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After Irma sinks boat at St. Pete marina, city floats insurance requirement

A view of the St. Petersburg Marina looking west across the central basin towards Bayshore Drive NE from the Demens Landing boat ramp in St. Petersburg Tuesday morning. Hurricane Irma sunk six boats at the city marina. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
A view of the St. Petersburg Marina looking west across the central basin towards Bayshore Drive NE from the Demens Landing boat ramp in St. Petersburg Tuesday morning. Hurricane Irma sunk six boats at the city marina. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Dec. 19, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Most could breathe a lot easier after Hurricane Irma blew past the region in September, leaving relatively little damage behind in the bay area.

Not Daniel Harrell.

The storm left the boating aficionado homeless after his 62-foot wooden vessel, Camelot, sank while moored in its slip in the city's municipal marina.

Harrell had spent nearly $100,000 on the boat, which was built in 1957. He lived on it as he made repairs.

The boat rolled over in the mud when the storm sucked the water out of the Tampa Bay before landfall. When the water gushed back in, it flooded the boat and sank it. Ultimately, the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission helped the city remove the boat — but it cost the city about $25,000. The boat had to be sawed into pieces in order to be safely removed.

In all, six boats sank at the marina that day. But Harrell's boat was emblematic of a problem the city is now trying to solve: It was the only boat that didn't have insurance that would have covered the cost of its removal.

That experience has prompted a discussion among city officials to start requiring private boat owners to carry insurance that would pay for salvaging and removing wrecks, said mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby.

While FWC said state law does not require such insurance, Kirby acknowledged that some marinas do.

"It's a mix. Some do and some don't," he said.

The city marina used to make boaters carry insurance, but that requirement was dropped during the recession as an incentive to entice boaters to rent slips, Kirby said.

The other owners were able to raise their sunken boats without any city assistance, Kirby said. Harrell's uninsured boat was the outlier.

Harrell was in the process of obtaining insurance — no easy feat when it means finding a company able to lift a 62-foot motor yacht out of the water. But he didn't have it when disaster struck on September 10.

"It was a conflagration of minor tragedies," said Harrell, 52, who currently lives in Yerington, Nev.

It was also the end of a dream for Harrell — or at least the east coast version. Harrell had bought the boat about a year before with a plan to get it seaworthy and motor it through the Panama Canal to a friend's resort on that country's Pacific Coast. Once there, he hoped to start a charter business.

But the boat's repair bill — upwards of $75,000 — grew so large that Harrell put that dream on hold. Instead he started looking for a buyer. He was in the process of finalizing the sale, he said, when Irma changed everything.

As the hurricane approached, Harrell scrambled to pack a duffel bag, backpack and a few boxes before evacuating to Nevada where his parents and sister live. Many of his possessions went down with the Camelot.

The city's marina is the largest municipal facility in the state with 642 slips and occupancy at nearly 100 percent. It's unclear how many of those vessels might not have insurance since the city doesn't require it, Kirby said.

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Kirby said the marina was recently honored with a boater's choice award from Marinas.com, an informational web site for boat owners looking for boat slips and marina services.

If the city decides to require insurance from boaters, officials don't anticipate losing business.

"The award speaks to how it's being managed," Kirby said.

No timetable has been set for implementing that change in city marina policies. Marina officials are discussing the possible insurance requirements with the city attorney's office, Kirby said.

The city also hopes to get the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse it for the $25,000 expense of removing the Camelot. Kirby said the city could also seek reimbursement from the owner.

Harrell said Irma hasn't squashed his dream just yet. He's already planning to buy another boat. But this time, he said, he'll motor down to Panama via the Pacific.

"You guys can keep the Atlantic," he said.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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