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Port authority tour flaunts what floats

The free boat tours show another side of Tampa: a huge port that generates $10.6-billion a year and 93,000 jobs.

[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
The Bay Spirit returns after offering passengers a glimpse of everything from luxury liners to petroleum tanks in a free tour sponsored by the Tampa Port Authority. Tampa's cargo port is the nation's 12th largest, shipping goods ranging from fertilizer to clunker cars.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002


CHANNEL DISTRICT -- The next time you see a new PT Cruiser or Dodge Ram pickup zipping down the road consider this:

Chances are it came from Mexico aboard a ship that docked right here in Tampa.

Thousands arrive each year en route to dealerships across the nation. Their nautical journey begins on the other side of the Gulf and ends at a cargo company on Hooker's Point.

The dockside parking spot is among several sites people see from the Tampa Port Authority's free boat tours. The tours, aboard the Bay Spirit, offer passengers a glimpse everything from luxury liners to petroleum tanks -- as seen by a first mate.

The authority launched the tours in April to give both locals and tourists insight to the Tampa Bay area's biggest economic engine.

"People have lived here all of their lives and have not seen the port," said Lori Rafter, spokeswoman for the authority.

Port officials teamed up with the Florida Aquarium to buy and maintain the 64-foot catamaran. The port wanted a vessel for teaching tours and the aquarium needed one to start Dolphin Quest Eco-tours ($18 per adult).

The Bay Spirit cost $400,000, with the authority's half coming from private port revenue. The tours run weekday mornings out of Terminal 2 behind the aquarium. They last about an hour.

So far, about 10,000 people have taken the tour, including many school children and prospective port clients. The 45-passenger, enclosed catamaran cruises around Hooker's Point, along the east side of Harbour Island and Davis Islands.

Guide Jocilyn Martinez gives a crash course in port details, rattling off cargo stats and recounting the history of names and places along the way. She knows the boats by sight and the buildings by use.

The tour passes million-dollar Harbour Island homes, crusty shrimp boats and mounds of scrap metal. It shows a side of Tampa not experienced by land. Sea birds follow a parade of ships. Diesel permeates the salty air.

"I never realized how big Tampa was," said Betty Shein, 74, of Chicago who took the tour with her husband, Seymour, while visiting their son on Davis Islands.

The authority ranks Tampa's cargo port as the nation's 12th largest, one that generates $10.6-billion a year and supports about 93,000 jobs in a five-county area.

Petroleum products, including fuel used at Tampa's and Orlando's airports, lead the imports. Fertilizer weighs in as the largest export. Goods, from used cars to orange juice, come and go from all points around the Caribbean, South America and Central America.

Everything has a market.

Sea Central Shipping Corp., for example, ships about 400 clunker cars every three weeks. Costa Rica and Panama get the driveable ones, said vice president Jessica Fernandez. Guatemala gets the fixer-uppers.

The tour isn't all business. Channelside, the Ice Palace and the expanding cruise terminals get noteworthy mentions. So does Tampa's towering skyline.

The authority hopes the tours go a long way in promoting Tampa as a good place to live and do business. When not in use, the boat also provides tours for environmental groups, engineers and dignitaries.

For many passengers, the experience deepens an appreciation of their own back yard, said Capt. Jimmy Griffin, who works for the aquarium.

They learn that shrimp sold at Publix and Winn-Dixie comes from local waters.

And that PT Cruisers have done some cruising of their own.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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