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Floating chapel leaves St. Petersburg Pier, anchors in historic Cortez

ST. PETERSBURG — Three years after America's only floating chapel docked at the Pier, the distinctive blue-roofed attraction is off to a new port of call.

While it signals an adventure for new Sarasota owners, who hosted their first wedding this weekend, it's lousy timing for waterfront businesses that catered to chapel visitors.

"We thought it was a great boost for the area," said Peter Ceruzzi, manager of Fresco's Waterfront Bistro. "It's a shame."

You'll see the chapel for a final month in St. Petersburg starting in late March, when it will sit outside the Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

But its new home is historic downtown Cortez, on the mainland across from Anna Maria Island, not quite an hour's drive from the Pier.

It's a third stop for what's billed as the world's largest floating chapel. The creation has been the Tampa Bay area's from the start.

Pinellas tourist industry veteran Phil Henderson Sr. was in Australia in 2003 when he saw a tiny chapel on the water and thought, "What is that?"

By 2004, brides and grooms climbed aboard a million-dollar version of his own. The Coast Guard had never approved anything like it. The traditional chapel masked water-faring features: fiberglass under the walls. Hurricane-resistant glass over every soaring stained-glass window. Twin 125-horsepower diesel engines that propel it up to 6 knots. Instead of an anchor, two "spuds," electrically operated steel beams that drop to steady the vessel in wind and ripples. The chapel could pull right up to a waterfront home or reception spot.

Henderson, who runs Dolphin Encounter and Caladesi Island Ferry from Clearwater Beach, set up the chapel at Seminole Docks in Clearwater. But when the property was planned for sale, Henderson couldn't find another Clearwater home for the 60- by 30-foot vessel. Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard called Mayor Rick Baker, and the Floating Chapel on the Bay joined the Vinoy Basin in 2006.

"We did very good business there," Henderson said.

It spilled over to waterfront venues. The chapel was designed for services for up to 120 people. Wedding parties turned to spots such as the Vinoy, Columbia Restaurant and Fresco's for their receptions.

"It was a great two-way street," said Russ Bond, general manager at the Vinoy, who helped arrange for the chapel to dock at the hotel in March.

But Henderson, 76, and his wife, Janet, 66, started to spend more time in Colorado and advertised Weddings On Water for sale in 2008 for $675,000.

He got plenty of calls — most that started, "I don't have any money, but. …" In 2008, a deal fell through with a Virginia buyer.

Late last year, married Sarasota boat captains Jill Chandler-Fisher and Jerry "Orca" Fisher hunted for their next venture. They had recently sold their last boat. Chandler-Fisher flipped through the Mariner's Magazine, and saw it: America's Only Floating Chapel, price reduced to $625,000. She arranged to step aboard. That was all it took.

"It just brought tears to my eyes. I just got goose bumps," she said.

She found a slip next to the Seafood Shack at the Cortez Bridge. The chapel changed hands Jan. 4.

Now Capt. Orca, 64, will run Weddings on Water of Sarasota full time while Capt. Jill, 51, puts in double duty as an advertising account executive for the Sarasota ABC television affiliate.

"Sleep is overrated, let me tell you. We are so excited," she said.

A new set of businesses welcome its arrival, from a Sarasota Hyatt that will host its ribbon cutting to Marina Jack, which may collaborate on a brunch for Sunday church services.

The Vinoy stint will be the last planned trip across Tampa Bay, Chandler-Fisher says. Strict Coast Guard rules restrict the chapel's travel when wind or waves kick up, and she doesn't want to schedule services she can't get to.

Perhaps, she said, wedding parties will consider driving across the Sunshine Skyway.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8859.

Fast facts

Floating chapel

Weddings on Water of Sarasota offers wedding packages from $995 to $2,495, and also hosts memorials and other

services. It will be in St. Petersburg from March 27 to April 25. For more information, visit

Floating chapel leaves St. Petersburg Pier, anchors in historic Cortez 01/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 4:43pm]
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