They took Ian on shrimp boats. Now they fear their livelihood will be destroyed

FORT MYERS BEACH – Shrimp Boat Lane is a crook in the middle of San Carlos Island. Inside beats the heart of a historic fishery.

But with little warning and high winds, Hurricane Ian tore it apart.

Huge swells tossed shrimp boats into mangroves and swept away docks. Jesse Clapham walked through what was left Friday morning, sweat soaking the back of his black T-shirt.

“My father was a fisherman. He was a fisherman,” said Clapham, fleet manager for Erickson and Jensen, a seafood and marine supply company. “It’s life changing.”

Only three of the company’s 12 boats are still in the water, he said, and one has a hole in its side. Clapham is sure he can fix it.

What to do with others, however, is overwhelming.

The rest of the boats lay scattered on the shore, their hulls exposed to the sun and their rigging tangled like a huge bird’s nest.

Shrimp trawlers remain moved by storm surge through stands of mangroves at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Fort Myers Beach. The company’s fleet of 12 shrimpers was badly damaged when Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday night. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Joined by a handful of colleagues, Clapham, 47, gathered tools and set to work repairing a front loader’s flooded engine, so he could clear the debris. A mush of rubble lined the Double E, a 96ft steel-hulled shrimper that left a heavy list to port on the ground.

Clapham’s chief engineer, Jerry Richards, 54, had remained on board during the hurricane with a captain and the captain’s wife and five children. He watched the sea swell above his Chevy Silverado, parked ashore nearby. The waves lifted the Double E on an old dock, before the wave came back, he said. The force tilted the ship so far that they decided to descend a ladder and get off the ship on Wednesday evening.

“When they said it was going in this direction, it was too late to do anything about it,” Richards said, recalling forecasters’ predictions for Hurricane Ian. He had avoided evacuating to Tampa, where he feared his mother’s home would face intense storm surge in Town ‘N Country. Erickson and Jensen’s crew hadn’t even had time to drive all the boats to a safer spot on the Caloosahatchee River before Ian went down.

Normally, Clapham said, the fleet would be in Texas by this time – but gas was too expensive to race this year.

Left to right: Assistant Fleet Manager Jerry Richards, Fleet Procurement Manager Scott Wilson, Fleet Manager Jesse Clapham and Shrimp Boater Steven Maxey discuss future plans at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers on Friday, September 30 2022 in Fort Myers Beach.  The company's fleet of 12 shrimp boats, including the 96-foot, 200-ton Double E, in the background, were badly damaged when Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday night.
Left to right: Assistant Fleet Manager Jerry Richards, Fleet Procurement Manager Scott Wilson, Fleet Manager Jesse Clapham and Shrimp Boater Steven Maxey discuss future plans at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers on Friday, September 30 2022 in Fort Myers Beach. The company’s fleet of 12 shrimp boats, including the 96-foot, 200-ton Double E, in the background, were badly damaged when Hurricane Ian made landfall Wednesday night. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Just beyond the old fuel docks, rigger Dave Newcomb, known to everyone as ‘One-Eyed Dave’, was still on the 78ft Lexi-Joe wrecked early on Friday, unable to get off because of a bad hip. He walks with a limp and only one crutch. The storm had trapped him on another boat, where the constant crash of wind and water prompted him to radio for help.

Another crew member, Dave “Sandbar” Hutchins, rode the Lexi-Joe, grabbing first Wishbone, Newcomb’s German Shepherd mix, and then Newcomb himself. Hutchins went through waist-deep water in the cabin of the boat, he said.

Since the storm passed, they stayed with another crew member on the stranded boat. Neither had a home on earth to retire to before Ian. At the time they committed to weathering the hurricane, they expected only a few feet of surge from the storm. The wind was already gusting when they heard a new projection of up to 18 feet, said Hutchins, 59.

Fishermen eat Top Ramen and peanut butter sandwiches. They use buckets as toilets. Newcomb emptied the last can of its Busch 18-pack, destined for the sequel, on Friday morning.

They have plenty of food, water and Gatorade, Hutchins said, as well as a working generator. His boat had just stocked up on supplies and set off on a long fishing trip off the Dry Tortugas before Ian went off. They turned back after a few nights with several thousand pounds of shrimp, now rotting in Lexi-Joe stores.

Shrimper David Newcomb, aka One Eyed Dave, 62, puffs on a cigarette where he lives on the trawler Lexi-Joe Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers in Fort Myers Beach.
Shrimper David Newcomb, aka One Eyed Dave, 62, puffs on a cigarette where he lives on the trawler Lexi-Joe Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, at Erickson and Jensen Seafood Packers in Fort Myers Beach. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Beaten by the sun and squinting, they take cigarettes on deck. Hutchins climbs onto the boats, onto the roof of a damaged building, then descends a ladder to see other workers. Friends harass them from below.

“Sandbar!” shouted a captain from a parking lot. (Years ago, Hutchins ran a ship aground, hence his nickname.)

Satellite radio operates on board, broadcasting Styx’s “Come Sail Away” mid-Friday morning. The television too, next to a hand-painted sign: “Old fishermen never die. … They just smell like that!!”

They watch national news broadcasts rebroadcast footage of Ian’s wreckage along other stretches of the coast.

“Everyone but us,” said Newcomb, 62.

“We haven’t seen any media coverage yet, any photos from this area,” Hutchins said.

Before the hurricane, he says, he was saving. He had $500 from the business and still owed a friend $500. He was looking at maybe $3,000 or $4,000 from the last run of shrimp. He made an appointment on Oct. 12 to get $2,800 dental implants.

Now everything is in motion.

He thinks he and many other shrimp workers on San Carlos Island are unemployed. There are few unscathed crewed boats, and even if they could get out on the Gulf of Mexico, where would they unload and freeze the shrimp? These places are all heavily damaged.

Neither Newcomb nor Hutchins called for a rescue. On CNN and Fox News, Newcomb said he heard other people were pulled from the water and rubble, and he believes they are in worse condition than he is. He is dry. He is not alone.

“I’m not a priority,” he said.

He can roll out a list of hurricanes he’s been through: Andrew, Opal, Frances, Charley, Irene and Harvey – which he thought were bad until Ian.

“This is my last,” Newcomb said. “Never again.”

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Coverage of Hurricane Ian by the Tampa Bay Times

HOW TO HELP: Where to donate or volunteer to help Hurricane Ian victims.

FEMA: Floridians injured by Ian can now seek help from FEMA. Here’s how.

THE STORM HAS PASSED: Now what? Safety tips for returning home.

QUESTIONS AFTER THE STORM: After Hurricane Ian, how to get help for fallen trees, food, damaged shelter.

WEATHER EFFECTS: Hurricane Ian was supposed to hit Tampa Bay with full force. What happened?

WHAT TO DO IF A HURRICANE DAMAGES YOUR HOME: Stay calm, then call your insurance company.

SCHOOLS: Will schools reopen soon after Hurricane Ian hits? It depends.

MORE STORM COVERAGE: Prepare and stay informed at tampabay.com/hurricane.

Earnest A. Martinez