Florida cruise vessel, 2 responding boats run aground on foggy night

A pirate-themed excursion cruise ship ran aground in heavy fog near Clearwater, Fla., and two good Samaritan vessels that responded to help offload passengers also became stuck, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

There were 120 passengers and crew aboard the 70-foot Pirate's Ransom when it ran aground outside a channel in the Intracoastal Waterway at about 1830 on New Year's Eve. There were no injuries.

Investigators believe the captain became disoriented in heavy fog shortly before running the vessel onto a sandbar. The vessel was undamaged and was never in danger of sinking, the Coast Guard said.

"With the fog, the captain told me he mistook an anchored recreational vessel for a day marker," on his radar, said Chief Warrant Officer Jon Cotton. "What he thought was marker number 5 was actually an anchored recreational vessel" near the marker.

Coast Guard officials cautioned that the investigation is still open and no conclusions have been reached.

The National Weather Service issued a fog warning from about 1800 on Dec. 31, 2011, until 0200 the next morning in the Tampa Bay area. Winds were light and seas were calm in Clearwater Harbor.

Cotton said the fog may have worsened after Pirate's Ransom left its pier at Clearwater Harbor Marina, at about 1800. The vessel ran aground in about 5 feet of water within about 200 feet from shore, roughly 30 minutes into that evening's pirate cruise.

"Due to the limited visibility the operator of the vessel lost situational awareness of the vessel's location in relation to the channel and thus grounded as a result of navigating outside of the channel," said Lt. Erin Bastick, chief of investigations at Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg.

After hearing the grounding on radio, the 45-foot Island Time, a catamaran excursion vessel, and Mega Bite, a 40-foot excursion vessel, left port to try to assist, Bastick said.

Crew on Island Time reached the stranded vessel and took on passengers. While trying to leave, the captain lost his bearings in the fog and ran up onto a sandbar, Cotton said.

Crew aboard Mega Bite opted to turn back rather than risk travel in the fog when it too ran aground. Pirate's Ransom's captain estimated visibility at less than 200 feet, Cotton said.

Pirate's Ransom is operated by Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise out of Clearwater. According to the company website, the vessel was built in 1993 and can carry 125 passengers. It offers pirate-themed cruises around Clearwater Harbor and has been in business for 34 years.

A woman who answered the phone at Captain Memo's offices said the company would not comment.

Two Coast Guard vessels from Station Sand Key oversaw a rescue party that included assistance from Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Clearwater Marine Unit and Pinellas County Sheriff's Fire Rescue. Passengers were brought to Clearwater Harbor Marina after being removed from the stranded vessels. Cotton said the vessels were not damaged. All were refloated with the rising tide before 0400 on New Year's Day, and Pirate's Ransom passed an inspection later that morning.

By Professional Mariner Staff