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One boater finds no escape from Ivan

When Sid Rice heard Hurricane Ivan might head toward Tampa Bay, the avid bluewater angler knew he better do something about his recently refurbished 50-foot Hatteras.

"You either take a boat like that out of the water or move it out of the path of the storm," Rice said. "They had no room at the marina, so I only had one option _ move it."

On Sept. 10, with the west coast of Florida the likely target, Rice, who had been watching the Weather Channel, studied the map and thought the Panhandle looked like a safe place to ride out the storm.

"I knew Florida was playing Tennessee in Knoxville the following weekend," said Rice, who goes by the nom de guerre "King Gator." "I figured that after the storm passes we could just keep going and watch the game."

Rice had some business that demanded attention, so he hired charter captain Larry Blue and his son, Joe, to take the Hatteras to Panama City, where he would meet them in a day or two.

"The boat's top speed is only 16 knots," Rice said. "So if you are going anywhere you need to get an early start."

Ranney Suttoon, the boat's engineer, went along. "Which was a good thing because 90 miles from Panama City they blew a drive oil pump," Rice said.

By Sunday afternoon Rice had found a replacement, and by that evening he had hopped a flight to meet his crew.

"I get to the marina and who do I run into but the Weather Channel's storm chaser, Jim Cantore, who is there do a live broadcast," Rice said. "That is not a good sign."

With the storm taking a more westerly track, Rice had to decide whether to travel east or west.

"The storm looked like it might still be headed a little east so we headed toward Mobile Bay," Rice said. "We knew a captain there who said he would help us out."

The charter boat captains of southern Alabama have seen their share of hurricanes.

"When a big storm is coming, they pack up and head upriver," Rice said. "They sit it out in a hurricane hole."

Floridians often call a safe anchorage, such as the one near the town of Satsuma, a "mosquito pit," Rice said.

As Rice and his colleagues headed upriver the morning of Sept. 14, they passed beneath a bridge and saw Cantore again.

"I started getting calls from people at home who saw our boat on the Weather Channel," Rice said. "Once again I wondered if I had made the right decision."

Rice didn't have a chart for that section of Alabama, and he found it difficult to keep up with faster boats with similar plans.

"Were we supposed to go right or left at the crane?" he asked over the radio. "Left? What about the pink house? Right?"

But by dark Rice and the skippers of 11 other boats found themselves nestled into a sheltered S curve of the river 10 miles northwest of Mobile, Ala.

"We were all tied up together," he said. "Basically it was one big party."

When the storm made landfall Sept. 16, Rice and his friends barely noticed the 85 to 100 mph winds.

"We had a 5-foot storm surge," he said. "But the water never really got any rougher than John's Pass on a windy day."

After the storm the boat broke down again, and Rice missed the football game.

"I get to travel with the team to one game a year," he said. "And that was it."

But mechanical mishaps didn't stop "King Gator" from supporting his team. "I got on the (satellite) phone and called the gang at Gator's (on the Pass) and led them all in the Gator cheer," he said.

Looking back, Rice said he wouldn't have done anything differently.

"But I'll tell you what next time I run into Jim Cantore, I'm heading the other way," he said.