Dozens shove free the boat that Debby tossed on Gulfport's sands. The hospitalized owner is "very grateful."
Published Aug. 2, 2012

Sailors showed up first. By 7 a.m. Wednesday, eight boats had anchored off the swimming beach, forming an arc around the big sloop that had been grounded for more than a month. An hour later, 20 volunteers waded into the water carrying shovels and ropes.

One man borrowed a pump from Home Depot to try to blow sand from beneath the hull, which was buried 4 feet deep. Another sped his dinghy around, trying to carve a trough with his wake.

Most of them didn't know John "Captain Jay" Burki, 66, or his bulldog Dreamer, who lived aboard the 45-foot cruiser. Some had heard his story: How his boat, Promise, was blown ashore during Tropical Storm Debby, how town officials had been fining him $93 a day, and threatened to hack up his home if it wasn't off the beach by Aug. 1, how Burki was beaten up and hospitalized Sunday night.

"It's just so sad," said Annie Sturges, who had driven from Pinellas Park with her husband, Joe. "I mean, this was his home, his life, and he needs help."

Most of the volunteers didn't know what the plan was. But they knew they had to try.

"No one was doing anything about it, so I figured we could get some people out here and take care of this ourselves," said Steve Smith, 56, a sailboat rigger who spearheaded the rescue.

His idea sounded simple: Lighten the boat, then tie it to the sailboats. "We are going to use the anchored boats' winches to try to pull it over on its side and free the keel," he said. "When the boat starts to bob, we can bounce it off the beach, then try to float her out into deeper water."

High tide was at noon. "We have to do it by then," said Smith.

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Burki grew up in St. Petersburg, served 16 years in the Navy, became an electrician, married five times. He had lived on boats since he retired in 2006. For the past two years, Promise had been his home.

He had been anchored in Boca Ciega Bay, driving his dinghy to shore when he needed groceries - until Tropical Storm Debby snapped his anchor line June 24.

The boat was beaten up, the mast snapped, the engine dead. A rusty washing machine sat on the top deck. Through dirty windows, you could see boxes and engine parts piled high.

"It's a shame that he's in this predicament," said City Manager James O'Reilly. "So many people have tried to help, and the town has tried to give him time. But we can't just leave it there."

Someone donated a U-Haul. A storage company donated a unit. On Monday and Tuesday, while Burki was still in the hospital with a shattered jaw, friends and strangers carried his belongings off the boat to lighten it.

"We must have unloaded 3 tons of cockroach-infested stuff," said Smith, the boat rigger. "Everything was covered with dog feces and urine. I don't know how he lived in there."

Seth Meinders, one of Burki's boater friends, was taking care of his dog, Dreamer. He said he had offered to let Burki move in with him while he healed. "I don't know what his plans are after that," Meinders said. "Or what he's going to do with the boat."

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By 10 a.m., another 20 volunteers had arrived and the beach was packed with about 150 spectators. Moms strolled up, pushing babies. A grandmom planted a red umbrella. A group of women unfolded canvas chairs.

Everyone took out their cellphones to snap pictures.

"It's like our own Costa Concordia!" laughed a bald man.

"A Gulfport-style barn raising."

"The coffee shop was closed this morning," complained a man in sunglasses, "because the owner had to come down here and help."

While the sailboat owners cranked their winches, the volunteers in waist-deep water started to push.

"One, two, three, heave!" shouted a man in yellow swim trunks. The boat shifted slightly. "Again!" The mast tipped. "You're moving it!" he yelled.

"It's shifting," Meinders agreed. "But it ain't near to floating."

Someone suggested that instead of trying to shove the sloop sideways, they rock it back and forth.

"Bow!" cried the self-appointed coxswain. Everybody by the front of the boat pushed. "Stern!" he screamed. The team at the back shoved hard.

"Come on in, this isn't a private party. We need your help!" a red-faced woman called to the crowd. "Come on, people, get out here and make this happen!"

A couple of men peeled off their shirts and splashed through the sea grass. "Bow!" yelled the group at the front. "Stern!" came the call from the rear.

For two hours, as lightning flashed, thunder rumbled and a mist began to fall over Gulfport Beach, the team of strangers pushed. The tide crept in, waves crawling over the volunteers' shoulders.

At 12:35, with the water lapping everyone's chins, Promise tipped to a 45-degree angle, then skidded about 50 feet down the beach.

"Hooraay!" the crowd cheered. "Woot-Woot!" Cameras clicked. Cars honked as the boat slid slowly back to sea.

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Burki was in his bed at Bay Pines VA Hospital when he saw his home on the evening news. "Look! She's floating!" he said through his wired jaw. "I'm very, very grateful to all those people."

He isn't sure when he will be recovered enough to be released. When he gets out, he said, he wants to go home. Friends anchored Promise in deep water where the boat should be safe. At least until the next storm.

"I don't know what damage I'll have to fix," Burki said. "But I want to get her going and get back on the water, sail away and see the world. Or maybe, at least, Key West."

Times staff writer Laura Morel contributed to this report.

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Heave, ho!

Watch volunteers push the grounded sailboat free from Gulfport Beach and read previous coverage at