A gambling vessel on its maiden voyage ran aground off the Georgia coast, stranding 123 persons for 16 hours until rescue crews could conduct a safe evacuation.
The 174-foot-long casino boat Escapade was heading out to sea on its first gambling cruise shortly after midnight on Wednesday, July 16 when it hit a sandbar nearly two miles off Georgia’s Tybee Island.
According to local media reports, the Escapade left the port of Savannah in the evening of July 15. It was underway in the Calibogue Sound, near the Georgia-South Carolina state line, when a navigation aid failed.
Per the Savannah Morning News, a malfunctioning chart plotter caused the ship to hit a sandbar between Tybee and Hilton Head Islands. The Escapade became stuck between two underwater rocks and could not free itself.
The U.S. Coast Guard station at Tybee Island responded to the gambling ship’s distress call sent a 25-foot response boat to access the situation. An initial plan to get the 96 passengers and 27 crew members off the grounded vessel by boat was called off because the waters were too choppy.
The Coast Guard then contacted a local salvage company to tow the Escapade off the sandbar during the noon high tide. Four attempts to move the vessel failed because the tow cables broke.
“It was a very scary, harrowing experience,” said Veronica Snowden Heyward, 66, a passenger aboard the stranded casino boat.
The Maria Bray, a Coast Guard buoy tender, was sent to Calibogue Sound to evacuate the Escapade’s passengers and crew. Using rubber Zodiac boats, Coast Guard personnel shuttled eight persons at a time from the stranded casino boat to the Maria Bray.
“We had to jump from the boat to a raft and then climb up a ladder onto the Coast Guard ship,” Heyward said.
A helicopter evacuation was initially ruled out because there were no immediate medical concerns. However, four passengers with special needs were later flown out by helicopter because they could not be loaded into rescue boats.
According to the Savannah Morning News, the Maria Bray took the hot, hungry, and tired passengers to Tybee Island. Buses later carried them back to the port of Savannah.
The captain initially told passengers that the sandbar off Tybee Island was not on any navigational charts. However, according to Coast Guard spokeswoman Petty Officer 1st Class Lauren Jorgensen, the crew reported that the ship’s chart plotter malfunctioned and veered the Escapade off course.
The Escapade is owned by Florida-based Tradewinds Casino Cruises. It was successfully towed off the sandbar after the evacuation. According to its management team, the vessel suffered no damage.
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