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'It was pretty much everybody holding on for their lives' during Hurricane Ian, a boat captain says

Man wearing a gray cap, red long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and black shorts. Behind him is a damaged gold Honda SUV partly shaded by a blue bridge above it. A kayak is hanging off the top of the car.
Jessica Meszaros
WUSF Public Media
Eric Rakstis road out Hurricane Ian from his newly purchased 27-foot boat off the coast of Southwest Florida. While searching for boat parts for a friend on San Carlos Island after the storm passed, he came across his car. It had been moved by storm surge from a house a few blocks away from where he left it to underneath the Matanzas Pass Bridge that leads to Fort Myers Beach. Due to saltwater damage, the only salvageable things were his kayaks that were tied to the top of the Honda.

"I've lived in Florida all my life, but it was eye-opening, to say the least," said Eric Rakstis. "I actually pulled three people out from the water that were washed off of their boats, so it was four of us all together on my tiny, little 27-foot boat."

As Hurricane Ian pounded Southwest Florida a week and a half ago, some sailors were on the water, steering their boats and fighting for their lives. Eric Rakstis, a yacht captain from the East Coast, struggled for hours to save his new 27-foot Watkins sailboat that he had purchased just three days before the Category 4 storm hit.

WUSF's Jessica Meszaros spoke with "Captain Eric" on San Carlos Island four days after Ian’s landfall, about what it was like to be in middle of the storm. He had just located his totalled car, which was carried away by storm surge and ended up underneath the bridge that leads to Fort Myers Beach.

What went into your decision to stay out on the water during the hurricane?

Just wanting to save the boat that I just spent money on, and I was in a safe little spot.

What spot were you in?

In a little hurricane hole - that's what they call it. It's down a little estuary on the north side.

Were you protected by mangroves?

Yeah, exactly.

When you mentioned that staying on the boat, you were able to save it, what did you have to do to save it?

Adjusting lines and breaking other boats that were crashing into it because if they start getting tangled up, that's when the big problems are.

So, you were like working the whole storm?

The whole time.

How many hours were you working?

I lost track … but you know, the first part of the storm wasn't that bad. It was the second probably five hours that was the devastating part - that's when the big tidal surge was and everything, the backside of the storm and with the circulation going the other way.

Explain the experience of staying on the boat.

I've lived in Florida all my life, but it was eye-opening, to say the least. I actually pulled three people out from the water that were washed off of their boats, so it was four of us all together on my tiny, little 27-foot boat.

Wow. So, you guys got to know each other, I guess?

What everybody took in. I mean … it was pretty much everybody holding on for their lives, even inside the boat. The boat was thrashing back and forth. It was insane.

What were, like, the sounds and the feelings that you were having?

I guess the only way to put it is being put in a washing machine. We had boats crashing into us that broke loose, so that was the other problem. I had five anchors set and ended up with one left.

So, you stayed anchored?

Yeah, my boat's usable. I just moved the boat over, started the engine up and moved it over to the mooring field here.

How long have you lived on a boat?

I'm a yacht captain from the East Coast, so I've been on boats my entire life. I have a house on the east coast, as well, but I've always had boats.

So, this was nothing like any hurricane you've ever been through?

Ever in my entire life, no. And I've been through all of them since the ‘70s: David was a big one, Irma. I mean, I was through all of the big ones, and this one was like nothing I've ever seen before.

And what was your impression when you saw a Fort Myers Beach and the San Carlos Island?

Well, I'm partially blinded because my contacts got washed away, so I don't see everything very well. But yeah, I mean, it's total devastation. It's something you see and you just can't take it in.

Is this affecting your want to be out on the water at all, or no?

Absolutely not. Yeah, I mean, this is why we live in Florida. Not this, but I mean, being on the water and having that, having that freedom.

Do you have anything to share with people who may not have gone through that experience?

I mean, just preparation… I don't know had I known it was gonna be that intense, I would have stayed.

You would have left the boat?

I probably would have, yeah. You know, what's a few thousand bucks at the end of the day?

Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.