CLEARWATER — Howard Metts was chest-deep in waves that nudged the shores of Clearwater Beach before he turned back toward the shore, his movements slow and calculated.
In his right hand, he swung his Excalibur II metal detector in an arc in front of him, a metal scoop with a handle gripped in his left. He shuffled his feet, conscious of stingrays as he stared down at the murky water. Once or twice, a wave knocked him off balance and he stumbled. But he continued to make his way to land.
His blue, long-sleeve shirt and black shorts were soaked, but the morning breeze dried them as he examined what he scooped out from the sand.
His haul at the end of 2½ hours searching for treasures was a crusty earring in the shape of a flower, coins and the usual bottle caps. After 19 years of using a metal detector, Metts, 60, already knew none of the items he found were any type of precious metal. But he took them with him anyway. He always does, in case it means something to someone.
"We're hoping we can make somebody's day," he said.
Across the miles of beaches around the Tampa Bay area, residents and visitors alike have lost necklaces, earrings and rings. Some have spent hours digging holes, others have lost them to the waves. But for those who choose to Google "lost ring," all hope is not lost.
Metts is a member of the Suncoast Research & Recovery Club, which has about 150 members. Of those is a group of about 18 who are part of the Ring Finders, a national organization with an online directory that connects people who have lost items with independent metal detector owners in their area.
Although the site allows members to set their own rates, club president Tom Jones said those who are part of the Ring Finders help without charging. From Clearwater Beach south to Sarasota, the group has members who offer their services any time and day of the week, and anywhere.
When a person calls one of the members, they try to find someone available who can go out and search and decide whether a team is needed. A team of six once spent three days searching for a woman's engagement ring. They've helped detectives look for a set of keys. Some have spent long hours in the sun looking for a ring that means something to someone.
"It's not about the money," said Jones, 59. "It's about doing something that we enjoy doing and helping people out."
He said it seemed wrong to charge someone who had lost something precious to them, but the club accepts donations. It has made more than 400 recoveries since joining with the Ring Finders.
"We enjoy getting out detecting and finding things," Jones said. "There's nothing like the response that you get from somebody when you return items."
It was around this time last year that Jason Chambers was on his hands and knees in the Clearwater Beach parking lot looking for his wedding band.
The Kentucky resident and his wife had just arrived on Clearwater Beach one late afternoon last June when, not even 10 minutes later, he realized his ring was gone.
His wife was distraught. He felt he had ruined their vacation, which had just begun. And he had no idea where the ring fell.
"We were both hoping and praying as hard as we could," said Chambers, 39. "I just thought it was gone."
That was when his wife Googled how to find a lost ring and contacted members of the Suncoast Research & Recovery Club. Before they knew it, a team of what Chambers describes as "three very, very good men" were on the beach to help them narrow down where it could have fallen.
It was nearly sundown when Chambers began to lose hope. That was when, almost nine hours after it was lost, Edward Osmar, a 68-year-old St. Petersburg resident, found it while waist-deep in the water.
"Talk about a needle in a haystack and actually finding it," said Chambers, who is down in Clearwater again this summer.
As for his ring?
It's "staying home in the safe," said Chambers, who said he had it re-sized as soon as he returned home.
Paul Nurkowski, 38, was on Clearwater Beach last August on one of his annual visits, playing a game of volleyball in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I tried to spike the ball and my ring just flew off my finger into the ocean," the Chicago resident said. It bounced off of his friend's chest before it hit the water. Plunk.
His friend didn't move as he searched all around him for a couple of hours before noticing a man with a metal detector near the beach. They flagged him down, and it turned out to be Osmar, the same man who was part of the team that helped Chambers find his ring. And it was Osmar who found it hours later.
"Everybody was so happy, my wife was crying. It was such a good feeling to have the ring back," Nurkowski said. "What he did was impossible."
Chris Turner, founder of the Ring Finders, said he created the site to give people a second chance to be reunited with their lost items.
The organization has members in 25 countries, with the majority living in the United States. Turner, who lives in Vancouver, said the Suncoast Research & Recovery Club has been successful in recovering rings.
"They've done extremely well out there," he said, adding that 97 percent of the metal detector owners on the site's directory, like the club, offer their services for free.
Out on the beach, Metts said he's found sunglasses, cellphones, watches, coins, a $20 bill and once, a ring with a carat diamond and two half carats next to it. He returned it to the couple who had called him up, and when they offered to pay him, he declined.
"Hugs are good," he replied.
Some days, he's scouring a front yard looking for a ring thrown out during a heat-of-the-moment argument, or in an attic looking for jewelry that fell out of a toppled jewelry box. Almost once a week, he's out on Clearwater Beach with his friend Dimitur Alipiev, whom he introduced to metal detecting.
"One of the secrets of finding things is to go where people are," said Alipiev, who has an Excalibur II to match Metts'.
Together on a recent morning, each took one side of Pier 60, using a grid-like pattern as they weaved in between people swimming in the gulf.
Jones, the club president, said he gets a lot of calls for rings lost at beach weddings. They are usually easier to find, but he has photo-bombed his fair share of wedding pictures, he said. With distraught brides and grooms, Jones said he tries to instill in them a lesson for times of doubt and hardship.
"Think back on today, think of me and how you thought something was impossible and it wasn't," he tells the couples. "I restored your ring back to you, and somehow you can restore your marriage.
"There's always hope."