Bonnie “The Bait Lady” Van Allen treaded water for hours after her pontoon boat sank in a storm, but she and her boat remain undaunted

When I got word that Bonnie Van Allen’s pontoon boat had sunk on August 30 and that she’d been forced to abandon ship and tread water for two and a half hours waiting for rescuers, I became big-time concerned. We'd become friends while I was profiling her for the Summer issue of Anglers Journal

Was Bonnie “The Bait Lady” OK? Would this sinking put the kibosh on the octogenarian’s plans to sell pinfish and shrimp at the mouth of Florida’s Homosassa River for at least the next ten years? Would it discourage her, tame her unflappable nature, turn her away from dwelling at the very heart of life while, at least in terms of geography, enjoying the far-flung, ragged edges of it?

“Hello, Bonnie?” I said when I dialed her up. “Are you okay? Is everything okay?”

I could hear the thrum of an outboard motor. It was an unmistakable sound, as well as a promising one. Bonnie was apparently back on the water.

“Oh my, yes,” replied Bonnie, “I’m fine. I’m fine. And I’ll be selling bait again soon at Marker 26. But I’m headed to the island right now, Bill, in my skiff. How about I call you in a half hour or so. Once I get to the dock and back to the house.”

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This brief conversation and the longer one that soon followed were heartening. Sure, Bonnie had been constrained to abandon her boat well offshore in a walloping thunder-and-lightning storm and then tread water for a couple of hours amid sporty seas with nighttime bearing down. But regardless of such minor afflictions, it was obvious that she remained undaunted.

“It was quite miraculous, really,” explained Bonnie, “I mean, the way it happened. It was just about 4 o’clock in the afternoon and — coincidence of coincidences — my husband Teddy called on my cellphone to make sure I knew there was a big storm coming in off the Gulf of Mexico. And just as I was ending the call, I noticed one side of the boat going down very fast. So, I quickly told him to call the Coast Guard or 911 or something. And then I grabbed a life preserver — Teddy had just bought me a brand new one — and jumped off because I was afraid I’d be hit by one of the big bait barrels or one of the other pieces of equipment as the boat rolled over.”

Exactly what caused the sinking of Bonnie’s boat — she affectionately calls it Big Shrimp, in honor of the giant, aluminum shrimp sculpture she created to surmount the vessel for both advertising and artistic purposes — remains a mystery, although Bonnie suspects a hatch in one of the pontoons may have failed and let in seawater. Her husband, who has regularly inspected and maintained the boat over the years, has been out of commission lately due to a back injury.

It would be an understatement to say that Bonnie and Ted have many friends in and around Old Homosassa, the little tin-roofed coastal Florida town with a big heart that rebuilt Big Shrimp after another sinking almost ten years ago. This time, local businessman “Gator” MacRae, a bunch of Sea Tow guys and an assortment of local fishing guides, fishermen, divers and other salty souls conducted salvage operations the day after the sinking using air bags and a small fleet of local vessels. 

Thanks to Old Homosassa fisherman Wayne Merrell, a GoFundMe page with a goal of $25,000 has already collected some $22,000 in just over a week’s time for a Big Shrimp rehabilitation. And the completion of the project, probably in a month or so, is likely to showcase a new outboard motor, along with a new generator, new batteries and a new electrical system.

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While she and her PFD drifted with the white-capped rollers in the Gulf in the late afternoon, waiting for a team from Citrus County Fire and Rescue to arrive, Bonnie said she wasn’t too terribly worried. After all, she’d been born in Miami and grown up around the water. But the possibility that both Big Shrimp and the bait business she’d cheerily run for decades were coming to an untimely end left her heartbroken.

“But now,” Bonnie concluded with characteristic gusto, “they tell me I’ll be back on the water in something like a month’s time. So, I’m able to go on doing what I love to do. Big Shrimp will rise again, thanks to all the fabulous people of Old Homosassa. And I think that’s just wonderful.”

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