FORT MYERS — On a steamy Saturday in September, almost a year after Hurricane Ian crashed into Southwest Florida, Paul DeGaeta drives south, searching for dead boats.
There are thousands of them.
They aren’t his. He doesn’t know the owners. He has nothing to do with them, really, except as a captain, he needs to know:
What happened to all those vessels that the storm buried at sea, slammed onshore, hurled into houses?
“I’ve had love affairs with every boat I’ve owned,” says DeGaeta, 69, who goes by the moniker Capt. Paul. “When you lose one, it leaves a hole.”
An unmanned sailboat, set loose after the storm, started his quest. A marooned sailor kept him going.
Every month, he makes another expedition to discover lost vessels, scouring shores from Englewood to Naples.
“I’ve found 750 of them so far,” he says, steering toward Fort Myers Beach. “That’s just a fraction of the thousands that were lost.”
He has photographed boats tossed into bushes, impaled on pilings, thrust through mobile homes. Broken yachts and speedboats, trawlers and tugs, cabin cruisers, catamarans.
So many people’s homes, jobs, dreams.
One sailboat, in particular, has eluded him. His white whale — the boat of an old sailor, a departed friend. “Still haven’t found Capt. Jay’s Chinook Breeze,” he says, shaking his head. “That one might never make it out of the mangroves.”
• • •
At first, he took the pictures for himself. As a historian and lifelong waterman, Capt. Paul wanted to document the destruction, honor the loss.
Soon the project consumed him.
He met shrimpers who had ridden out the hurricane’s 15-foot surge on their trawlers; heard about a couple who had held their 3-year-old triplets on a fishing boat all night. And he befriended Capt. Jay, a wizened waterman who was below deck when his sailboat was thrown ashore and had to be rescued by helicopter.
One man he talked to, who was sitting by a crushed catamaran, told Capt. Paul he had found a body, floating.
“So many people lost everything,” says Capt. Paul.
Hurricane Ian killed 150 people and caused more than $109 billion in damages — Florida’s costliest storm.
While reporters chronicled those losses, Capt. Paul was pulled back to the boats.
People should see this, he decided. This whole watery world, lost.
In June, he self-published 128 pages of glossy photos and short vignettes about more than 700 boats. Part love story, part obituary, he calls his booklet: “Hurricane Ian Boats Gone Bad.”
He printed 100 copies, mailed them to the governor, Lee County commissioners, Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel. No one responded. Facebook friends bought the rest, for $35 each.
Recovery grinds on. All summer, cranes, barges and helicopters have been carrying away broken boats. Others have been unearthed from woods and remote islands.
Capt. Paul is compiling their stories, planning to print an updated version of his tribute.
• • •
When he pulls onto Fisherman’s Wharf, Jimmy Buffett tunes are wafting from Bonita Bill’s waterfront bar. Buffett had died the day before. “Some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic, but I had a good life all the way …”
Before he gets out of his car, he sees the Bachelor Pad. The 42-foot boat is still where the storm shoved it, harpooned between pilings, its bow pointed skyward, chomping the dock like a lunging Jaws.
Capt. Paul had featured it on page 55 under the headline, “Bellying up to the bar.”
“Looks like that one will be in here for a while,” he says.
Officials condemned the boat, but no one has paid to remove it.
Please don’t write on me, says a sign taped to the hull. This was someone’s home.
Capt. Paul snaps photos, then orders a Bloody Mary and sits back to share his story.
• • •
“My dad was a firefighter in Brooklyn. My first memories are him threading fishing rods, waiting to retire to Florida,” he says.
He was 4 when his parents bought a house sight unseen near Punta Gorda on the Peace River. “Lying on the seawall, I watched a zillion little shrimp, like stars, scuttling through the grass; a tarpon roll by, flashing its silver side; stingrays, snook, even a manatee. … Took my breath away.”
He got his first boat when he was 8, an early fiberglass model with a little outboard engine. He grew up on the river fishing and studying its secrets.
A football scholarship lured him inland, to Kansas. After graduating, he worked four years as a policy analyst. Then Buffett sang through his radio about “going out on the sea for adventure,” and Capt. Paul headed back to the Sunshine State.
The rest of his biography is framed around boats. Punctuated by hurricanes.
“The very first thing I did in Florida was purchase a 19-foot Mako,” says Capt. Paul. “I named her Say Si Roxanne, after the Police song.”
He sold yachts, cleaned them, dove beneath them to scrape barnacles for $4 a foot.
Many watermen stick to one sort of vessel. Capt. Paul tried everything. Drove a 34-person passenger boat around Captiva Island. Captained a shrimp boat. Worked as a “live bait” tarpon guide. Steered a 40-foot tugboat. He worked for Domino’s Pizza Inc., sailing three of their yachts from Cancun, Mexico, to the Great Lakes. In 1990, he bought a historic three-masted schooner whose silhouette is stamped on the 2003 Maine quarter.
“I’ve run vessels to the Bahamas, Mexico, Antigua and England,” says Capt. Paul. “But by 40, I had a wife and three boys. I’d been away so long, I’d already missed a lot.”
He started dropping anchor during the school year, building displays for local museums. In 2010, he began a second career teaching culinary arts at Charlotte High School, where he and his sons graduated. During summers, he went back to the water, running windjammer excursions.
“I lost my first house and first boat to Hurricane Charley in 2004,” he says. “I’ve been through every retired hurricane name in Southwest Florida: Donna, Andrew, Charley, Wilma, Irma and Ian.”
• • •
He had wanted to ride out the last storm at his home on the Peace River. But his wife made him evacuate. He helped his sons secure the family boat in an aluminum barn.
Three days later, he returned to find the screened porch destroyed, a mango tree through the roof. The barn had collapsed, crushing the boat.
He felt relieved. Friends on the beaches, he knew, had taken a harsher beating.
That afternoon, he was on the dock, looking at the swollen river, when he saw a sailboat slide by. “It was floating fast,” Capt. Paul says, “heading toward the highway bridge.”
He watched it for a while before he realized: No one was on board.
It had survived the Category 4 storm, but the flooded river broke its lines — and was carrying it out to the Gulf of Mexico.
Three weeks later, as soon as bridges reopened, Capt. Paul headed toward the beach, hoping to find that ghost ship. “In the first four minutes,” he says, “I saw more boats ‘on the hard’ than I had in 40 years.”
A schooner called The Black Pearl had crashed behind a bowling alley. The charter boat Cracker Jack was on top of a Suburban. A 102-foot luxury yacht, Skylounge, was stuck in the muck.
As Capt. Paul photographed their remains, he started to cry.
It wasn’t just the shredded sails and bashed hulls. He kept thinking about the plans and hopes those boats represented. This was someone’s retirement. That was somebody’s sanctuary.
“There’s something magical about being on boats,” says Capt. Paul. The rhythm of the waves rocking you, the briny air, salt spray sticky in your hair. Leaving land, being untethered.
When you’re young, he says, boats mean Sunday afternoons on the sandbar, drinking beer with your buddies. Then come sunsets and wine. “You save for years to afford that escape.
“And then in a blink it’s all gone.”
• • •
When he finishes his drink, Capt. Paul walks through the bar’s parking lot, toward the Matanzas Pass Bridge. Six months ago, dozens of people were camped in tents beneath the span after the hurricane destroyed their live-aboard boats. He met Capt. Jay Burki here, lying on a towel on the pavement.
Capt. Paul felt a kinship to the 76-year-old waterman, whose story had been chronicled by the Tampa Bay Times. Like him, Capt. Jay had spent more time at sea than on land, and had piloted all sorts of crafts. He visited Capt. Jay’s tent for five months, got him a generator, brought him roast beef and rum. He even helped find a battered sailboat for the old sailor to move onto. But before Capt. Jay was able to make it seaworthy, he had a heart attack on the boat and died.
“He never made it back on the water,” says Capt. Paul. “But at least he got back on a boat. … I just wish I could find the one he lost.”
Capt. Paul follows the water along the Matanzas Harbor. There on the pier is a scene exactly as he’d captured it on page 56: “The trawler Clam Digger charged up the dock on the storm surge,” he wrote, “getting close enough to order the fried shrimp at Bonita Bill’s.”
The four-passenger boat was still slumped on its side, its teal hull pushed against the pilings. Like so many vessels, it hadn’t moved in almost a year.
“Looks like Lexi Joe is back in business,” Capt. Paul says, heading toward another dock where that boat had been tied. The local shrimping fleet had a dozen boats before the hurricane. He’d watched some slide back into the bay, restored, others get demolished.
One of the last pages of his booklet features a photograph of a bulldozer clutching a trawler.
“The Perseverance I,” he wrote, “one of the shrimp boats that Hurricane Ian completely destroyed, gives up the ghost as she is crushed into moveable pieces.”
• • •
Before Hurricane Ian, Florida had 580 derelict boats in its database.
Since the storm, officers from the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have visited 4,200 battered vessels in the water and on land.
First, officials slapped yellow “assessed” stickers on the hulls. Owners had until about Thanksgiving to remove their boats. Then the deadline was extended until the end of 2022.
Red notices came next, signaling that the boat had to go. Removals run $400 to $800 per foot, says Ashlee Sklute of the FWC. “So a 30-foot yacht could cost between $12,000 and $24,000 to remove.”
For some boat owners, insurance helps with removal. But many have to cover the cost on their own. If they don’t dispose of the vessel, the Department of Emergency Management steps in. By mid-September, workers had hauled 412 derelict vessels from Charlotte, Collier, Lee and Monroe counties.
Hundreds more are awaiting their fates.
• • •
“Oh, they got rid of those,” Capt. Paul says, steering past Salty Sam’s Marina, where boats had been strewn along the waterfront. “So many got walloped in here.”
He drives by Port Carlos Cove, where mangled mobile homes, crushed by a houseboat, had been hauled away. Past the nearby RV park, also empty.
After a couple of blocks, he stops at a sprawling gravel lot that stretches to the water. “This is a collecting area,” he says. “Boats that get brought in by barge and crane get dumped here until they are hauled off or broken up and disposed of.”
He has driven past this graveyard on five different visits. Each time the inventory is different. Old boats gone, new wrecks waiting, each bearing the red sticker.
Capt. Paul drives through rows of vessels: Intervention from Anna Maria Island. Diamond Gem from Miami. Caeruleus from Kansas.
“Are you kidding me?” he says.
At the back of the lot, he sees a white sailboat in the dirt. Its bow is bashed in. A gaping hole in its starboard side looks like a wound.
Capt. Paul stops the car. Squints to see the scripted name: Chinook Breeze.
“Capt. Jay’s boat!” he gasps. “He brought us here.”
He takes off his sunglasses and wipes his eyes.
A lifejacket is wrapped around the dented steering wheel. A toaster sits beneath it. Branches and seagrass are tangled in the rigging.
Capt. Paul shakes his head, picturing the sailboat riding the surge into the mangroves, his friend waking up on the sand, having to abandon this beloved boat.
He takes photos for the magazine. Picks up two wooden plugs from the deck, souvenirs for himself.
“I can’t believe we found his boat,” he says, smiling for the first time all day.
To order “Hurricane Ian Boats Gone Bad,” email Capt. Paul DeGaeta at: firstname.lastname@example.org