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Misfortune of high seas affects 550 on floating casino

The severe weather that moved through Central Florida late Saturday caused scattered damage and more than a few headaches.

Published April 25, 2005

Some 550 passengers on the Ocean Jewel were stuck all night on the floating casino because shuttle boats couldn't pick up gamblers in the heavy waves.

"It was horrible, absolutely horrible," said Ricker Yankowski, 35, of St. Petersburg, who was on board the 450-foot converted cruise ship for 14 hours. He and the other passengers finally reached the Port of St. Petersburg at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.

"There was nothing to do," he said. "People were laying in the middle of the aisles. It looked like a morgue."

Winds and rain smacked homes in Polk County, and dozens of people reported tornado sightings across the area. Shortly after 7 p.m. Saturday, Plant City residents described a large funnel cloud that passed over their houses, staying just above the ground.

By 7:30 p.m., a ham radio operator said a tornado had touched down near Mulberry, a small town south of Lakeland.

Polk County emergency officials said fewer than a dozen homes received moderate damage. Pool cages were destroyed, others flipped onto their roof. A utility shed flew into powers lines. No one was injured in the storms, Polk County officials said.

Back on the Ocean Jewel, Yankowski said ship operators started slot tournaments to pass the time. They also gave out free alcohol, Yankowski said.

Casino boat spokesperson Patty McKee said a shuttle leaving St. Petersburg at 11:30 p.m. for the Ocean Jewel was forced to turn around by the high seas, which rocked up to 10 feet high.

"The seas were kicking up last night," McKee said Sunday morning. "At a certain point it's not safe to continue shuttling back and forth."

When the Ocean Jewel finally docked in St. Petersburg on Sunday morning, about 120 passengers were transported back to John's Pass, another point from which gamblers are shuttled to the cruise ship.

[Last modified April 25, 2005, 01:08:02]

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