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An eyesore a few call home

(ran Beach, East, South, Seminole editions)

West of Bay Pines VA Medical Center, just south of the Tom Stuart Causeway, lies a body of water where old boats go to die and remnants of old Florida cling to a fading way of life.

A boat graveyard of sorts, the area known as Hurricane Hole has for years housed the skeletons of once-seaworthy vessels, sacrificed by their owners to the quiet shallows of the basin.

For many boats that pass from the neighboring Intracoastal Waterway through the neck of the basin, the journey to Hurricane Hole is the equivalent of taking one's beloved but feeble dog for a ride in the country.

Here, in a cove enclosed by mangroves, the abandoned shells of dinghies and houseboats and sailboats slowly sink into their watery graves, the exposed masts and cabin tops the only reminders they ever existed.

For passers-by on the causeway, the basin is an eyesore in need of a cleanup. It's Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer David Albonetti's job to do just that.

"It's a mess," he said Friday of the area he's policed for three years. " . . . I know people are complaining about it and it's something I have to look at every time I go to work because I pass by it. It's something that needs my attention."

For people like Marcelo Benedicto, 62, it's home.

He and a handful of others make up part of the largely transient population of those who choose to live here aboard their boats. Though it's not the only place like this in the area _ Crystal Beach in Palm Harbor is also popular _ they say the area is known along the state's west coast as a haven for those seeking shelter from sometimes steep marina fees, without much bother from local authorities.

Theirs is a disappearing Florida lifestyle.

In this waterborne community, bartering makes money largely unnecessary and answering nature's call involves port-a-potties and visits to federally approved disposal stations, Benedicto said. Tobacco, fuel and food are the staples of survival.

Occupants here seem to share a tacit understanding with law enforcement officials: They live in peace in exchange for information on the goings-on in the basin.

"Nothing's free in Waterworld," Benedicto said.

No one personifies that more than the retired charter boat captain.

Benedicto keeps current on the news in his neighbors' lives. He knows how the wind was blowing on Christmas night, who's fighting and who's pulled anchor.

"I like to know when I fall asleep who's in here so they don't sneak up and take what I got," he said from the deck of My Girl, his 1966, 32-foot Islander on Wednesday. "It's happened. People leave and everything leaves with 'em."

He knows what everyone did before their lives intersected here. From Bob, a born-again Christian, to Frankie, a diabetic veteran who needs to be close to the VA hospital, Benedicto calls them all survivors.

Bob Klimas, 71, has been a live-aboard for 30 years, two of which he's spent in the Hole. The proximity to the VA hospital next door, which he visits every two weeks for a laundry list of ailments, makes the area attractive to him.

The lifestyle keeps him hooked for completely different reasons.

"I'm a single guy," he said. "I need a house like I need leprosy. It costs me 30 cents to get out of the harbor in gas and I'm out, wherever I want to go. . . . You don't like your neighbors, you pull your anchor and move away."

Despite a generally simple existence, denizens say the attitude toward live-aboards grows steadily more hostile. Both Benedicto and Klimas spoke of heading south to more boat-friendly locales such as Marathon and St. Thomas.

"I have a right to live this way," Klimas said. "Why are they taking it away? They have no right to."

Among the 31 boats in the small basin on Wednesday morning, six were sunken. Four or five housed live-aboards. The rest floated in the four feet of water, in varying degrees of decay.

Legally, a city's mooring laws determine what action can be taken to remove the boats. Each city is different, said Sgt. Dwayne Somers of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

In state waters, no action can be taken against the abandoned boats' owners unless they are sinking, create navigational hazards or lack proper registration, Albonetti said.

Somers said the Sheriff's Office makes periodic visits to the Hole to note if any new boats are sinking or have sunk. If so, they give the boats' GPS locations to the Fish and Wildlife commission, which marks it with a bright, orange DV (for derelict vessel) and a number. The commission contacts the county's coastal management office and they remove the boat, if its owner can't be located.

Enforcement remains a problem, however, because the abandoned boats' owners are difficult to find due to registration numbers that are illegally sanded off and a lack of up-to-date contact information, Somers said.

On average, the county receives $300,000 from the state's Florida Boating Improvement Fund, which is generated from the vessel registration fees. Boat recoveries average roughly $2,000 each, said Nicole Elko, the county's coastal management coordinator. With roughly seven recoveries per year, derelict vessel recovery is a small portion of the program, Elko said.

Those who live in Hurricane Hole typically take care of the boats left behind, sometimes attaching their own anchors to the boats so they don't crash into their vessels.

Benedicto said people often come in "the middle of the night and dump 'em."

"We have to take care of them once they start floating around," he said. "It's an elephant burial ground. Anything they want to get rid of, they dump in here."

He points out a white and blue sailboat called the Elizabeth K. that bobs in the water not 15 yards from his boat.

With rust permeating every surface from the mast to the hull and trailing down the sides, it is the Hole's longest occupant, having floated here since Benedicto anchored six years ago.

Live-aboards view that as a sign of the Hole's longevity. Law enforcement officials see it as a challenge to overcome.

"Is there more out there? Yeah," said Albonetti, the Fish and Wildlife commission officer. "Did I get two more today? Yeah. But I'm doing the best I can."

BY THE NUMBERS

$300,000

The amount of funding Pinellas County received last year from the state for its Florida Boating Improvement Program

$2,000

The average cost of removing derelict vessels from the water

7

The average number removed from Pinellas County waters annually

10-12

The number being investigated for removal so far this year, due in part to the four hurricanes

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