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‘Our family is hurting right now.’ Gulfport boaters battered by Eta

Gulfport’s tight-knit boating community lives on the water. Then Tropical Storm Eta rolled in and threatened their homes in Boca Ciega Bay.

GULFPORT — Roberto Ojeda and his friend Robert Cox decided to ride out Tropical Storm Eta aboard Cox’s boat, Paramour, while anchored in Boca Ciega Bay. It started getting rough after 9 p.m. Wednesday and Ojeda remembers the pounding of the waves and the sound of the other boats breaking loose.

“I was pretty terrified because it was blowing 70 mph and the dock was blowing up,” the 24-year-old said.

So began a harrowing night for Gulfport’s tight-knit community of boaters, who looked out for each other as Eta struck. They awoke Thursday to find that the tropical storm had unmoored their boats — which many call home — and tossed several onto shore.

Related: Latest Updates: The aftermath of Tropical Storm Eta
A washed up sailboat leans against the railing bordering the waterfront walking path the morning after Tropical Storm Eta battered Gulfport's tight-knit community of boaters. The storm inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region, and rendered some Gulfport boaters homeless.
A washed up sailboat leans against the railing bordering the waterfront walking path the morning after Tropical Storm Eta battered Gulfport's tight-knit community of boaters. The storm inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region, and rendered some Gulfport boaters homeless. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

A total of about 14 boats got loose, said Megan Woods, who has lived on a boat in Boca Ciega Bay for the past year. One sank, and at least six sailboats and dinghies ended up beached.

It could have been worse, had not some boaters helped rescue their neighbors during the storm.

“I’m lucky enough to have a momma that would pull me out by my hair if I was out here, but we’re a family and a community out here,” Woods said. “Those of us that were out here tried to look out for each other as best we could.”

“It didn’t matter if people were on a mooring ball or at anchor, the winds out here reached 70, almost 80 mph and just dragged them loose.”

Many live aboard their boats in the mooring field, Woods said, so there were quite a few people rendered homeless by the storm. She helped set up a Gofundme page through the Boats of Ciega Bay Facebook page to help those affected by the storm afford motel rooms and pay to have their boats towed off the shore.

“Our family is hurting right now,” she said.

A washed up sailboat left on the beach by Tropical Storm Eta, which battered Gulfport's tight-knit community of boaters. The storm inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region, and rendered some Gulfport boaters homeless.
A washed up sailboat left on the beach by Tropical Storm Eta, which battered Gulfport's tight-knit community of boaters. The storm inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region, and rendered some Gulfport boaters homeless. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Leo Potts' is one of the handful that awoke to find his sailboat home stuck on land. The 57-year-old said he has been living primarily on the boat for the past six months.

He said he stayed at a friend’s house on Wednesday night to avoid the powerful waves. The boat suffered no damage, he said, but it’s now located in front of the Gulfport Beach playground. It needs to be towed back into the water, he said.

Potts’ crew mate, a plastic Halloween skeleton named “Captain Slim,” managed to cling to the sailboat and survive the storm. Captain Slim was wearing a lifejacket.

"Captain Slim" is a plastic Halloween skeleton that survived Tropical Storm Eta aboard Leo Potts' sailboat. Note that Captain Slim wore his lifejacket. The storm inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region, and rendered some Gulfport boaters homeless.
"Captain Slim" is a plastic Halloween skeleton that survived Tropical Storm Eta aboard Leo Potts' sailboat. Note that Captain Slim wore his lifejacket. The storm inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region, and rendered some Gulfport boaters homeless. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

So were Ojeda and Cox, known as “Captain Stagger” in the boating community here, which they wore when they took a paddle board to answer the distress calls their fellow houseboat dwellers sent through the group text chat. The waves threatened to unmoor the vessels.

“I was trying to save boats that were breaking loose but it was impossible,” Ojeda said.

“We managed to save a couple of boats from getting destroyed," he said, then pointed at a beached sailboat. "But obviously not all of them.”

When conditions made it too difficult to secure the boats, they turned their focus to getting people off of them. The storm swamped Cox’s dinghy, so they just hopped onto Ojeda’s paddleboard and used it to bring people to shore.

“The paddleboard was the only thing that would work,” he said. “Any other boat would have sunk.”

A washed up sailboat pushed onto the beach by Tropical Storm Eta.  It battered Gulfport's tight-knit community of boaters and inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region.
A washed up sailboat pushed onto the beach by Tropical Storm Eta. It battered Gulfport's tight-knit community of boaters and inflicted flood and wind damage across the Tampa Bay region. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

They helped a neighbor known as “Dee” whose boat was jammed up on a sea wall by tying her boat to a couple palm trees, Cox said. They helped another neighbor known as “Too Tall” get off his boat.

Come Thursday morning, Ojeda said he spent the day helping his friends get their lives back together.

“These were people’s homes that washed up,” he said. They’re trying to find somewhere to live."

“It’s a tragedy. It was a rough night, but nobody lost their life. That was the best part — nobody died.”

Times staff writer James Borchuck contributed to this report.

• • •

How to help:

To donate to the Gulfport boaters displaced by Tropical Storm Eta, visit the GoFundMe created by the community.

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