Tour boat with 31 aboard grounds in Florida after mooring line parts

Thirty-one people were rescued from a tour boat after the vessel ran aground during a storm in the Florida Keys.

The 40-foot catamaran Sunset I had been tied up to a mooring ball during a snorkeling excursion March 11 near Cottrell Key. Seas became rough and the mooring line parted, the U.S. Coast Guard said. The vessel was pushed toward the key into unsafe water adjacent to the tie-up.

"The line attaching the vessel to the mooring ball snapped, and there is a shelf that is relatively close to the mooring," U.S. Coast Guard investigator Lt. Jeff Fry said.

With winds gusting to 46 mph, Sunset I stuck fast on top of the shelf, which is made of rock, coral and sand. The draft of the Coast Guard-inspected passenger vessel is about 3 feet. It had been moored in 13 to 15 feet of water, Fry said.

Fry said the line that parted was 1.5 inches in diameter. Sunset I sustained significant damage to its hull, which was taking on water while waves also swamped the deck.

Sunset I is owned and operated by Sunset Watersports of Key West, Fla. The voyage began in Key West, and the boat was to return there. At first, the trip was uneventful, but the storm developed quickly in the early afternoon. Sustained winds were as high as 33 mph. The 7-gross-ton vessel's crew consisted of a captain and a deck hand.

"There were people in the water snorkeling before the storm," Fry said. "The master directed them to return to the boat when the conditions changed."

After the grounding, the passengers donned floatation vests and huddled mostly on the catamaran's roof. Home video on YouTube shows waves crashing around the vessel, while wind whipped the stranded passengers and children cried.

The 46-mph gust is "extremely high for down here" compared with normal operating conditions, Fry said. But in that particular grounding location, even the force of the waves couldn't capsize the vessel.

"To be honest with you, it was the best thing that could have happened to them, with that many people on that vessel," Fry said. "They grounded right up on top of that shelf. The vessel was damaged, but they weren't going anywhere."

Two Coast Guard small boats and a helicopter arrived at the scene to evacuate the occupants. Two people were hoisted into the chopper.

"They removed the passenger who was in the most danger, which was the child who was 18 months old, and the mother," Fry said. "The rest of the passengers were taken off using a tagline-and-raft assembly," which floated them to the Coast Guard vessels.

Sunset Watersports owner Rich Welter declined to comment on the incident.

Fry said the damaged boat still had not been repaired by late May.

By Professional Mariner Staff