Every week, Paul Sarsten met up with his friend Lenord Ward for drinks, food and good company.
Ward, who dedicated nearly all his time to caring for an adult son who has autism, always welcomed the small break, Sarsten said. Ward would dock his boat at Gulfport’s downtown dinghy dock and walk over to meet his friend of 20 years.
On Feb. 3, Ward didn’t show up. He didn’t pick up his phone, but Sarsten wasn’t worried. Living on the water, phones fall in from time to time.
The next morning he got the call. Ward, 77, had been found dead in the waters off Gulfport about 12:30 p.m. the day of their scheduled meeting.
Sarsten said he suspects Ward was hit by a power boat and wants to have homeowners nearby check their security footage.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is investigating the death, said Ward was found dead near the scene of a boating crash, but they are still trying to determine whether the crash caused his death. One of the boats in the crash belonged to Ward, they said. The investigation is ongoing.
Friends say Ward’s son is now being cared for by other family members.
“I really hope that somebody didn't run him down and then run away from it knowing that he was hurt,” Sarsten said. “I really would hope that that's not the case.”
Sarsten and Ward met at the Maximo Marina years ago. Ward lived off his sailboat with his son, Ian, whom he cared for.
A group at the dock would call themselves the Orphan Club. Every Thanksgiving they’d meet and share food — Ward always brought a queso dip, Sarsten said.
“He was the kindest person I ever knew,” Sarsten said. “He never complained about his life.”
Robert Rodine, who also used to dock at Maximo Marina, said Ward had been trained as a dental technician but because of the demands of caring for his son was never able to hold down a consistent job. Instead he did a variety of small jobs for different dentists repairing dentures.
He lived aboard a boat because he had to. When Maximo Marina raised their rates, he had to move. He couldn’t go on trips around the state with his friends because he couldn’t leave his son alone for that long.
Friends of Ward have set up a GoFundMe to raise money for his burial expenses. On the page, Sarsten’s wife wrote that Ward and his son lived out in the middle of Boca Ciega Bay because they couldn’t afford even marina bills. If a storm came, they’d sleep in a small storage unit Ward rented.
“He could easily have sat around and bemoaned his difficult circumstances but he never did,” Rodine said.
Instead, he said Ward was grateful for whatever life brought him and was always selfless.
“Lenord was the first one to greet you when you showed up at the dock and the first one to offer you a helping hand if he thought you needed it,” Rodine said.