Andres Lopez thought he could ride out Hurricane Irma aboard his home, a 25-foot fishing boat.
He was wrong.
As the wind howled, his cabin began to resemble the interior of a washing machine. Water poured in, and he was thrown violently from side to side.
Lopez did not want to abandon ship, his beloved Run Running, but it was listing to starboard at an extreme angle. He climbed up on deck and took three seconds to survey his options.
“Drown or go,” he said. “I told myself, ‘I got to go, I got to go. I’m going to die, but I got to go.’”
Lopez jumped into Biscayne Bay and began swimming. He looked back in time to see his boat — his house — flip over. Arms flailing in the whitecaps, his head swallowed in the waves, Lopez barely made it 100 yards to Clarington Island, a sliver of land that acts as a wind break for the Coconut Grove Sailing Club marina. There he spat out saltwater, caught his breath and clung to a tree for maybe an hour, maybe two. Then, as the storm surge lifted the bay as if it was rolling into an apocalyptic high tide, Lopez plunged in again. He rode the wall of water another 200 yards into Peacock Park, where he found dry land beyond Bayshore Drive.
He was alive. He couldn’t believe it.
“You’ve seen that movie ‘The Perfect Storm?’ ” Lopez said. “This was my disaster movie.”
Lopez, bedraggled and hollow-eyed, recounted his tale of survival Tuesday as he sat by the mangroves near the same spot where he and his dinghy had been washed ashore. The waters had receded since Irma battered Miami on Sunday, but Lopez had no way back to his boat — or what was left of it. He made a little encampment in the park with his only belongings — the wrecked dinghy and two bikes he had tied up to a light pole the day before the storm’s arrival. Some kind person had brought him a plastic lawn chair, a blanket, a cap, a gallon of water and food. He pointed to the raw cuts on his legs and back. His tan leathery skin looked like that of over-boiled potatoes.
“I lost everything. My entire life was on that boat,” he said. “When I find a way out, when I can repair my dinghy, I want to try to go and turn her over. I want to save her.”
Lopez is a member of the live-aboard colony that resides for free in the bay beyond the mega-million-dollar yacht mansions docked at Dinner Key Marina. They are the squatters of the sea. The scruffy fleet of the fiercely independent live-aboard sailors is anchored far from shore. Some of the ramshackle, mast-less boats look like they wouldn’t get very far if they lifted anchor. So much for the romantic idea of cruising the Caribbean. Some look like ghost ships — until a dog starts barking from the bow, or a bearded, bare-chested captain waves from the cockpit. They row in to buy food or take showers.
Lopez, 56, came to Miami from Cuba at age 17. He makes money selling fish or cleaning boat bottoms. He’s lost most of his hearing and most of his teeth. He had nowhere to take refuge during Irma. But he had faith in Run Running. He figured he’d just hold on tight, like he was on a roller coaster.
“I had a friend, Richard, who decided to stay on his boat, too,” Lopez said. “I don’t know what happened to him. I can’t find him.”
The live-aboards were supposed to evacuate. They were warned. All sailboats moored at the sailing club were required to move to protected areas. But Coconut Grove’s shoreline was littered with boats ripped from their moorings and tossed onto land or into parking lots during the storm.
Lopez went fishing Saturday. Conditions deteriorated rapidly on Sunday morning.
“By 10 a.m. I saw the sky go black,” he said, waving his gnarled fingers. “I saw lightning exploding — bam, bam, bam. Then it turned white — all white — in the wind and rain. The horizon was gone. It was too late to get into my dinghy, and the motor was broken anyway.
“I jumped. I swam for my life. I almost got buried by that boat that was chasing me,” he said, gesturing at a sailboat called the Lucky Duck.
He shared the park — where the surge carried trash all the way to the baseball field backstop — with three huge sailboats that appeared to have veered far off course. Two had ripped out the wooden walkway and were wedged against one another, aground in a grove of palm trees. The keel and rudder of the Lucky Duck looked naked in the dirt. But its mast stood tall, flying the shreds of sails.