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Skippers, tourists shrug at N.Y. capsizing

Tarpon tour boat operators say the tragic boat accident on New York's Lake George hasn't kept tourists away.

By YUXING ZHENG
Published October 8, 2005


TARPON SPRINGS - Up to a million visitors a year come to the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks for Greek pastry, aquatic souvenirs and, often, a ride on a tour boat.

This week, if any of those visitors paused before boarding a boat for a ride on the Anclote River, it didn't show. Of course, they had heard of Sunday's tour boat tragedy on Lake George, N.Y., that killed 20 elderly passengers.

But that wasn't on their minds.

"When my time comes, it comes whichever way it comes," said William Grant, 64, a visitor from Newcastle, England, who rode the Island Star tour boat Tuesday afternoon. "You feel bad (for the victims), but it can happen any time."

Authorities in New York were investigating what went wrong with the Ethan Allen and why the boat set sail with only one crew member instead of the required two. But tour boat operators in Tarpon Springs said news of the disaster hasn't affected their businesses.

Then again, "there is no business now anyway, so it's really hard to tell," said George Billiris, 78, owner of the St. Nicholas tour boat.

The tours cost from $8 for adults on Billiris' boat to $10 or $13 per adult on other boats. Tour schedules vary with the season and the weather.

The St. Nicholas can carry 53 people and is much different from the capsized glass-enclosed, one-level Ethan Allen, Billiris said. His boat is a Mediterranean-style sponge-diving boat with a wooden hull and round bottom. And unlike the Ethan Allen, which operated Sunday with only one crew member, the St. Nicholas always goes out with four crew members.

Suzanne Upchurch, co-owner of Sun Line Cruises, which operates the double-hull, forest-green and white Island Star catamaran boat, said the Ethan Allen incident has done little to affect her business.

"We've had a couple of people say they're worried, but we operate a different boat," said Upchurch, 50, who suspected the Ethan Allen was structurally unsound.

The U.S. Coast Guard in Florida inspects tour boats that carry 150 or fewer people about once a year, said Lt. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, spokesman for the Coast Guard's 7th District, which includes Florida. But the length of time between inspections varies with a vessel's age and construction.

Beyond the annual inspections, tour boat operators must also complete a certificate of inspection at least once every five years, O'Neil said. During those inspections, the Coast Guard inspects a boat's emergency procedures and conducts drills with the boat's crew to ensure members are properly trained.

Inspections also occur every time the boat undergoes repairs to a critical system, such as the fuel line, he said.

The captain of the Island Wind said his two-deck catamaran tour boat complies with all safety codes. If the boat capsizes, a special device atop the boat detects the water and sends a signal relaying the boat's location to emergency officials, said John Danapas Jr., 53. Nobody has fallen overboard in the 11 years he has worked for Island Wind, Danapas said.

None of the three boats is required to have passengers wear life jackets, operators of all three boats said, but they carry more jackets than their boats' maximum capacity.

Sunday's incident is rare, Upchurch said, much rarer than the hurricanes that have done little to dampen visitors' enthusiasm for the Sponge Docks.

"If hurricanes can't do it, one boat in New York can't," she said.

Yuxing Zheng can be reached at 727 445-4163 or at yzheng@sptimes.com