Archive for » October 14th, 2012«

Fire heavily damages boat at Fisherman’s Service and Sales in Bay Minette

fishermans-boat-fire.jpgBay Minette firefighters battle a blaze that ignited on a boat at Fisherman’s Service and Sales Saturday afternoon. What caused the older-model pontoon boat, which had been dropped off late Friday afternoon for repairs, to ignite was still under investigation. An aluminum boat sitting next to the pontoon boat suffered heat damage to its seats and carpet, Fisherman’s owner Mike Morris said. (Jeff Dute/

A boat fire heavily damaged one vessel and caused heat damage to another at Fisherman’s Service and Sales in Bay Minette Saturday afternoon.

No one was injured.

What caused the older-model pontoon boat parked on its trailer behind the store to ignite was still under investigation by the Bay Minette Fire Department.

Firefighters extinguished the blaze within a couple of minutes of arriving on the scene.

Fisherman’s owner Mike Morris said he was walking toward the front of the store when he noticed a Baldwin County Sheriff’s Department deputy parked at the front of the store, located on U.S. Highway 59 north of Bay Minette.

“I didn’t know what she was looking at until I turned around and saw the smoke,” Morris said. “At first, I thought it was coming from the other side of the fence, but then I saw the boat on fire.

“I have no idea” Morris said when asked what could have started the fire.

The deputy had already called in the blaze by the time Morris walked out front.

He said it was fortunate that the store was open and someone there when the boat, which had just been dropped off late Friday afternoon, ignited.

“Thank God we were here,” he said. “As hot as it was burning, it could have taken out all of the boats in that corner near it. If we had started working on it, it could have been parked right next to the store or even inside the shop.”

Thick, black smoke roiled from the rear of the boat as firefighters arrived and began spraying water on it. Water pressure threatened to push what was obviously burning gas into other engines and brush along the fence line, but firemen responded and extinguished those flames.

After the fire was out, heavy damage to the boat engine and interior was evident.

The aluminum boat sitting next to the pontoon boat suffered heat damage to its seats and carpet, Morris said.

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Boaters must leave Sailing Squadron

Where? He is not sure. Perhaps Marina Jack across the bay, perhaps St. Petersburg. But he knows he will not find as good a deal or the same welcoming, Old Florida community anywhere else.

Hensley is one of 37 boat owners caught in the fallout of the sailing club’s 12-year permitting battle with the state — a sort of turf war over who can use the sandy land below the waves.

The squadron lost. Sailors have a couple months to pack up and move.

Most of the members who must leave have large boats that cannot easily be hauled on a trailer. The boats are tethered to moorings — concrete slabs anchoring them to the bottom of the bay — and their owners ride out to them in dinghies.

At the squadron, they pay less than $500 a year to be members and use the dinghies. At nearby marinas, they will have to pay about $3,000 just to rent a mooring.

“It’s going to displace some people. It’s unfortunate, it’s taking away the common man’s ability to access the bay, and that’s what we’re here for,” Squadron Manager Craig Bridges said.

Shipping out

The squadron’s board determined who could keep a spot and who will have to leave based on need, length of membership and how active the people are in the organization. The 65-year-old club runs primarily on volunteer work and requires its 1,600 members to chip in at least eight hours of work a year.

Hensley does not have seniority. He has been a member for two years and moored his boat at the squadron for a year.

For two decades, Hensley had docked his boat, Anjin, at a place where he did not know six people around him. When he moved his boat to the squadron, he became part of a community — one that he will miss.

“People are having to ask their friends, tell their friends, that they have to leave. So it’s awkward and it’s difficult for everyone involved,” Hensley said.

Mike Collins was among the lucky ones. His 25-foot Cape Dory has been moored at the squadron for eight years and will remain there.

“I love the squadron,” Collins said. It is close to his Sarasota home and to work. If he lost his spot, he would try to anchor his boat in open water near the squadron or see if a resident on the bay would rent him dock space. He would not sell the boat.

“It’d be like giving away your dog,” he said.

But other squadron members, like Robert Makowski, cannot afford to dock or moor their boats anywhere else.

Makowski moved his boat to Marina Jack on Monday and plans to keep it there briefly as he tries to sell it.

A long goodbye

The squadron has sat on the tip of City Island since 1958. The number of boats surrounding the club has increased over the years and even mid-morning on a weekday, the place is alive.

Volunteers scoop pungent seaweed to clear the dock as a boat is loaded into the water, and the club’s doors creak as members come in to grab a drink and shoot the breeze with the bartender.

Squadron members have watched the dispute with the state unfold for years, hoping they would be able to stay.

The group first got a permit for 38 moorings in 1981. Squadron members kept adding their own private moorings but the government never signed off on the additions.

The moorings did not belong to the squadron and they could not charge for them — though they did ask members to pay a $325 “dinghy fee” to help maintain the facilities and boats.

In 2004, the squadron applied to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to expand to 120 moorings.

A few years later a government official visited the area and saw squadron members had already made the expansion they were applying for, violating state rules.

Officials gave the Sarasota Sailing Squadron some options: cut back to 38 moorings or, for about $213,400 a year, keep the spots.

For the squadron, that was no choice at all.

That fee would make up more than half of the organization’s annual expenses, which were $413,608 in 2011.

“It just puts the existence of the organization in jeopardy for too little benefit, or for too few people,” Sailing Squadron Commodore David Jennings said.

The displaced boaters are roughly 5 percent of the membership, Jennings said. But for that 5 percent it will have a huge impact.

To avoid kicking people out, the squadron asked the state to waive the fee, arguing that the club provides a community service. The City of Sarasota supported the request.

In April, the state Department of Environmental Protection said no.

If the state were to let the Sarasota Sailing Squadron use the area without paying, it wanted to ensure the squadron would not profit from the moorings and everyone had equal rights to the moorings, DEP spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said. The group would have to advertise the mooring spots to everyone, not just members.

Opening the moorings to the public would let in motorboats and detract from the mission of providing a safe, reasonable place to sail, Bridges said.

Cast adrift

For the state, waiving the fee also would have amounted to rewarding rule-breakers.

But all along, squadron members were just wanted to maintain affordability for boaters, Bridges said.

Jennings said he will never understand the state’s reasoning. Some people, he said, think Florida government is simply not in a financial position to promote any fee-waived projects.

The squadron tried to “feel our way through the process” and follow the state’s requirements, but could not meet them all, Jennings said. It never made sense to hire someone to “camp out in Tallahassee and make it happen,” he said.

Although sailors must pare back the 120 spots they wanted, Bridges hopes the organization can ask the state to reconsider in the future.

Meanwhile, boat owners are beginning to pull up the ground tackle anchoring them near the shore on the tip of City Island.

Some Sarasota Sailing Squadron members will move to Marina Jack next to downtown, where there are plans to expand the mooring field from 35 to 109.

It would cost $3,000 a year for Hensley to moor his boat at the marina.

“People say you have a boat, you can afford (a mooring),” Hensley said, but that is not always true.

On Wednesday, Hensley prepared his boat for the day he has to leave the mooring field. He planned to check out Marina Jack’s facilities that afternoon and return to the Sarasota Sailing Squadron after sunset, when the distant lights of the condominiums provide his favorite view of the city.

As Collins boated past, Hensley wistfully watched.

“Lucky him,” he said.

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