Sea of sadness -- remembering all the fishermen lost to the gulf

Published November 7 2018
Updated November 12 2018

On March 29, 1943, Sam Renney took four men fishing on the Miss Detroit, a 37-foot cabin cruiser. When he didnít return, young Bill didnít worry. Authorities were rationing gas in wartime and he had probably run dry, his mother told him.

The next day, a fishing boat found a gas tank and a charred life preserver - but no sign of the rest of the Miss Detroit or her crew.

Sixty-seven years later, Renney still wonders what happened to his father. Dozens of other people bear the same sad burden, pining for loved ones who died or vanished while fishing in the Gulf of Mexico.

A group of Johnís Pass Village merchants has been raising money for a memorial to the Tampa Bay fishermen who have died in the gulf waters. They want to pay homage to the dead but donít know how many there are. Though the true number is unknowable, we wanted to get as close as possible.

The St. Petersburg Times reviewed newspaper archives and arrived at a disquieting number: at least 140 since 1933.

Fifty-five percent were recreational fishermen.

The other 45 percent were professionals, including longline fishermen who knew how to lean into waves, standing at 45 degrees while their boats spooled out 2,500 hooks on 10 miles of cable. But their experience could not save them from explosions at sea or the rogue waves fishermen call "widowmakers."

Of 140 known Tampa Bay area fishing-related deaths, the bodies of 87 - nearly two-thirds - were never found. The absence of a body can leave family members with a thin hope that their loved one is alive somewhere, which exacerbates the anguish.

Tourists who know the island communities for sand beaches and tourist-trap shops may not be aware that a sizable commercial fishing fleet still exists. An estimated 100 commercial boats unload cargo in Madeira Beach, according to the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, bringing tons of fresh fish and hundreds of jobs to the area.

In the late 1980s, SOFA erected a sign honoring fishermen who died or were lost. For about a dozen years, the sign greeted shoppers entering the boardwalk on Johnís Pass Village.

Then in 2000, Johnís Pass underwent renovations.

Like so many fishermen swept to sea, the sign disappeared.

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Up and down Gulf Boulevard, signs link Madeira Beach to its founding occupation. The Friendly Fisherman. Dockside Daveís. Madeira Beach Seafood Co.

The Church by the Sea served as a beacon for fishermen, who used the light on its steeple to guide them home.

But accounting for the fishing communityís maritime tragedies - those who didnít make it home - is not easy. The U.S. Coast Guard declined to release a list of names of fishermen who have died at sea. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also didnít have a comprehensive list.

But an archive search of the St. PetersburgTimes and Bradenton Herald turned up 140 fishing-related deaths in the past 80 years. Most of the fishermen are from Pinellas County, mainly Madeira Beach, though some left ports in Citrus, Pasco, Hillsborough and Manatee counties.

The stories are harrowing:

Nov. 17, 1933: The Xios, a sponge boat, left Tarpon Springs with a crew of four. The boat and crew were never seen again, though another boat reported seeing smoke in the area where the Xios may have been located.

June 27, 1948: Hazel, a fishing charter, departed Cedar Key with 15 people aboard. Thirty miles out, there was an explosion from the engine room. Thirteen people died.

Oct. 30, 1983: Tony Lathan, a promising outfielder in the Boston Red Sox farm system, was shark fishing off Bradenton when the boat took on water and sank. Lathan, 21, couldnít swim. Two teammates in the boat survived.

Aug. 24, 1984: Tomisene Washington and Larry Griffin left Cedar Key to go fishing. Griffin, 28, was never found. Partial remains of Washington, 31, were found 10 days later - in the belly of a tiger shark.

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At 5:18 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2000, Whitney Taggart disappeared from the Blue Chip 50 miles west of Venice Inlet. Four crew members told the Coast Guard they were below when Taggart, the 41-year-old captain, went overboard.

"If you want to know suffering, tell me somebody is off the boat," said his sister, Jane Taggart. "Itís the most horrible thing I have ever been through in my life."

Her brother was a lean man with shoulder-length, twisting blond hair.

Taggart, 43, is still carrying the pain of the loss.

"The mind plays evil games with you," she said. "When did he take his last breath? What was he thinking? What happened?

"You want some answers. You want a body. You want some evidence."

The family held a wake on the beach two days after the Coast Guard called off the search.

Jane Taggart could not bring herself to attend, and has yet to memorialize her brother in a formal way.

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All the deaths occurred in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

"You think itís like the Atlantic Ocean, where you get big rollers and swells," said Bob Spaeth, an owner of Madeira Beach Seafood Co. "Here we get closer-together waves, but higher."

The difference, said University of South Florida oceanographer Bob Weisberg, is shallower water created by the Continental Shelf - which extends as far west of Florida as the state is wide.

"Twenty-five miles offshore it might only be 100 feet deep," Weisberg said.

When high winds come over the shallow Continental Shelf - and water reacts to the hard ground bottom - seas have nowhere to go but up.

"Deeper is safer," Weisberg said. "Waves are not feeling the bottom. In deep water, those waves tend to be not as steep and they tend to be longer."

"If you ride down the front of a wave, the bow digs into the wave in front of you," said Mark Hubbard, who runs the charter boat business out of Hubbardís Marina in Johnís Pass Village. "You have no time to recover from one wave to the next."

But Weisberg said fishermen bear some of the blame.

"A lot of times you have boats that are not in the best of repair," Weisberg said.

For years, Richard Wabberson fished in a 69-foot boat, the Missy Cindy, out of Tarpon Springs.

"Iíve seen a lot of boats I wouldnít cross the river in go offshore," said Wabberson, 62.

On March 20, Wabbersonís son, John, 23, fell over the side of the Missy Cindy. Wabberson searched for 18 hours but never found him.

Now Wabberson, who said he captained boats for 35 years on every continent, lives in Georgia and fishes swamp flats.

"I have no desire to go offshore ever again," he said.

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March 13, 1993: Gene Ippoliti was sitting in his long johns on the captainís chair of the Mary C sipping coffee. A mate they called Shorty was rousting up breakfast in the ice box, where the crew had stashed groceries and 450 pounds of grouper. It was a windy morning, the sun shining.

Then something slapped the boat upside down. "I woke up underwater in the dark," said Ippoliti, 48. "I was starved for air."

He saw a light spot in the water. His window. The wave had blown it out.

On the surface, Ippoliti tasted diesel fuel. Groceries floated by. He grabbed some cheese and biscuits and stuffed them in his sleeve.

He tried to scale the upside-down hull. Too slippery. Neither Shorty nor another mate, Tim Floyd, were anywhere in sight.

"I knew they were done," he said.

As Ippoliti scanned the floating rubble, he saw a long lid of the boatís ice box float by. A competitive swimmer as a child, he jumped at the chance for a life raft.

"Mark Spitz couldnít have caught me that day," he said.

For the next several hours, he fought waves. They broke over his head and pushed him under. Between them, he took deep breaths and thought about his 6-month-old son, Derrick.

"I talked to God. This is what I said: ĎItís Gene again. I know I only call you when I need you. Iím not going to bull---- you and say Iím going to go home and be a priest because Iím not. Just let me go home and kiss my kid again.í "

That afternoon, a Coast Guard plane passed directly overhead - and kept going. Twenty minutes later it reappeared to the north.

If he was not rescued by nightfall, he would no longer be able to see the waves before they broke.

"I just felt like, ĎDamn, Iím dead.í It was total gloom and despair."

The ordeal ended after six hours when a Coast Guard helicopter came to him and lowered a basket. Once on board, the crew put him in a neoprene suit and gave him an apple.

The winds that capsized Ippolitiís boat - known forever after as the "no-name storm" - killed at least 171 people, most of them on land.

A month later, another boat found Shorty, whose real name was Loring Bryant, 42. Floydís body was never found. A joint seaside service was held for both fishermen.

After a year away, Ippoliti agreed to captain another boat, but had to return after three days. "It was just total paranoia."

He has since returned to commercial fishing, but has no illusions about the gulfís dangers.

"You think itís never going to be that bad. But on any occasion it will kill you. As soon as you get offshore and itís over your head, you are in peril."

The common-law rule called for a seven-year waiting period before a person could be declared dead.

That standard has since been replaced by a law presuming death after five years if diligent efforts have been made to find the person. But legal authorities will make exceptions when there is reason to believe death occurred sooner.

"If someone sees a miner walk into a mine three minutes before it collapsed, he could probably be declared dead without much waiting around even if the body is never recovered," said Bruce Howie, a Clearwater lawyer.

A fisherman whose boat vanishes could be seen as having died, Howie said, provided there is no competing set of circumstances that would also explain the same set of facts.

"If the fishermanís boat is found drawn up on the shore of Costa Rica and the fisherman had withdrawn his wifeís life savings from their joint account just before leaving," Howie said, "there is a countervailing, equally reasonable inference that he didnít drown in the gulf."

To declare a Florida resident dead, a person with legal standing (such as next of kin) must file a petition with the circuit court in the county of the personís last known address. Any potential creditors or anyone else with an interest in keeping the person alive must be publicly notified.

If a judge determines that death has occurred, he or she issues a final order stating that a death certificate can be produced. The date of the order is considered the date of death. Then claims such as life insurance can be made.

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Feb. 25, 2005: The Gulf Coaster, a boat captained by Mike Costello, pulled out of a marina at Bay Pines. Costello, 29, and his mate, John Molina, 42, planned to spend several days at sea fishing amberjack. They sought that fish because grouper season had been pushed back - part of recent government restrictions on commercial fishing.

For years, efforts to shorten seasons, set trip limits and cap maximum allowable catches for the year had divided the fishing community. Recreational anglers supported them; commercial fishermen said they threatened their livelihood. Occasional fistfights broke out on the docks over the issue.

Some of those efforts have succeeded and are now in place. In 2005, they were just getting started.

Costello had told his mother he needed to take one more trip to make ends meet. On Feb. 27, Costello reported that he was 73 miles west of Johnís Pass, in an area fishermen call "the Elbow."

He would head back home soon, Costello told his brother. When the Gulf Coaster did not return Feb. 28, the boatís owner called the Coast Guard.

On March 1, they found remnants of the boat and Molinaís body 58 miles west of Anna Maria Island. Costelloís body was never found.

His mother, Shirley Costello, blames the closures and restrictions for tempting fishermen to press their limits, to go out when they otherwise wouldnít, to pick the wrong side on judgment calls they used to get right.

Five years after the accident, Shirley Costello, 56, has not sought a death certificate. Her son was unmarried, had no children and no life insurance.

A part of her doesnít want one anyway. Without a body, she said, she can never be certain.

"Ninety-nine percent of me knows. One percent of me says someone picked him up and he has amnesia and doesnít know where he is. There will always be a slim possibility because nobody ever found him."

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Efforts to memorialize local fishermen arenít new. In the late 1980s, Spaeth, the fleet owner who also directs the Southern Offshore Fishing Association, paid for a sign at Johnís Pass Village. It consisted of two heavy planks mounted on posts near the boardwalk entrance, with gold-embossed lettering that read, "Johnís Pass, Dedicated to Fishermen Lost at Sea."

The shopping center underwent renovations in the late 1990s, and the fishermenís plank sign disappeared.

But now, a group of business people want to enhance Johnís Pass Village - with its touristy shops and restaurants - with a real memorial to fallen fishermen.

For the past few years, the Johnís Pass Village Association and the Outdoor Arts Foundation have been raising money for a 6-foot-tall sculpture to go in front of the boardwalk. The Hand of Fate depicts a sea-green hand rising out of the waves cradling a fishing boat.

The engraved names of fishermen from the greater Tampa Bay area will fill a 3-foot base beneath the statue. The group says it has raised nearly half of the $50,000 needed to produce the sculpture by Seminole artist Robert Bruce Epstein.

Mark Hubbard, 46, is a driving force to create the Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea Memorial. His family owns Johnís Pass Village, and he runs the fishing charter out of Hubbardís Marina.

The Hand of Fate, Hubbard said, is as much a warning as a memorial.

"Itís a big wave and a boat getting ready to be crashed," Hubbard said. "Its message is to be careful out there. You are at the mercy of the Gulf of Mexico when you go out there. You have to have your game on, because you wonít get second chances very often."

A year ago, the planners put up a website inviting people to submit names of lost fishermen. About a dozen people have.

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Questions swirled after the Miss Detroit vanished in 1943 with all aboard, including Sam Renney, a Gulfport police officer.

Dorothy Renneyís original theory - that her husband ran out of gas - had some staying power. The Coast Guard rationed gas carefully during World War II. Perhaps the stranded boat had been run over by a freighter.

Or else it had struck a mine. Maybe a German U-boat had sunk it.

Renneyís 10-year-old son, Bill, knew submarines were on the horizon. One time, he had climbed a tree and seen one.

Dorothy Renney simply set one less place at the dinner table. She never had a sit-down talk with her son about what may have happened.

He wondered if his father had been taken as a prisoner of war in another country. Over time that theory stopped making sense.

"If he was alive, then he would have gotten word back," Renney said.

Seven years after pieces of the Miss Detroit were found in the gulf, a court awarded Dorothy Renney a death certificate. Though her husband had no life insurance, the ruling allowed his widow to sell their modest home.

From time to time, Sam Renney came up in family conversation. His wife remembered the way Sam cleaned fish in the back yard. He always threw the heads and tails to a ring of cats that formed around him.

Bill Renney is now 78 and retired from Ford Motor Co. He lives with his wife in Parrish.

About a year ago, he came across the Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea website.

He thought of his father, then clicked the submissions button on the site and began to type.

The boat Miss Detroit, captained by Sam Renney out of Johnís Pass, disappeared on a routine fishing trip and never returned. Pieces of the boat were found in the following days but no bodies, there were 5 people on board.

Itís far from a eulogy. But in 67 years, itís the first time he has acknowledged his fatherís death in any public way.

"There is no grave," he said. "No headstone. Nothing. This would at least be something to let people know that he did exist."

Times researchers Mary Mellstrom and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this story. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]

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The memorial

Learn more about the Florida Fishermen Lost at Sea Memorial by visiting the website You can submit information about fishing-related fatalities of Tampa Bay area residents through the website, or by calling Mark Hubbard at (727) 393-1947, ext. 418.

On the Web

For an online chart of the fishermenís fates:

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John Giantetsis, captain

Nick Giantetsis

Spilos Papathemetrios

Dennis Alefantis

Nathanial Sloan

Sam Renney, captain

Dave Muldoon

Ralph Wilson

Philip Sturgis

Priv. E.J. Nieto

Jerry Boone, captain

Ralph Masterson

E.C. Smart

Howard Grimshaw, captain

Henry Klingel

Ernie Schoenfield

Arthur Bory

L.R. Burnett, captain

William Potts

Henry May

Mrs. Henry May

Salem Musleh

Buck Gilley

Merle Potts

Helen Virginia Counts

Ted Hill

Mrs. Ted Hill

Mrs. William Sanders

Wayne Peters

Mrs. Wayne Peters

Ronald Henson

Frank Caldwell

Ray Durham

Maude Wallen

Antonio Padilla

John Ostrowski

James MacFirn

Ray Herrell

Sam Woods

John DeWitt

Charles Swann

Cole Shearer

C.W. Nodine

Paul Hash

Harry Potter

Ruby Parks

Alton Pollard

James Lynn, captain

John Green

Matthew Hathaway

Elwood Bailey

Earl Thompson

Arthur Patmore

Herman Bradley

Frank Simpson

George Vandergrift

Frank Hoffman

Joseph Hoffman

John Hoffman

Alex Hughes

George Wertz

William Conover

Robert Hinson

Clayton Johnson

Ralph Tipton

William Stockton

Bob Tromel

John Stanland

James Teachey

Herb Hardy

Will Peek III

George "Big Willie" Dayhoff

Lt. Cmdr. Paul R. Lewis

Air Force Maj. Marvin A. Cleveland

Aviation Machinist Mate 1st Class Edward Nemetz

C.R. Denslow

M.W. Denslow

Jonas Robinson

Randolph Crocker

Al Hamilton

Phillip Digiovanni

Michael Digiovanni

Johnnie Stone

Carl Van Vliet

Van Vlietís son, Richard


Frank Berus

Lan Van Duong

His son, Minh

Sag Bach

Dean Stanzione

Thomas "T.P." Parrott

Mike Seibers

Bud Meadows

Tony Lathan

Mark Zastowny

Frank Delashmit

Ricky Ferrett

Tomisene Washington

Larry Griffin

David White, captain

Robert White

Karyn Rembijas

Nick Brokaw

Craig Matijevich

Craig Marsh

Virgin Hickman

John Porter

Billy Gilbert

Kenny Nash

Randy Johnson

Loring Bryant

Tim Floyd

Mel Petit

James R. Moore

Frank Neal

James Brady

Richard Brady

Dennis Miller

James Brandon

James Akins

Paul "Little Paul" Kight

Robert Havens

John Lynch

Robert Moorehouse

Whitney Taggart

Jules Abrams

Thomas Richardson

Bruce Fischer

Charlie OíNeil

Garth Spacek, captain

Donald Klette

Michael Costello

John Molina

Michael Carlo

Marquis Cooper

Corey Smith

Will Bleakley

Mark Portus

Tyler Pillion