David Wilson quit his desk job as a computer programmer in land-locked Indianapolis 18 months ago, bought a 35-foot sailboat named Firefly and moved to the Dinner Key mooring field in Coconut Grove.
“I fell in love with the idea of living aboard because you never see sad people on sailboats,” he said. “Except now.”
Hurricane Irma blew through Miami and left distraught boaters in her wake. Some boats sank. Some broke loose from their mooring balls and have gone missing. Some, like Wilson’s, were pulverized, reduced to pieces of a fiberglass jigsaw puzzle.
“At first I couldn’t find it even though I drove by it twice,” said Wilson, who finally located the remains of Firefly on a spoil island. “Unrecognizable shards. There’s a 10-foot chunk of the top deck. The engine is on the sand.”
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Wilson figures his boat, like many others, was plowed down by boats that ripped free in sustained winds that peaked at 85 mph on Sunday afternoon, according to measurements by the marina’s channel marker gauge.
“It’s like a hit-and-run collision, and it created a domino effect,” he said.
Of the 108 boats in the city of Miami’s mooring field, Wilson and his fellow sailors counted 10 that were intact Monday morning after the storm passed.
Dinner Key Marina, which has 580 slips, suffered major damage to three of its seven piers. At least 32 boats sank, said marina manager Daniel Muelhaupt, who is still taking inventory.
“The destruction was unexpected and massive to marinas and boats up and down the bay,” said Daniel Rotenberg, director of the city’s department of real estate and asset management. “It looks like a bomb went off.”
South Florida’s marine industry, which has a $600 million annual impact on the local economy, according to the Miami International Boat Show, will be in recovery phase for months, Rotenberg estimated. The city reaps $12 million in revenue per year from its marinas. Dinner Key took the biggest hit while Bayside sustained minor damage and the Marine Stadium dry stacks were in good shape.
“People are emotionally attached to their boats, so this really hurts the community,” he said. “Our love of the water is why most of us live down here.”
Debris and boat parts deposited by Irma’s storm surge still littered the shoreline Thursday between the water and Bayshore Drive — centerboards, hatches, orphaned cushions, ladders to nowhere and, yes, even a kitchen sink.
Trash, stray dinghies and life jackets floated in the water. The fuel dock at Grove Bay restaurant (formerly Scotty’s Landing) was destroyed; one sailboat lay sideways, its hull cracked open and its contents spilling into the bay. Another was submerged, its mast poking up like a periscope.
A catamaran’s starboard hull was busted open, its bumpers still attached. Boats named Wizard, Hallelujah and Misty Moon were stranded in the Seminole dock parking lot or stuck in the mangroves.
At Dinner Key, various owners said they were searching for boats that had disappeared. Either they were under water or flung onto land somewhere. Some who had located their vessels – including one aground in Peacock Park – said their boats had been looted. Police were patrolling to prevent looters from driving up to the docks in their own boats to burglarize yachts.
I lost all my stuff – my paperwork, generator, clothes, guitar, GPS, water maker, solar panel.
David Wilson, whose 35-foot live-aboard sailboat was destroyed after Hurricane Irma hit Dinner Key
Sailors were calculating what it would cost the owner of the boat that they joked has “scored a touchdown” on Ransom Everglades School’s bayside football field to remove it. Others were complaining about a Coconut Grove homeowner who has threatened anyone trying to remove the four boats in his backyard with a gun.
Sam Mahuria was somewhat fortunate in that his 33-footer Morpheus wound up riding in from the mooring field and sliding into slip one. But it’s got three feet of water in it.
“She’s not so pretty anymore,” said Mahuria, a boat broker who said most of his clients lost their boats.
Wilson said his boat and belongings were worth about $32,000 but he’ll be unlikely to recover more than $3,000 from his insurance policy.
“I lost all my stuff – my paperwork, generator, clothes, guitar, GPS, water maker, solar panel," he said. “For most of the live-aboards, repairs would cost more than the value of the boat.”
Wilson was in Boston racing Stars as Irma approached. He considered having someone move Firefly to a canal but with the mooring balls rated to hold through 125 mph winds, four lines securing the boat and breakwaters on two sides, he figured it would be OK. But when Irma headed up the west side of the state instead of the east, the mooring field became less protected from the winds.
“The preparations you make only go so far," he said. “Then it’s fate.”
Tony Alvarez, owner of four shrimp boats at Dinner Key, came up with an ingenious idea for rescuing the one that sunk. He couldn’t afford to pay $7,500 to Sea Tow so he called a tow truck. But the plan failed when the truck’s cable didn’t reach at the correct angle.
“I sell to the bait shops in the Keys,” said Alvarez, who catches up to 80,000 shrimp per night during high season. He used the pumps on his trucks — labeled “Tony’s Live Bait: Because Size Matters!” – to pump water out of his boats. "With this damage and all the damage to our customers in the Keys, it’s pretty much unemployment for me and my crew."
Wilson is contemplating whether to salvage his dream of living aboard a sailboat or return to Indianapolis.
Rotenberg wants to prevent future heartbreak and destruction in the mooring field by adopting a policy like that of the adjacent Coconut Grove Sailing Club. Once a hurricane warning is issued, owners would be required to move their boats to safe harbor, and if they don’t they would be evicted.
“The boats become hazards, crashing into other things,” he said. “And then they can become abandoned, derelict vessels. I think the city needs to anticipate what will happen when the next hurricane hits us.”
The Barnacle’s historic boathouse was torn up by a boat that escaped and rammed into it.