State to Pay Quarter of a Million to Retrieve Boat Lost During Ivan

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Got your house and yard squared away after the hurricanes? You're lucky. The state still has a lost boat.

A salvage company began efforts Friday to bring home the J.J. Brown five weeks after Hurricane Ivan beached the state law enforcement boat in the far reaches of St. Andrew Bay in Panama City, far from its station in Carrabelle.

And though some may question the hurricane preparations that led to the incident - and now will cost the state $248,000 to rescue the boat - officials say nature sometimes trumps man.

"Nobody wants to see the boat sitting on a hill," said Maj. David Pridgen, a regional law enforcement commander for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "But (the boat captain) had a good plan, and he followed it. Sometimes, things just happen."

The J.J. Brown is an 85-foot, 70-ton, steel-hulled vessel once used for missile recovery by the U.S. Air Force. The National Marine Fisheries Service purchased the boat in 1994 and loaned it to the FWC as part of a law enforcement agreement between the two agencies. The boat primarily is used to check offshore commercial fishing boats for violations of state and federal regulations. The boat also is frequently used for search and rescue efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.

In early September, as Hurricane Frances bore down on the Big Bend coast, the boat's captain, Lt. Earl Whaley, piloted the J.J. Brown to Panama City to take it out of harm's way. There, Whaley tied the boat to a U.S. Navy mooring buoy, which is a floating steel ball anchored to an underwater concrete pad.

Frances lost steam before it hit the Big Bend, but it was immediately followed by Hurricane Ivan. Because Ivan was originally forecast to hit near Carrabelle, Whaley left the J.J. Brown tied to the mooring buoy in Panama City.

But Ivan veered farther west. On Sept. 16, it struck near Pensacola and spawned rough seas and tornadoes in Panama City.

The tumult snapped or sawed the two rope lines that Whaley used to tie the J.J. Brown to the mooring buoy. The boat was swept four miles away, passing under the Hathaway Bridge, connecting Panama City and Panama City Beach, and winding up on land in West Bay, an arm of St. Andrew Bay.

Whaley was on his way from Carrabelle to Panama City on Sept. 16 when he was notified the boat was missing. It took a full day for him and other FWC officials to find it.

Whaley, 58, is a native of Carrabelle and has been with the FWC for 25 years. He is retiring in February. He's been the only captain of the J.J. Brown since the boat was purchased from the Air Force.

"I was sick; I still am," Whaley said. "I've spent 10 years on that boat. It's like one of your kids. I've got some pride there. And it got bruised a little bit."

Some have questioned Whaley's measures in securing the boat during a hurricane. Bob Zales, a charter-boat captain in Panama City, said he tied up his three 50-foot boats to a dock during Hurricane Ivan, using "about 12 different lines" for each. All remained secured.

"If a boat of (the J.J. Brown's) size was tied to a mooring buoy with only a couple lines in a Category 4 hurricane, in my mind, that's very inadequate," Zales said.

Whaley disagreed.

"If I had been tied up to a dock, I'd agree (more lines are necessary). You want to keep the boat from moving back and forth," Whaley said. "But you can't do that at a buoy."

Whaley said he used a one-inch hemp rope and a 1½-inch nylon rope to secure the J.J. Brown to the floating buoy. He said the two rope lines somehow jumped out of the circular "chalks" around which they were wound, exposing them to scraping on the boat's metal deck rails and eventually snapping.

Whaley theorized that the tornadoes that touched down on Panama City during Hurricane Ivan, killing two people, played a role in unfurling the ropes.

"I think the boat would have been fine except for the tornadoes," Whaley said. "I don't think I did anything wrong. I've got about 50 years' worth of experience on the water, and I think I did the best I could do."

FWC officials agree - and note that five other privately owned boats also were blown away from their moorings and beached in West Bay or nearby North Bay. All of those other vessels, including a former gambling ship three times as big as the J.J. Brown, remain to be rescued.

"I can't see any fault other than the unexpected happened," said Capt. Eric Johnston, Whaley's boss in Carrabelle. "(The Navy) ties a lot larger ships than an 85-footer to that buoy. I think the wind blew awfully hard and what happened was unexpected."

Pridgen said the unpredictability of Ivan also played a role.

"By the time everyone was sure Ivan was going to Pensacola or Mobile, the seas were too rough to move the boat (back to Carrabelle)," Pridgen said.

Officials spent nearly two weeks deciding how to rescue the boat. The J.J. Brown is too heavy and long to be airlifted out by helicopter. And floating it out the way it came in - across West Bay - was deemed not an option.

The boat requires six feet of water to float, but West Bay is only three to four feet deep where the J.J. Brown was beached and its bottom is covered with sensitive sea grasses, which are vital to the marine habitat and water quality of the bay. Department of Environmental Protection officials objected to any plan that required dredging out a channel through the sea grasses to get the J.J. Brown to deeper water.

That left only one option: Dig a trench across from the boat to a deep canal, which was created many years ago to serve a now-defunct shrimp farming operation. The boat could then be floated to the canal and towed 1,200 yards north to where the canal connects with a deeper part of the bay.

On Oct. 4, the FWC awarded a contract for that project to Grimes Inc., a Tallahassee construction foundation company.

The contract pays Grimes $248,000. Pridgen said the FWC expects to recoup some of the cost from the Federal Emergency Management Administration money for hurricane recovery; the remainder will come from the FWC.

On Wednesday, Bill Grimes began moving equipment to the site. By Monday, he expects to begin digging a 6-feet-deep trench across.

The contract called for Grimes to move the boat within 20 days - a period that expires Monday. But Grimes' application for a permit to dig the trench got bogged down at the U.S. Corps of Engineers office. And it was not until last Tuesday that the corps issued the permit.

Grimes thinks he's entitled to a time extension because of the delay in issuing a permit. On Friday, FWC spokesman Stan Kirkland said the agency was "looking favorably" on an extension to Nov. 19, though a final decision had not been made. If an extension is denied, the contract will be defaulted and FWC will have to put out the project for bid again.

It will take a day to dig the trench and a day to tow the boat around to the bay. The boat will be towed to a Panama City marina for inspection before it's returned to service.

While the J.J. Brown has been out of commission, the FWC has covered its patrol duties with smaller boats that can't go as far offshore - limiting its ability to inspect commercial fishing vessels or rescue boaters.

"The work is still getting done but not as well," Johnston said.

State officials are working to keep the salvage effort from damaging the environment. After the J.J. Brown is dislodged, the trench will be refilled, but only to high-tide level so water can pass between the canal and bay. FWC biologists dug up 200 pots' worth of marsh grasses around the J.J. Brown for replanting after the boat is removed. They also allowed a Panama City environmental group to harvest some of the marsh grasses for replanting in another section of the bay.

"With all the storms, there are going to be a lot of salvage efforts, and we didn't want to be the ones who cowboyed the whole thing by dragging off a boat," said Kent Smith, an FWC biological administrator. "We're trying to make as much lemonade as we can from the lemons we were handed."