PUNTA GORDA — Hurricane Ian destroyed Southwest Florida houses by the thousands. Places in Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach vanished entirely.
But not every home was on land. Dozens of boaters at the Burnt Store Marina in Punta Gorda lost theirs, too. Many liveaboards remain displaced, their boats awaiting barge operators to pluck them from underwater or from wherever surging water left them.
And some liveaboard survivors escaping with their vessels now tie up at a marina dock that was to be demolished just before Ian arrived on Sept. 28, a type of rescue dock in Burnt Store’s north basin.
Officially, it’s U dock. A south basin was affected, as well.
Despite the circumstances, a new normal at Burnt Store Marina had settled in. Survivors now, after their chores are done or while awaiting insurance adjusters, sidestep boat debris washed ashore and the pervasive fuel smells as they headed to showers or a once-pristine pool.
Still in shock, the marina recovers from something it had never experienced.
Entering the rescue dock, the first liveaboard to the right is Chris Duquesnay. He reclined in the cockpit of Zora Gale, his 35-foot Hunter sailboat. Duquesnay, on a crisp morning, is stretched out in the shade of a cockpit tarp. Though there is visible destruction everywhere, it appears he has not a care in the world.
But Duquesnay, who had been chased from the Keys by Hurricane Irma in 2017, came to Burnt Store Marina not imagining a much bigger storm would follow, he said.
Zora Gale got bounced but survived Ian, he said. And Duquesnay, the descendant of Jamaican farmers from the time of Christopher Columbus, he tells you, came away with a renewed joy in his chosen lifestyle.
“Powerboat or sailboat, we are a whole different set of people,” he said. “In a time of crisis, we help each other. It is amazing.”
Liveaboards make their boat a home. They pay extra dock fees for the privilege. The docks at Burnt Store Marina are lettered, as in Q or S, for instance. Marinas will cluster liveaboards. It is its own world, with its own dialect and culture.
Like any confined village, liveaboards hold communal cocktail hours or evening snacks the way the RV camping crowd might. Travel stories are the usual conversation. And surviving storms. Liveaboards will call to the setting sun with conch shells that moan like ghosts. Many are often more limber, as rocking on water teaches them to balance better.
Ian ripped entire Burnt Store docks apart, concrete seawalls were shoved asunder and millions of dollars in floating value destroyed. The boaters sheltered ashore, some in homes surrounding the two marina basins. Others ran east or north.
Those condo owners on a Burnt Store social media platform volunteered their places. The north basin in particular remains an eerie graveyard of sunken fiberglass, masts like crossed swords, the smell of leaked fuel and clouded water still defining the place. You wonder what the manatees in the basins feed on.
Kim and Karl Messer live full time on Trust Me, a blue and muscular 40-foot sailboat. The couple had bought a satellite device ahead of Ian. Surviving the storm on Q dock, which was left with piled and sunken boats, the Messers moved Trust Me to the rescue dock.
Their boat neighbors after Ian collected for morning internet hook-ups through Elon Musk’s Starlink system, Kim Messer said.
“We made a lot of new friends,” she said, laughing. “One woman gave me a great big hug. It was pretty cool.”
Nick and Krissy Nichols raced to Miami for Ian. Returning to Burnt Store Marina, their 39-foot Gulfstar sailboat, SV First Wish, had received “battle scars” from other boats banging against it but was otherwise intact, he said. The retired postal workers, marina part-timers, moved to the rescue dock.
“Everybody’s kind of doing the best they can,” Nick Nichols said.
A hurricane, he added, “never seems real … till it is.”