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One-two hurricane punch

The floating docks at the Fort Pierce City Marina were gone — all 120 of them — leaving just the skeletal remains, the pilings, many of them bent over by winds and currents pushing against boats and docks until finally the pilings gave way and the docks slipped off and blew away.

The loose docks carried 50 boats with them, including one 70-footer. Now, many were piled in big heaps of crushed and mangled fiberglass at one end of the marina. A half-dozen boats were beached at the U.S. 1 bridge a half-mile up the Indian River Lagoon, still tied to their dock.

This was just one scene of the chaos that Hurricane Frances left behind at docks, marinas and anchorages across Florida as the gargantuan storm rolled through the state on Labor Day weekend, enveloping at one point all but the westernmost Panhandle and Keys in its endless bands of wind and rain, and still more wind and more rain.

Some 360 miles across and moving at a snail’s pace, Frances battered parts of the southeast Florida coast with hurricane- and tropical storm-force winds for 36 hours. It delivered its most punishing blow to the east coast from Palm Beach to Melbourne, where boaters reported up to eight hours of hurricane winds blowing a steady 110 mph at times.

“It wasn’t its intensity but its duration,” said Lee Rathbun of Lake Wales, who sat out the first half of Frances on his 45-foot sailboat at the Fort Pierce Marina. “We had winds for such a long time, things just started to come apart. You can take [the most extreme buffeting] two or three times, but you can’t take it 200 or 300 times.”

Rathbun had secured his boat with eight to 10 lines and had been riding out the northeast winds for about 18 hours. The docks seemed to be holding. “I felt good about all that until the boat outboard of me broke loose — it chafed its 3/4-inch line — and started beating on me,” he said.

Rathbun kept waiting for the eye so he could retie his neighbor, but the eye never came. Fort Pierce was in Frances’ north eye wall and never saw a respite from the driving wind and rain. “The noise was horrendous the whole time,” Rathbun said. It screeched and howled and thundered as it blew over, around and through masts and shrouds, radar arches and tuna towers. The endlessly threatening noise grated on his nerves, raised his anxiety level, and just wore him down. “I got off before the winds shifted, and I’m glad I did,” Rathbun said. Crawling on hands and knees across a twisted and heaving gangplank, he made his way to land and across the street to his pickup truck to sleep. When he returned a few hours later, the floating docks were gone, along with his boat.

“I just could not believe it,” he said. “When I went across there was no marina.” Fixed docks in the protected inner harbor were still there, but the floating docks outside had blown away.

As the wind clocked east and then south, a combination of wind, surge and waves blowing across the twomile- wide river — and up a 20-mile straightaway from the south — had swept away boats and docks.

Stuart dockmaster Buzz Billue had that same sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he saw what was left of the city-run Southpoint Anchorage. The anchorage was full, many boaters seeking refuge there from Frances on one of its 86 state-of-the-art helix moorings, screwed into the bottom so they hold tight.

“We’ve got 40 or 50 boats up on the beach or sunk,” says Billue. Thirteen moorings failed; most of the rest of the problems were with parted lines. “Boats broke and chafed through their lines, and crashed down on other boats. It starts a domino effect.” Billue says 6-foot waves rolled up the river, driven by wind gusts of 128 to 135 mph.

Stuart Harbor Marina also was leveled. “All the docks were destroyed,” Billue says, and a half-dozen or so boats sunk or beached.

At Stuart Cay Marina, dockmaster Carrie Violette says a 120-footer from Stuart Harbor broke loose, blew through neighboring Allied Marine — taking with it six boats, two of them 50-foot Hatteras yachts — and plowed into Stuart Cay’s docks with the other boats in tow.

“We’ve got maybe four slips salvageable out of 50,” she says. “There’s just millions of dollars lost here.” Violette escaped to the Keys before Frances hit. She was appalled at what she saw when she returned.

“I didn’t expect to see the marina like this,” she says.

Big-boat damage on the Intracoastal Waterway in Palm Beach County was catastrophic. Bill Yeargin, vice president at Rybovich Spencer, says the big West Palm Beach yard came through well with no major damage and would re-open within days, but damage to yachts docked or anchored out on the ICW within a couple miles of the yard would run at least $100 million. “There must be 50 to 60 boats — a couple of them 100- footers — beached on the seawall,” he says. One Zodiac was floating, he says, still tied to the yacht sunk beneath it.

“It’s just unbelievable, the boats that are under water,” he says.

Farther up the ICW at Melbourne the story was much the same. Betty Carter, owner for 27 years of the 80-slip Diamond 99 Marina, says the broad Indian River Lagoon became a raging sea, as a combination of surge and wind-blown waves swept ashore.

“You’d think this was the ocean,” she says. Most of our marina was decimated. All the docks are broken up.” Several of the boats blew 2-1/2 miles up the lagoon and beached near the Pineda Causeway.

Scott Croft of BoatU.S., which offers insurance to its members, estimated boat damage from Frances at $300 million, on top of about $130 million in boat damage from Hurricane Charley, which had devastated Charlotte Harbor and Punta Gorda on Florida’s west coast just three weeks earlier. Croft says Frances was a huge, grinding storm that left some boat damage over much of Florida.

Reports came in of sunken houseboats at Northbay Village in Miami. In Jacksonville 350 miles away Melinda Gallup, of the Jacksonville Marine Association, said 50- to 70-mph winds and 13 to 14 inches of rain sank boats and scared people away from the Jacksonville Fall Boat Show. “We had 72 people on the last day [Sunday], but those were 72 people who really wanted to buy a boat,” she says.

Frances came ashore around Jupiter and Stuart, bulldozed across the state, hit Tampa with tropical storm-force winds, slipped into the Gulf of Mexico, and came back ashore around St. Marks in the Florida Panhandle as a tropical storm. The tentative death toll from Frances was 24, most due to post-hurricane accidents.

Dewey Ives, BoatU.S. lead surveyor on the west coast, reported 40 claims from the Tampa area due to Frances, with damage reports still coming in. William Glass, marketing director for insurer MBOA, reported a dozen boats on the beach in Sarasota near Marina Jack’s restaurant. Marinas in the Panhandle reported little or no damage from the storm.

In the hardest-hit areas of the southeast coast, boaters who fled Frances seemed to fare best. Mike Ianniello, a yard worker at Pirate’s Cove Marina in Stuart, says some of the big luxury and sportfishing yachts, many of which were in harm’s way, headed for Fort Lauderdale, the Keys or across the Okeechobee Waterway to Fort Myers for safe harbor. Two days before landfall, Frances was a 145- mph monster but had wound down to 115 mph before reaching Florida.

“It’s been crazy,” Ianniello said before the storm, as the clock continued to run down and boaters’ options became fewer and fewer. “One guy pulls out, another guy wants to pull in and take his place. I hate to say it, but it’s almost like a panic state.”

Boaters did what they could to protect their boats. Paul Boardman, a Fort Pierce carpenter, took his Jeanneau 40 out of its slip at the city marina and anchored it out on the Indian River on a 5-foot-tall Danforth anchor attached to 80 feet of 5/8-inch chain and a new 1-inch nylon line. Then he helped an elderly woman who lives in the marina on her aging, uninsured 48-foot Hatteras, delivering her and her boat across the Okeechobee Waterway to Fort Myers. Frances left the Hatteras unscathed.

When Boardman returned after the storm, his boat had disappeared. He found it three or four miles away leaning up against some mangroves, its keel in the sand, the mast leaning out over Fort Pierce’s Indian River Drive. The only evident damage was a scraped hull. “It missed the riprap and wound up stuck 3 feet in the sand,” he says. “She just took a little sail.”

Barbara Hoffman’s 46-foot Bertram motoryacht wasn’t so lucky. The Bertram had been on one of the floating docks that gave way at the city marina. Now it was barely visible at the bottom of a pile of broken-up boats, looking like a crushed milk carton. “It was a beautiful boat, a classic,” she says. “It’s so sad because when you walked up and down C dock every boat was in pristine condition. You couldn’t even imagine the change [to what they are now] if you hadn’t seen how beautiful these boats were. People took such beautiful care of them.”

Folks did what they could to make the best out of what was clearly a bad situation. David Roach, a boater and waterways administrator from Jupiter, had a freezer full of lobster tails, snapper, sea trout and scallops that he had caught over a particularly fruitful summer of fishing, lobstering and scalloping. After his power went out, he invited his neighbors over to a seafood cookout on his gas grill.

“We all ate well,” he says.

On Florida’s west coast, damage adjuster Ives still was working on claims from Charley as 150-mph killer Ivan rumbled through the Gulf. Ives says folks in hard-hit Punta Gorda were stretched to the breaking point as they tried to gear up for yet another hurricane.