PERDIDO KEY, Fla. — In five years aboard the Tropical Hideaway Too, Jerry Ash has ridden out some bad storms before, but Hurricane Sally was different.
Anchored at the Perdido Key RV Resort and Marina in Pensacola, Florida, Ash and his compatriots in their similarly tied up sailboats, hunkered down for the night before the winds picked up.
None of them were expecting it to get as bad as it did Wednesday.
“I’ve been through some bad ones before, but I know better,” Ash said about riding through a hurricane on the boat. “No one thought it would be like this.”
The man stuck on the pillar under a local bridge certainly wasn’t expecting it either.
Ash was alerted to the man by onlookers, trying to figure out how to help him.
The trapped man had been on a boat anchored at the neighboring marina on the other side of the bridge when it broke loose and capsized, Ash would come to learn. The man’s only option was to cling to the underside of the bridge, all night as the hurricane passed with Category 2 force winds and relentless rain.
“Could you imagine? He was out there all night in just shorts,” Ash said.
Unsure how to help, Ash initially posted a grainy picture of the man to Facebook, asking anyone to pass along a message to rescuers.
Eventually, rescuers did come with Jet Skis, but the winds were too much, Ash said, so he resolved to do it himself.
“I knew if I could get to my boat, I could get to him,” he said. “So I came out here, grabbed my kayak and about 500 feet of rope and went out.”
Ash paddled out to get the man the rope, then several onshore helped pull him in. The man had a dislocated shoulder and was understandably shaken up.
“But man, I bet he’s got a story to tell,” Ash said. “I just wish I knew his name.”
Just a few slips down from Ash, Markus Alt and his dog, Ace, were preparing to abandon ship.
“My boat was just swinging from one side to the other,” he said. “I put Ace’s life vest on, put mine on and grabbed my ditch bag. When I jumped off the side of the boat I was just hoping the boards of the dock would be under my feet.”
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Alt made it, white-knuckling the handhold on Ace’s life vest, to a small community center in the middle of the RV park. He, Ash and others watched out the window as their boats waved from one side to the other, up and down.
Alt realized that some of the boats, and the way they were tied, wouldn’t make it. He and Ash ran up and down the dock adjusting the boats.
“If we didn’t, it would be like a domino effect,” he said. “I mean I didn’t want anyone to lose their boat, they’re our homes, but if one got loose it could just start that domino.”
Alt, a former Colorado resident who’d moved down in his boat, Brilliant Sea, in April, said it was his first bad storm in the boat.
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“I’m a bit of an adventurist, a thrill-seeker, but at that point there was no more thrill in it,” he said. “All in all, we survived it. We’re still floating.”
That’s more than the boats next door could say. Emile Petro’s Oyster Bar Restaurant and Marina, on the other side of the bridge from the RV park, didn’t fare as well.
Boats were everywhere they could be except upright in the water.
“If you own a business on the water, you expect it to happen from time to time,” he said surveying the damage. “If we’d known it would have been this bad, we would have had the boats moved.”
Mel Knapp, an entertainer who lives on the bottom floor of a condo unit at the marina, rode out the storm there.
“Well it just started as rain and wind, you know, wasn’t anything to be concerned about,” he said. “But then about midnight it really picked up. Then about 3 a.m. I said ok, we need to move.”
Knapp and his dog, Smokey, moved upstairs to a neighbor’s unit, worried the water would soon be pouring into his home.
“I watched as these boats tumbled over each other,” he said. “There was a guy in one boat here, and another tied up over there, and then there was the guy stuck under the bridge.”
Once the weather calmed down, Knapp went downstairs to check on his home. Expecting the worst, he was pleasantly surprised everything was intact. He even found his bicycle that had been on his patio, a little dirty, but still in working order.
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Further inland, where a small community of homes sat, residents were still fairly shocked by Sally’s strength.
Michael Choron, his wife, Denise, and their 12-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son were throwing damaged items to the curb.
“Free to anyone who wants it. We’ll put it in the back of your truck,” he said to a passerby who slowed to look at the workbench. “We’re throwing it all out. Except the beer. That stays.”
Choron will have to salvage two boat lifts behind the home he built in 2017.
“At one point I thought ‘I hope I tightened that damn nut right when I built this thing,’” he said. “I did get kind of scared when I saw those lifts collapsing.”
Denise Choron said if they’d known the storm was going to get as bad as it did, her family would have evacuated.
“It was kind of downplayed,” she said, stopping to take a deep breath. “I get kind of emotional thinking about what could have happened. We’re just very thankful we’re all still here. All our neighbors are.”
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Hurricane Sally: Florida boater rescues man trapped under bridge