Rob Jones wanted to help out after Hurricane Ian.
The storm didn’t make it easy.
Jones, a charter captain, had to extricate his 26-foot boat from a pile of other damaged vessels in its storage lot. His usual marina near San Carlos Island had been destroyed, so he towed his boat by truck to the Port Sanibel Marina where officials were coordinating rescue missions and supply runs to Sanibel and Captiva. The sole bridge to both islands was damaged and impassable, leaving them only accessible by air or water.
Luckily, his craft —The Pelican —was still seaworthy.
"It got dinged up. There’s supposed to be a top on here,” Jones said, after casting off on an aid mission Friday.
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Florida Fish & Wildlife officers had loaded 40 cases of bottled water and six boxes of MREs onto the boat. Jones and his volunteer crew – Danny Romero, Sameer Mansukhani, and fellow Fort Myers charter captain Dan Young – were to deliver the supplies to Captiva, and rescue a group of islanders who had survived the storm and needed passage to the mainland.
They did not know it then, but they would end up bringing home Captiva’s last three evacuees. A Captiva fire official confirmed that only 10 to 15 other people remained on the island, and they all refused to leave. Unlike Sanibel, its larger sister island, Captiva suffered no fatalities during the storm, the official said. There were four confirmed fatalities on Sanibel as of Friday.
The Pelican set off from one of the only functional docks at the marina. Others were splintered, from winds, storm surge or boats that had been lifted from their moorings and slammed into the piers.
None of the crew, all locals, had gotten much time to put their lives back together following the storm. Young said his mother passed away on Sept. 30, and the hurricane had not given him the chance to process his grief.
“I haven’t had a chance to breathe,” Young said.
Throughout the previous 24 hours, a ragtag convoy of vessels – state Fish and Wildlife speedboats and rigid hull inflatables, pontoons, private pleasure craft – ran relief trips to the islands, bringing back stranded residents. The Pelican followed the same path out the narrow mouth of Punta Rassa Cova, into San Carlos Bay toward the Pine Island Sound.
Jones accelerated into a headwind, salt spray lashing over the bow. The Pelican was riding low because of the weight of the supplies, so Young, Romero and Mansukhani ferried cases of water aft, leveling out the weight.
As they entered the bay, Jones and Young marveled at the disruption caused by Ian. The storm had shifted massive amounts of sand and sediment, making existing navigational charts unreliable, Young said. Channels that used to be 12 feet deep could now be too shallow to traverse. Some smaller channels may disappear entirely, Young said.
“There's going to be a whole new learning curve here for about a month,” Young said.
Romero looked across the bay toward the Sanibel Lighthouse, pointing to sandbars just visible under the gentle waves. Before the storm, they used to be above water, he said.
"That was all island,” Romero said.
Young said he plans on going out one night and charting the reshaped waterway, re-mapping the area in his GPS.
"I need a low tide and a full moon to find where all the new islands are,” Young said. “Mother nature's got a way of making things the way she wants it.”
Jones powered past the shredded shoreline of St. James City on Pine Island. As The Pelican neared Captiva, he slowed. The markers that mapped a safe channel seemed to have shifted, and it was impossible to tell how the hurricane had affected the depth of the approach.
Then a grinding, a vibration, and Jones brought the boat to a stop.
"I hit bottom,” he said.
“Right in the channel, and we hit bottom,” Young said.
They checked the rear of the boat. There was no harm, so Jones continued cautiously onward. The Pelican neared the historic fish house built off the Captiva shore in 1942 by political cartoonist and conservationist Ding Darling as a winter home. It appeared heavily damaged.
Jones pulled the boat up to a pier behind The Hide-A-Way, a condo complex on the island where some residents had taken shelter. A Captiva fire lieutenant met them at the dock, and said three people needed evacuation back to the mainland. The crew off loaded the water and rations, as they waited for the islanders to arrive.
The coastal homes near the dock were scarred by the storm. Debris floated on swimming pools filled with brackish storm water. One home was gutted, its sliding doors ripped off their tracks and a bed, fridge and furniture blown across the living space.
A few minutes later, Fabienne Hedgedus, David Chase and Michael Book stepped on to the boat, carrying bags, luggage and a large crate containing Hegedus’ two cats, Levi and Blue.
The cats had handled the storm fine, Hegedus said, but were less enthused about being caged up on a boat.
They had a relatively easy time weathering the hurricane, Hegedus said. A generator kept the television, radio, microwave and air conditioning working, and the worst damage they suffered was some basement flooding.
“It wasn’t bad. The house was shaking, but the house we were in was built for hurricanes,” she said. “We were lucky.”
The storm felt manageable until the back side of the eye wall began to batter the island, Chase said.
“That was ruthless. It just sat there for two hours, probably,” he said.
The ride back to the mainland was easy, and the winds were calm. But one island over people were still in dire straits. Rescue helicopters hung in the air like dragonflies, in the midst of air rescues for those still stranded on Sanibel.
This article originally appeared on Fort Myers News-Press: Hurricane Ian: Rescue boat volunteers take Captiva islanders to safety