Paddle-wheeler runs aground in fog

A paddle-wheel excursion boat with 20 passengers ran aground in a California lake after a freak fog reduced visibility to almost zero.

An official who manages Big Bear Lake said Miss Liberty should not have sailed in such conditions. The 64-foot tour boat grounded near the lake’s shoreline after the captain lost his bearings.

Miss Liberty’s propellers were damaged in the incident, which happened on the afternoon of May 24.

Big Bear Lake, in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles at an elevation of 6,743 feet, gets an average of 320 days of sunshine per year and claims to be “the sunniest place in southern California.†That wasn’t the case on Memorial Day weekend for the popular boating spot. First it snowed, then a fog bank appeared on the western half of the lake, which is eight miles long and one mile wide.

“The west end was completely socked in, while the east end was completely clear,†said Mike Stephenson, the lake manager for the Big Bear Municipal Water District. “This was a totally unique weather event. Visibility was down to 10 feet, so we instructed our patrol boats to return to the dock and stand by.â€

When the patrol officers began to pick up radio calls from boaters lost in the fog, they carefully picked their way through the fog steering a compass course. They located the lost boaters and escorted them back to safety. Then Miss Liberty, which was on a sightseeing tour, disappeared into the fog bank and ran aground close to the shore.

Miss Liberty Capt. Matthew Felts, who is Coast Guard-licensed for both ocean and inland waters, radioed for help. The Lake Patrol officer who proceeded to the position was unable to locate the tour boat and asked for the horn to be sounded. He continued west for more than a mile before he found it.

The officer radioed for assistance and two pontoon boats were dispatched to the scene. With the two boats pulling and all the passengers moved to the bow, Miss Liberty came clear and was escorted back to its dock.

The captain reported that he had tried to turn around, lost his bearings and then ran aground.

“We rely on visual navigation on the lake,†said Leo McCarthy, manager of Pine Knot Marina, which operates the boat. “The captain was following a compass course in the fog, but when he turned around he went more than 180 degrees and ran into a sandbar. The boat is equipped with radar, but it doesn’t pick up the shore well at close range.â€

The Coast Guard defines a waterway like Big Bear Lake as “non-navigable†if it is non-tidal and does not carry commercial traffic. Jurisdiction and on-the-water authority for hundreds of these waterways is established on a case-by-case basis. However, passenger carriers like Miss Liberty must maintain Coast Guard certification.

Big Bear Municipal Water District is authorized by the California Department of Boating and Waterways to uphold state boating laws on Big Bear Lake and operates a fleet of patrol boats on the lake.

“Miss Liberty had no business being out there in that weather,†Stephenson said. “I hope they learned a lesson!â€

Miss Liberty is licensed to carry 149 people. The paddle wheel is not powered. The boat’s propellers were changed the next day, and it went back to work.

Miss Liberty was built by SkipperLiner in Wisconsin in 1994. The paddle-wheeler also made the local news last year when it arrived at the lake after a 2,500-mile journey from Florida. It went by water from Delray Beach, Fla., along the Gulf Coast to Houston, where the superstructure was removed.

The boat was dismantled and loaded onto three trucks carrying the 18-foot-wide hull and deckhouse, wheelhouse, paddle wheel, smokestacks and railings. The convoy drove west along back roads for two weeks before it reached the mountains. The last leg was up the steep and winding Highway 38 with a police escort in the middle of the night.

The boat had been restored in November 2006 by its manufacturer, then delivered by water to Delray Intracoastal Cruises. It was reclaimed by SkipperLiner and sold to Pine Knot Marina of Bear Lake, said Dan Nelson, the company’s senior vice president.

By Professional Mariner Staff