Casino shuttle boat hits bridge barrier

A catamaran taking passengers to the Ocean Jewel was trying to avoid a collision, a company spokeswoman said.

Published April 11, 2005

TREASURE ISLAND - Not a week into its new operation, on Saturday, an Ocean Jewel casino ship shuttle boat smashed into a barrier protecting the base of the John's Pass drawbridge.

No one was injured but there was about $50,000 in damage to the concrete and wood "fender" guarding the bridge, said Ocean Jewel officials and the state Department of Transportation.

Damage to the shuttle, a 149-passenger catamaran named Friendship IV , will end trips out of John's Pass for three or four days while repairs are made.

The Coast Guard is investigating.

"It's just an unfortunate circumstance," said Patty McKee, Ocean Jewel spokesperson. "It was our first weekend out of John's Pass."

McKee said the Friendship IV was leaving John's Pass and taking passengers to the Ocean Jewel out in the gulf.

The Friendship IV's captain, who was not publicly named Sunday, tried to cross under the bridge when he found his boat on a collision course with a smaller, unyielding watercraft.

Faced with the option of crashing into the smaller boat or hitting the bumper protecting the bridge pilings, he opted for the bumper, McKee said.

"The captain told me he had to make a diversionary tactic," she said.

Witnesses at the nearby, boat-accessible Gator's Cafe and Saloon, said a nasty current combined with a crowd of returning tournament fishermen contributed to the accident.

The restaurant's dock master, Gary Frady, whose job is to help boats "park," said the tide was rushing out while the fishermen were rushing in to weigh their catches.

The pass is narrow, he said, so when a boat the size of the Friendship IV goes through, there is only space for one.

This made it difficult for the Friendship IV to find a break in traffic to get out.

"There were tons of boats out there," Frady said. "The kingfishermen were excited. The (Friendship IV ) captain is honking his five blasts of cautionary warning and those captains weren't moving out of his way."

"Soon as he had a clear shot, he gunned for it."

That's when the boat slammed into the bridge fender. More surprising, Frady added, was that the boat kept going after the hitting the fender.

"We thought for sure he'd come back, but he took his people out anyway," Frady said.

McKee, spokeswoman for the Ocean Jewel , said the Coast Guard later said Friendship IV's captain should have notified them immediately instead of continuing on to sea with the passengers.

The John's Pass bridgetender called the Coast Guard about the accident at 4:20 p.m., said Petty Officer Mike O'Berry. The Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office will investigate, O'Berry said, adding that he could not comment on what happened.

"There will be a report produced," he said. "If there is anyone found at fault, there may be civil penalties."

Six of the concrete pilings anchoring the bridge's wooden fender are cracked or chipped, as is a 20-foot section of "whaling," or timber, said DOT spokesperson Kris Carson.

DOT subcontractor ICA Infrastructure Corporation of America is sending divers down today to check for underwater damage.

"They want to get it fixed right away," Carson said.

DOT will charge whoever is at fault for the repair costs.

It's not the first time a gambling boat has had trouble at the bridge. Both McKee and Frady said another casino boat, the Majesty, often had a similar problem with the current.

The Ocean Jewel seems to have been dogged with problems since the Titan Cruise Lines vessel began operations in June.

On the Jewel's first trip out, it couldn't dock until 5 a.m. because of high winds. Later, a shuttle broke down en route to the ship. In December, a tram carrying passengers from the ferry to a car garage caught fire. And in January, the Coast Guard forced a stop to casino operations because of fire safety infractions.

--Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 727 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com