Owner of sunken party boat said vessel was filled with friends, and a dog

10/14/2013 12:15 PM

10/14/2013 9:41 PM

The man who owns Catamacabin, the 45-foot party boat that foundered just off the Rickenbacker Causeway late Sunday afternoon, said he doesn’t have a captain’s license — but added he didn’t need one because the 31 people aboard were mostly friends cruising the bay just having some fun.

Otho Durward Campbell, 50, who lives on Miami Beach, said his custom-built catamaran left Watson Island Sunday morning before motoring over to a dock behind the Four Ambassadors Hotel on Brickell, where he picked up most of the passengers.

Then it was off to Key Biscayne’s Nixon Beach with a live DJ during the crowded Columbus Day holiday weekend. The boat began taking on water on the way back.

“Evidently we hit something. We didn’t even have time to get the lifejackets. We were scrambling for lifejackets. Music was playing really loud, there was a lot of action,” Campbell said Monday, while taking bids from boat towing companies to salvage the wreck. He estimated he knew about 80 percent of the people on board, and said the disc jockey “was a friend of a friend.”

Law enforcement officers began investigating Monday whether Campbell had illegally charged the people on his boat, whether it was overloaded, and whether Campbell had operated the boat improperly without a captain’s license.

Campbell said he didn’t need a license because he was just out partying with friends who were going to do no more than chip in for food and beverages. The boat sank before he could collect.

“I think of it as a very, very unfortunate incident,” said Campbell. “I don’t care in the slightest about a lawsuit.”

According to Campbell and Jorge Pino, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, water began gushing into the front end of the 45-foot vessel at 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Thirty-one people and a black Labrador named Cata were quickly rescued from the 10-foot waters between Key Biscayne and Virginia Key.

The boat was carrying mostly University of Miami and Miami Dade College students. As the boat was sinking nearby boaters and law enforcement in the area raced over and helped pluck the stranded from the water.

The U.S. Coast Guard, Miami Fire-Rescue, Miami Beach police and Sea Tow all took part in the rescue effort. On land, the students and a few Brickell-area residents who were also on board appeared no worse for wear and remained in good spirits. There were no reported injuries.

Pino called it a “miracle” that nobody died.

“We’re looking into if the boat was overloaded. If you are not a licensed captain and not a commercial operator, you are not allowed to charge people for getting from point A to point B,” Pino said. “Our initial search for a captain’s license didn’t discover one.”

Campbell said he purchased the vessel in St. Petersburg last December. He said the boat was made of wood over a custom-fabricated fiberglass hull. Monday afternoon the upper section of the submerged cat, which looked like a cabin floating in the water, was still visible from the Virginia Key shoreline.

Determining whether the boat was overloaded may be a tough task for investigators. Standard craft list the weight and number of passengers allowed onboard. Home-built vessels do not.

“It’s like a loft in the water,” said Campbell.

Campbell said he sells MacGregor sailboats through a company called Havencraft. He claims to have sold 200 sailboats in the past 15 years, though he said he currently has no inventory. Asked how someone would purchase a boat through him, Campbell said the boats are usually sold before they get to him, and he just mainly installs options.

“It’s a one-man operation,” he said.

Pino, the FFWCC spokesman, said investigators were taking a look at the boat Monday and that Campbell could face charges of carelessly or recklessly operating a vessel.

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