After being grounded by Hurricane Ian, an aging sailor struggles to get back to sea

Capt. Jay got a boat.

Six months after Hurricane Ian smashed his liveaboard sailboat into the mangroves, after a Coast Guard helicopter rescued him, after spending five months in a tent beneath a Fort Myers bridge, John “Jay” Burki, 76, finally has a home.

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He’d written his plea for all to see: “I need help finding a 47-foot sailboat.” Then a guy he knows told him about this 38-footer in Placida, about an hour’s drive north. It had been made for the 1985 John Candy movie “Summer Rental,” filmed around Tampa Bay. The boat’s owner had been hurt in a fire, or something — Capt. Jay is not entirely sure —and had to unload it.

Like many Floridians, Capt. Jay had given up on getting any storm compensation money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He was sick of the grind of bureaucracy, tired of living on land. He hadn’t been on shore this long for 30 years.

He had to get back to sea.

In mid-March, a few weeks after his story ran in the Tampa Bay Times, he caught a ride to the boatyard. The vessel was smaller than he’d hoped for, but a foot longer than his old one.

The guy told him: “It hasn’t been floating in quite a few years.”

Undaunted, the hoary-headed seaman said he scraped together $3,000 from the Veterans Administration, Social Security, plus pension from his time in the Navy, and emptied his bank account to buy the aptly named Barnacle.

A friend helped him haul his donated bed, bookcase and boombox, his Mozart CDs and fishing poles, to the boatyard. There, his new home sits on a slip of gravel. He spent a few slow days carrying everything up the 10-foot ladder onto the deck, then down into the crowded cabin.

“A good Monday morning to you as the sun rises from Placida,” he texted friends on March 20, beneath a photo of tangerine clouds. “Smile and enjoy your day.”

He was glad to make coffee on a real stove each morning and have ice in his rum and Cokes at night. To taste the salty air and hear the wind chiming his sail rigging.

Even if he was miles from the water. And his boat wouldn’t float.

At least here, he thought, no one could make him move.

Hurricane Ian killed nearly 150 people in southwest Florida in September and left at least 5,000 without housing. About 10% of the homeless had lived on boats that were destroyed.

An estimated 34,000 people stayed in emergency shelters. But in January, after all 260 closed, hundreds of people were forced onto the streets — and into the woods.

Homeless advocates have nowhere to put them. Rent vouchers don’t help. Few places are taking new tenants.

Beneath the Matanzas Pass Bridge, where Capt. Jay landed after the storm, dozens of others pitched tents and relieved themselves in paint buckets. They amassed donated blankets, bikes and food, formed a makeshift community. Then, in February, Lee County Sheriff’s Office deputies ordered everyone out.

Capt. Jay has no idea where his neighbors went. He found a lot on the beach where a house had been destroyed and the owner said he could stay as long as he helped clean up.

But a local councilman didn’t want tents on the beach.

John "Capt. Jay" Burki, 76, arrives at his sailboat, the Barnacle, at J & R Marine Service on April 10. He's restoring the vessel in Placida, Florida, and longs to get back to sea. Hurricane Ian destroyed Burki's last liveaboard boat, and he spent five months living in a tent beneath a Fort Myers bridge. "Fight for the things you love and live your life with no regrets," he texted friends beneath a photo of the sunset. "And as always SMILE." (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

So Capt. Jay moved onto the boat.

“They want $800 for me to stay another month,” Capt. Jay said at the end of March, ranting about the boatyard owners. “And the Barnacle’s so much worse than I thought.”

He had already repaired the rudder, put a regulator on the hose, added fiberglass. He wound up spending his next Social Security check to stay at the boatyard through April.

“Life without purpose is meaningless!” he typed beneath a sunrise photo he sent to friends April 8. That night, below a shot of sunset, he wrote, “Success in your life is a result of self-satisfaction.”

He felt the breeze through his beard, looked up at the stars, then climbed into his cabin and poured another rum and Coke.

He’s been stuck before. He worked as an electrician, oysterman and fisherman. Got married five times. After his daughter was grown, he sold his house near Lake City and moved onto his first sailboat in 2006. He anchored offshore, rowed a dinghy to town when he needed cigarettes. He rode out three hurricanes and dozens of other storms on the water.

But in 2012, Tropical Storm Debby dumped his sailboat onto Gulfport Beach, where he stayed on the wrecked Promise for almost a month. Town officials threatened to break up the vessel, so a crowd showed up and shoved it back into Boca Ciega Bay.

Capt. Jay planned, then, to travel to Key West. But he only made it as far as Fort Myers.


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At the Placida boatyard, he has yet to repair his sailboat’s spreader, fix the in-board engine, buy an outboard one. Or climb the 52-foot mast to check the rigging.

With his slumped shoulders and back bent from an ancient injury, it’s hard to imagine Capt. Jay scaling a five-story pole. He insists he’s not worried. Besides, he has no one to help.

“I like solitude,” he said. “But I’m still searching for that female companion.”

He’ll settle for a Pomeranian. Or maybe a boxer. “Someone to travel around the world with me.”

“I’m going to do a TV show from every port. … I may be in the water by next week.”

Until then, his dreams will keep him afloat.

©2023 Tampa Bay Times. Visit at tampabay.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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