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Four friends say a large wake caused by a 75-foot charter boat swamped the 20-foot Proline. The charter boat company disagrees.
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000
At the start of a July day, four friends, all of them marine biologists, dropped anchor 16 miles off Clearwater Pass for a leisurely morning of grouper fishing.
Rich Netro's 20-foot Proline faced southwest into 1- to 2-foot seas as the friends prepared their lines with squid, scaled sardine and mackerel. Publix subs and Gatorade chilled in a cooler for lunch.
Barely five minutes had passed when Chris Powell, 29, of Tarpon Springs, noticed a large boat headed in their direction from the east. Before anyone could react, the friends say, the 75-foot Gulf Queen veered and came within 120 feet of their stern, slamming their boat with a 5-foot wake.
The first wave easily overcame the transom.
A second wave left them in knee-deep saltwater.
The third wave flipped the boat over and pitched them into the sea.
"We literally went from having a great time fishing, the first wake hit us and 20 seconds later, we're all swimming," Powell said.
Now, the four friends -- Powell, Netro, 25, of St. Petersburg, and John Crofts, 25, and Ben Sniffen, 24, both of St. Petersburg -- have filed a federal lawsuit against the charter boat company, Clearwater Marine Enterprises, which owns the Gulf Queen.
The lawsuit, filed Oct. 24 in U.S. District Court in Tampa, seeks $12,000 to $13,000 for boat damage and equipment the fishermen say was lost when the Gulf Queen's wake knocked them into the gulf July 23. They accuse the boat of failing to maintain a safe distance and slow down to control the wake.
Sniffen and Netro said they lost all their fishing gear.
"I have a couple of junkers, but what's the point of going fishing with a junk rod?" Powell said.
But John Kallen, the Miami attorney representing Clearwater Marine Enterprises, said the friends' account is not how it happened that day. The Gulf Queen, he said, was a half-mile away from Netro's boat.
"According to my client, they weren't anywhere close to them," Kallen said.
If the men's boat capsized, Kallen said, it's because of the rough weather that day. Kallen said there were 4- to 6-foot seas and strong winds, a fact the friends dispute.
"With the wind conditions that day, I don't think it would be unusual to see that boat take on a good amount of water from being out there," Kallen said. "The sea and weather conditions were extreme."
The four friends, all experienced boaters who work on the water every day, say they wouldn't have been out if the weather had been bad.
The lawsuit said that the boaters had just enough time after the second wave to get off a hurried "Mayday" call on their VHF radio, and several boats in the area responded to the distress call. After the boat flipped, the friends say the Gulf Queen never stopped to help them. They were rescued from the water by another friend who was out fishing in a 15-foot Boston Whaler and heard their "Mayday."
"It was a real dangerous situation because out of nowhere, a squall came up," Crofts said. "We're six of us on this Boston Whaler in a summer storm. I was very concerned we were going to sink his boat."
A second boat soon arrived, and three of the friends got off the Whaler. Later, a New Port Richey boater towed Netro's boat, upside down, back to shore. The journey took eight hours.
Then, Netro paid $2,000 to have his boat flipped over and $3,500 the next day to have the engine fixed. The four men lost everything they had on the boat that day from their fishing gear to mobile phones to their keys.
Under Coast Guard regulations, said the boaters' attorney, Frank D. Butler of Pinellas Park, the charter boat was responsible for keeping its wake under control.
"There's really no excuse for that," Butler said. "I've talked to different people about it and they just get angry hearing about it."
- Staff writers Jeff Testerman and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.