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Community rallies to get 'Bonnie the Bait Lady' back on the water

Her boat sank with her on board on August 30. Homosassa responded in a big way.

HOMOSASSA, Fla. — If you’re trying to get in touch with Bonnie Van Allen via phone, you’ll probably get an answer right away.

“People call every day and say such wonderful things to me about the bait boat,” she said from the dock. “It makes me feel great.”

The problem for the woman locals call the “The Bait Lady” is she doesn’t want to be answering her phone from land. She’d rather be out on the water.

That won’t be happening for a few weeks.

“It looked like a mess. We dropped everything we were doing,” said Joe Finn, owner of Storm Port Boatworks, Inc

He and his son, Patrick, have been working 10-hour days to restore the Bait Boat back to being seaworthy by October – they hope.

On August 30, about four miles from shore, the Bait Boat started taking on water. Van Allen was on the phone with her husband, Ted Harless. He’d called to warn her bad weather was on the way. She assured him the boat would be home within the hour.

Before she could hang up, the boat was going down.

“As I was talking to him, I looked up and the left side of the boat was going under," she said. "I said to him, ‘Call the Coast Guard. Here’s where I am. I’m sinking.’”

Help didn’t come for two and a half hours. Bonnie was forced to hold on to one of the new life vests Harless just purchased. She treaded water to survive and saw her life dip beneath the waves.

“Really, when I was watching it sink, I was thinking this might be the end,” she said.

The water was about six feet deep, she guesses. She held her cell phone above the water the whole time. The giant shrimp sculpture she made herself and attached to the roof was the only part of the boat that wasn’t totally destroyed. 

She was rescued and told Harless on the car ride home that she was determined to get back out there.

Credit: WTSP

The problem was the boat was still out there. Harless has just broken his back days before the boat sank. He was not able to fix it up. Neither could Van Allen, who turns 80 in October.

The community came to the rescue.

“Everybody just jumps in and helps one another,” Wayne Merrell said of Homosassa. 

He started a Go Fund Me page that has seen over $24,000 in donations since August 31.

“316 donors,” he reported.

The Bait Boat was retrieved by a few parties who banned together to form a floating posse. Captain Tony Matthews shuttled

His Facebook post sent out the list of thank you's:

“Yesterday Bonnie Van Allens boat was recovered, special thanks to Seatow & Patrick Lamb for donating the manpower and equipment for which it would not have been possible, Dave Maki & Ernie Croft (retired) well sort of, Citrus County Sheriff's Deputy David Siedenstucker, Thomas Beagan for their assistances past present & future, Gator Macreas, Curtis Williamson & Eric Cartwright for getting in and getting it done, Darin and Lis Gardner’s .....Darin actually found the cash box intact bills inside.”

The community hasn’t stopped helping the woman they all have come to love.

“It doesn’t surprise me a bit. It’s one of the main reasons I live here,” said Joe. “I hope it rubs off.”

Lis Gardner agrees.

“She is just what the world misses in people,” she said.

Gardner found Van Allen’s wallet and other personal items near the site where the boat went down. She went diving two days in a row.

“I jumped right out of the water," Gardner said. "I got it!”

The red and white striped wallet was too gross to save, but the credit cards and identification were greatly appreciated by Van Allen.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

Finn expects to have the boat back on the water by October because the fishing in this area is good that time of year.

No matter when she returns to the water, Van Allen is excited that it was a community effort that got her there. In the past two decades, the Homosassa natives have accepted her as their own.

“I had no idea when I moved here that these folks were incredibly kind and helpful," she said. 

A fishing tournament has been organized by Cody Cummins who manages Birds Underwater Dive Center in Crystal River. To participate, call 352-563-2763. The event is a benefit for Van Allen and will be held September 28.

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