Captain charged with unlicensed operation after catamaran sinks

A custom-built catamaran with 30 passengers capsized near downtown Miami, and Florida authorities have charged the captain with operating without a license.

The 45-foot Catamacabin was heading toward shore at about 0730 on Oct. 13, 2013, when it began taking on water. The vessel listed and later sank to the bottom in 6 to 8 feet of water.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission charged vessel owner Otho Durward Campbell with operating a commercial vessel without a license and abandoning a vessel. The agency said it’s not clear why the vessel sank. It has closed its investigation into the matter.

“We don’t know what caused it. … It doesn’t appear to be overloaded,” said Jorge Pino, a commission spokesman. “It just sank to the bottom.”

Catamacabin was carrying 30 passengers, many of college age, back to Miami from an informal Columbus Day boating party in Biscayne Bay. The annual event attracts hundreds of boats and thousands of revelers.

U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Office Ryan Doss, spokesman for Sector Miami, said the vessel was about 200 yards from Key Biscayne when it started listing, causing some of the passengers and a dog to fall overboard.

Numerous vessels responded to the sinking, including the Coast Guard, local police and fire, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Sea Tow and several good Samaritan crafts. A Coast Guard helicopter monitored the response from above. Authorities didn’t have the exact numbers of people who were evacuated from Catamacabin and those who were plucked from the bay.

“It was a combination of both. Some people were in the water, some people were (still on the boat),” Pino said. “They were very fortunate so many law enforcement agencies were in the area” for the holiday weekend.

Passengers from Catamacabin were taken aboard the first-responder vessels and carried to a 45-foot Coast Guard craft, which ferried them back to shore, Doss said. There were no serious injuries.

The Coast Guard isn’t sure what caused the sinking either. However, there are no reports that Catamacabin struck another boat in the congested area before the sinking, Doss said.

Authorities quickly determined Campbell, 50, of Greater Miami, was not a licensed captain. However, he claims the passengers were all his friends, making a commercial license unnecessary.

“If you ask the captain of the vessel, … he wasn’t charging anyone for (transportation services), that people were voluntarily giving him money for expenses,” Pino said.

Attempts to reach Campbell for comment were not successful.
After a monthlong investigation, which included interviews with many passengers, Florida authorities determined there was sufficient evidence to charge him with operating without a commercial license.

Campbell also was charged for abandoning Catamacabin after failing to salvage the vessel for nearly a month. In that time, tides carried the vessel from a busy part of Biscayne Bay to a more secluded spot.

The vessel was salvaged in mid-November and the bill has been sent to Campbell, Pino said.

Both offenses are punishable by a $500 fine and up to six months in jail. It’s not clear when he’s due in court to answer the charges.

By Professional Mariner Staff