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Real heavy tipper: 9,000 pounds of boat

Florida waitress finds herself back on the water, thanks to a restaurant regular

Cindy Brown, a waitress at the Catfish House in Hobe Sound, Fla., is boating and fishing again, and savoring every moment of it. One of her customers, an avid boater who wants to remain anonymous, tipped her with a 26-foot Shamrock center console early last year.

Cindy Brown's 26-foot Shamrock was given to her by a frequent patron at the restaurant where she works.

“I absolutely love it,” says Brown, 51, a lifelong boater with a Coast Guard license. “It’s 80 degrees, I have a few lines out, and life is good,” she said in a telephone interview with Soundings from aboard the boat.

Brown has worked at the Catfish House for about three years. Her benefactor, a businessman in his 70s, is a regular at the restaurant.

“He would bring in his 96-year-old parents, who live in the area, and we all became friends,” says Brown. “I would check up on them and watch over them.”

Brown says she grew up on boats in Michigan. Her father owned many boats through the years, from Chris-Crafts to Boston Whalers.

The sea, she says, “is in my blood.”

On a trip to Florida in 1974, Brown fell in love with the area and decided never to go back to the snow and ice. She spent 20 years captaining other people’s boats — among them a 77-foot Hatteras and a 61-foot Buddy Davis.

Brown owned a 25-foot Angler that was destroyed in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma deposited a couple large trees on it as it sat on a trailer in her yard.

“I didn’t have any boat insurance, so that was it,” she says. “I’ve had my 100-ton captain’s license for about 25 years, and I’ve always loved fishing. But after that boat was gone, there was no way I’d be able to replace it.”

When Brown’s customer heard her story, he decided to make her a gift — a 1990 26-foot Shamrock with a T-top and a 350-hp Ford Indmar inboard gasoline engine. The boat, which the customer kept at his other home in Pennsville, N.J., came with all the necessary electronics: radar, GPS, VHF radio and a fishfinder.

“It has pretty much all the electronics you would want, except for a stereo,” says Brown. “It holds about 250 gallons of fuel. The engine is the original, but it’s only got 400 hours on it. It’s practically brand new.”

The customer offered it to her about a year ago. Three months later, a local resident agreed to tow the boat to Florida from New Jersey at a deeply discounted rate.

Brown doesn’t know the value of the gift, but similar models are priced online at around $30,000.

“I remember when I saw my boat coming around the corner and just being floored at the size of it,” says Brown. “It’s heavy duty: she weighs about 9,000 pounds. I’m out here with one- to two-foot waves and she just slices through them.”

However, the boat wasn’t ready to make the splash when Brown received it. She spent several months getting it ready — including new paint, pumping out all the old fuel, and working out a few glitches in the starter. Brown says the boat had been winterized, which minimized some of the work she had to do.

“Everyone has done so much, donating their time to get this boat out on the water,” says Brown. “Two guys out of Port St. Lucie got the bugs out of the starter for me and a lot of my customers have been so helpful.”

Meanwhile, Brown was becoming a mini-celebrity of sorts. In November, her story appeared in an ABC news segment, and an article was published on She even got a call from Ellen DeGeneres for a show segment.

“She called at the restaurant and I thought it was some kind of a prank,” says Brown. “It was amazing.”

Brown says she is extremely thankful to everyone who has helped her with the boat. She plans on using the Shamrock to take people out on the water who have never been before, as well as her parents, who now live in Jupiter Inlet, Fla.

“My friend who gave me the boat really didn’t want to be interviewed; he was just happy the Catfish House could get some publicity,” says Brown. “Now all I want to do is give back. I say to anyone if they want to head out with me, they’re more than welcome.”

Brown hopes to make an arrangement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that fulfills the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions. Meanwhile, she is content to watch the sea turtles as she cruises the waters between her hometown and nearby Jupiter Island with her 18-year-old lab.

“Eventually [the boat] will be named the Octopus Lady after a gold pendant of an octopus holding a pearl and two emeralds I’ve worn for years,” says Brown. “I’m so thankful to be out having fun again.”

This article originally appeared the March 2009 issue.