By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
The catamarans cut to 45 minutes the 21/2-hour voyage to international waters.
ST. PETERSBURG - After a troublesome first voyage, the owners of the Ocean Jewel of St. Petersburg say they've worked out many of the glitches and will start shuttle service to the 450-foot gambling ship this week.
Starting today, customers will have the option of taking high-speed catamarans to international waters rather than making the 21/2-hour voyage on the slow-moving ship.
"We're really excited about taking the operation to the next level," said Howard Steffes, president of Titan Cruise Lines, which owns the Ocean Jewel of St. Petersburg. "I'd say seven out of every 10 of our callers inquires about the shuttles."
The company's three catamarans can make the trip to international waters in about 45 minutes.
The casinos will be open from 12 noon to 4 a.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
After months of delays caused by new homeland security regulations, U.S. Coast Guard screenings and four hurricanes, the Ocean Jewel finally carried its first load of gamblers into the Gulf of Mexico on Oct. 23.
Aside from a few opening-day snags, such as uneven air-conditioning and malfunctioning ATMs, the voyage went smoothly - until it was time to dock.
It took the captain almost four hours to steer the ship into the city's port, turning an eight-hour cruise into a 12-hour ordeal that left the nearly 1,200 passengers weary and cranky. Titan officials blamed a sudden increase in breezes.
"It was completely out of our hands," said Steffes, who was on the ship at the time. "If the wind would have subsided for just 20 minutes, the captain would have gotten it in."
Since then, the ship has been making nine-hour day cruises Thursday through Sunday. There haven't been any docking problems, and crowds have ranged between 800 and 1,000 people per voyage, Steffes said.
Once the shuttles start running and more staff is hired, the cruise line will offer voyages throughout the week. There is no charge for boarding through the end of the year, Steffes said.
Karl Johansson, general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites in downtown St. Petersburg, said a few guests have mentioned the Ocean Jewel but he hasn't noticed a real increase in business yet.
Johansson said he thinks that will change once the shuttles start running.
"Hopefully, once they get up to full speed and the word gets out, there will be more people," Johansson said. "And that will mean more business for everybody."
Carrie Johnson can be reached at 727 892-2273 or email@example.comMOR E INFORMATION
Information and a shuttle schedule for the Ocean Jewel can be found by calling 1-877-455-3935 or at www.oceanjewel.com