After Hurricane Ian, salvage company pulls yachts from pools and mangroves

Heather O’Brien makes her living rescuing small boats and yachts in the waters near Fort Myers, Florida. Since Hurricane Ian, she’s been busy.

On a typical weekend at this time of year, Ms. O’Brien may receive a dozen calls for help, mostly from locals who need a tow because their boat runs out of gas or their battery is exhausted. After Ian, she received over 2,000 calls, many of them much more serious in nature.

Heather O’Brien, general manager of Sea Tow Fort Myers, a boat salvage company owned by her husband, Pat; they’ve been busy since Hurricane Ian ripped through Florida earlier this month.


Photo:

Sea Tow Services International, Inc.

The Category 4 storm left boats and yachts of all sizes stuck between buildings or tangled in mangrove trees. Others were run over in cars or piled on top of each other like pick-up sticks.

Ms. O’Brien, General Manager of Sea Tow Fort Myers, is now methodically helping to extricate these stranded and sunken vessels from land and sea, acting part lifeguard, part psychologist to calm the nerves of emotional owners.

“I take the time to talk to everyone who calls, to say, ‘I understand it’s stressful,’” says Ms. O’Brien. “Please be patient.”

Hurricane Ian is expected to set a record for boat losses, surpassing Superstorm Sandy, which in 2012 caused an estimated $650 million in damage to about 65,000 boats, insurance, salvage and salvage industry officials said. pleasure boating. The hurricane’s final tally will likely only be known after the long process of extracting boats from where the storm dumped them and then dumping or repairing them.

Fort Myers resident Greg Smith went looking for his 56-foot charter fishing boat the day after the hurricane and found it ramming a vehicle in front of where it was. its marina. “This guy came over and said, ‘Is that your boat?’ recalls Mr. Smith. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, “You’re setting on my car.” I said, “Well, I couldn’t help that.”

Gene Johnson, who spent summers on his boat in Fort Myers, was at his primary residence in White Bear Lake, Minnesota when the storm hit. He saw a newscast of a heavily damaged area where his 63ft yacht lay in the background. Its name, Front Page, was clearly visible.

“It was shocking,” he said. “For my wife, it was a lot of tears.”

Messrs Smith and Johnson both said their boats were probably worn out and they had no plans to replace them. “It’s not how I wanted to retire,” Mr Smith said.

Ms O’Brien said she often has to calm boat owners down and persuade them to wait for a professional to rescue their boat.


Photo:

Sea Tow Services International, Inc.

Ms O’Brien said one of the hardest parts of the job is trying to placate boat owners and persuade them to wait for professionals to save their boats, rather than taking offers from amateurs . A poorly managed job can do more damage to a boat than the storm.

“Some people use tractors. Some people put lines on trucks to get them out of the yard,” she said. “They just want your $5,000 and then want to move on.”

Yet much of the initial towing and unraveling fell to marine service companies like the one owned by Ms O’Brien’s husband, Pat O’Brien. Tools of the trade include cranes, barges, air bags and winches to place the boats in trailers or, if seaworthy, in the water for towing. Chainsaws are used when a ship is unsalvageable and must enter a dump truck.

The O’Briens business is one of 94 franchisees of Sea Tow Services International Inc., based in Southold, New York, which operates at more than 100 boating locations nationwide. When large hurricanes hit, Sea Tow typically bolsters operations in disaster areas by moving crews from other areas.

Boat rescue efforts have had to wait in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Ian, and many owners still have not located their vessels.


Photo:

and others Tow Services International, Inc.

Before Ian, the O’Briens had never needed help from the parent company. They moved many of their lifeboats and recovery trailers to the family farm about 20 miles inland, tying them to oak trees so they wouldn’t blow away.

The next morning they had no phone or internet service. The Fort Myers office was damaged, forcing them to work off the farm. When Ms O’Brien was finally able to get a signal, she called Sea Tow Services managing director Joseph Frohnhoefer III.

‘I guess you haven’t seen any of the aerial photos yet,’ he told Ms O’Brien, as she recalled it. “I will seek help for you.”

Sea Tow crews have been on the water since the day after the storm. With reinforcements from other Sea Tow franchises, it now has four crews working with tugs, barges, cranes, trailers and lift bags.

It was slow. Hard-hit areas were closed to rescue efforts for days. Many owners still do not know where their boats are. If Hurricane Ian is like other megastorms, some ships will never be found.

Sea Tow’s trickiest rescues have included the removal of a 26-foot center console boat from a commercial building in Fort Myers Beach. The crews used a crane to prevent further damage to the vessel and property, lifting the boat onto the back of a trailer.

Other boats were wedged into the pools. Cranes and trailers must be used to extract them, with straps that crews use to turn the boats after they are lifted.

The canal system in some of Florida’s hardest hit areas has been overwhelmed. Rescue teams from different companies must coordinate to understand the movement of barges and cranes to avoid traffic jams.

SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think will be the long-term impact of Hurricane Ian on Florida’s coastal communities? Join the conversation below.

Even tougher are yachts stuck in or on groves of mangroves, which are protected trees in the state. “The boats are sitting in the middle of these trees, literally, and you have to climb in there” to figure out how to get them out, Ms O’Brien said.

Ms. O’Brien, 36, has lived in the Fort Myers area for nearly two decades. She worked in the real estate industry, but switched to a job with Sea Tow when the real estate market was shaken by the global financial crisis. The owner, a friend at the time, later became her husband.

The two haven’t spent much time together lately. Mr. O’Brien spends her days with rescue teams and she manages four phone lines that run on one cell phone service.

“We don’t see each other until it’s time to go to bed,” she said.

Write to Peter Grant at peter.grant@wsj.com

Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

See also  Trump launches direct attack on McConnell a month before midterm elections