, the Tampa company invested $7.5-million in the pair's homegrown concept.

Outback also agreed to pay them $1.5-million, a 1 percent royalty on adjusted gross sales and undisclosed salaries.

Today, Bonefish has 40 locations in 10 states, with 38 more locations planned for 2004.

Business associates say Parker, a St. Petersburg native, had come to enjoy expensive pleasures like his boats. And despite long hours, Parker, who was single, found time to socialize.

"After several years of hard work, he was enjoying the monetary rewards," said Richard Martin, who owns the St. Petersburg strip mall where the first Bonefish Grill is located. "Unfortunately, I guess it's proved to be his demise."

Chris Parker's father, St. Petersburg resident William Louis Parker, spent Sunday afternoon and evening at the Gandy Bridge boat dock, awaiting word about his son.

On Monday, he boarded a plane provided by Outback to bring his two daughters and Chris Parker's mother back from South Carolina, said Darlene Cavin, a manager at Florida Mattress in Zephyrhills, a business owned by the elder Parker.

Randi Gossett, one of Parker's friends who gathered Monday at the boat ramp, described Parker as an experienced boater.

"I never saw anyone parallel park a 36-footer without batting an eye like he did," she said. "I grew up on the water, and I never felt safer on the water with anybody as I did with Chris."

_ Times staff writers Sandra Amhrein, Scott Barancik, Graham Brink, Tom Zucco and researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or svansicklersptimes.com.

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