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Casino boat trip turns out to be a bad gamble

Almost 100 people were stuck overnight on the Ocean Jewel because the shuttle to shore broke down.

By ALEX LEARY
Published August 24, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - One man missed his cancer treatment. A father scrambled to reach his 11-year-old daughter, who was left home alone. Others had to call in to work.

Just how do you tell the boss you slept near the craps table?

Nearly 100 weary gamblers returned to St. Petersburg on Tuesday after spending up to 26 hours aboard the Ocean Jewel casino boat. The shuttle that was supposed to bring the customers and 70 employees ashore Monday broke down.

A tugboat was called Monday evening, but the operator, aware of the casino boat's bankruptcy status, refused the job unless it got a $20,000 bank wire.

So hour after hour, the Ocean Jewel sat there, stranded 9 miles out to sea.

"It was like Gilligan's Island," said Jacquelyn Mac, a 54-year-old nurse who left her home near Orlando on Monday for what she hoped would be a quick and lucrative getaway. "You looked around and saw nothing but ocean."

Crew members, she said, gave optimistic updates, but each was followed by disappointment, confusion and cursing. As night wore on, fears about a storm began circulating.

"I was actually crying," said Mac, adding she "lost it" when a poker dealer walked by with a life vest. "I thought I was going to die with my slot machine."

Just after noon Tuesday, a replacement shuttle pulled into the Port of St. Petersburg, unloading its hot and frustrated cargo. Then it was a half-hour bus trip to John's Pass, where customers had parked.

"It was agonizing," said Hazel Hill, 48, of Tampa. "Where was I going to sleep, on a nasty lounge chair? I have two bulging discs in my lower back and a metal plate in my neck. I have to lay down a certain way.

"And I didn't get to take my hormone pill," she said. "You don't want to be around me if I don't have my hormone pill. I'm a lunatic. I'm out of control."

The ordeal was only the latest in a string of mishaps for the Ocean Jewel, including some that have resulted in other sleepovers.

"It's just bad luck," Dennis Shepard said Tuesday in his St. Petersburg office. Shepard is the chief executive officer of Titan Cruise Lines, which owns the Ocean Jewel. Operations should resume today, he said.

Shepard, who was brought in to save the ailing company, said the problem arose about 4 p.m. Monday when the Friendship IV developed engine trouble. The company has a second shuttle, the Patriot, but its propellers are under repair.

By 6 p.m., it was clear the Friendship IV would not be fixed quickly. A third boat, the Sapphire Express, was available at the Port of St. Petersburg, but it had a problem with its navigation system.

The Ocean Jewel could have sailed back to port on its own. But the U.S. Coast Guard requires the 457-foot-long ship to be accompanied by a tugboat, in case it stalls and blocks a channel.

At 7 p.m., Shepard said, a tugboat was called to escort the Ocean Jewel to St. Petersburg. Shepard said that he offered $20,000 cash but that the operator insisted on a wire transfer. But at that hour, it was too late to arrange, Shepard said.

"Cash is not a problem," he said. "The court would not allow us to operate if we did not have money."

The crew attempted to comfort passengers, offering free food and liquor, and also tablecloths in lieu of blankets.

"They tried to accommodate us as much as possible," Mac said. "But it didn't help."

Mac tried to sleep, but the lounge, she said, was filled with passengers who enthusiastically embraced the open bar.

Hill, who went without not only her hormone pill but also pills for her back and blood pressure, said she reached a friend on her cell phone and that he offered to come get her.

"But a security guy told me if he gets within 100 yards of the boat, they would shoot him" Hill said. "He said he could be a pirate or something. I dared anyone to touch me. I was getting off that boat."

At 7 a.m. Tuesday, an engineer was sent to work on the Sapphire's navigation problem. Two hours later, the vessel was ready to go.

But even the return trip elicited complaints. The air conditioning was not working and the restrooms were "disgusting," Hill said.

The 120-foot boat returned to St. Petersburg shortly after noon. Paramedics were waiting in case someone had medical needs, though there seemed to be no emergencies.

As they boarded the bus back to John's Pass, customers were given $10 credits for future play. Mac, who vows never to gamble again, balled hers up and threw it on the ground.

A man behind her quickly picked it up.

Alex Leary can be reached at 893-8472 or leary@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 24, 2005, 01:14:20]


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