Beached sailor races against time

Michael Calabrese felt sure that he could outrun Hurricane Irene in his 30-foot sailboat when he left Portsmouth, Va., on Friday with his girlfriend and their cat.

But the powerful tropical storm won, driving his vessel off its anchor, into a stone jetty and onto the beach Saturday.

Now Calabrese, whose boat remains broken and beached off Willoughby Spit in Norfolk, is in another mad race against time.

Sunburned and sweaty, Calabrese was shoveling sand away from the boat’s hull Sunday in a desperate hope that he might be able to right and repair the vessel before the government does it for him and sends him a bill he could not pay.

“You have no idea what a nightmare it is,” said Calabrese, who lives aboard the sailboat with his girlfriend and cat, Meka. “A family just lost their home.”

Unable to launch a rescue boat during the storm, members of an emergency crew swam to the vessel to remove the sailors and their cat. A fire department member who took part in the rescue told the Virginian-Pilot on Saturday that the sailors almost hit a pier and characterized their attempt outrun the storm as foolhardy.

A photo of the rescue and the boat was featured in the Washington Post and other newspapers Sunday. Also Sunday, curious onlookers marched up to the yellow police tape circling the sailboat to ogle and take pictures of the beached vessel, whose anchor chain had ripped a squiggly gash through the fiberglass hull like a piece of string through wet paper. The rudder was broken, and so was the keel. A wind speed gauge whirled slowly atop the mast. Calabrese angrily shooed onlookers away.      

“Have you lost your home?” he demanded of some visitors. “That’s my home. My home is on the beach, and it should be on the water.”

Calabrese said he and his girlfriend, both retired military veterans, sold their homes and invested in their houseboat, which is based in St. Cloud, Fla., and named Maybe Tomorrow. They left Florida on July 4 for Virginia before being caught in Hurricane Irene.

Calabrese said strong currents and wind slowed his progress and forced him to anchor perhaps 1,000 yards off Willoughby Spit. He told his girlfriend to go below as the storm worsened.

But when the boat smashed into and over the rocky jetty, he said, they thought they were goners.

“I heard this big bang.  It was horrible, and it didn’t stop. It was, ‘Bam! Bam! Bam!’ ” he said. “Oh, man, we bashed against that thing so many times it was crazy. It ripped the boat apart, and water was flying in so fast that all the wooden cabinets started floating up.”

Calabrese said rescuers took him and his girlfriend first to an emergency room and then a shelter. Their cat is being kept in an animal shelter. Insurers have told him that they will not pay to salvage the vessel because he sailed during a hurricane, and he said city and federal officials have told him that he must remove the vessel from the beach within three days — or they will.

“Right now, my only hope is right-side down,” he said.

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