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Stranded Japanese cruise passengers wait, spend

Passengers of the Clipper Pacific cruise ship read a status report about the vessel at the Tampa Marriott Waterside.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Passengers of the Clipper Pacific cruise ship read a status report about the vessel at the Tampa Marriott Waterside.

TAMPA — They played on soggy Clearwater Beach, hiked to the Publix in Tampa's Hyde Park and fretted about gaining weight on greasy American food.

But mostly, some 675 Japanese cruise passengers waited to hear when their damaged vessel, the Clipper Pacific, would leave a Tampa ship yard to resume the round-the-world voyage they began in May. They were still wondering Thursday night .

Tampa wasn't a scheduled stop for the 637-foot ship chartered by Peace Boat, a nonprofit based in Japan that promotes world peace, human rights and responsible travel.

The vessel arrived in New York on July 13 with a one-inch gash in the hull. Coast Guard inspectors found more than 60 safety problems. Officials cleared the ship to leave after the violations were resolved and the owners agreed to have the hull repaired at Tampa Bay Shipbuilding & Repair Co.

When the Clipper Pacific arrived at the Port of Tampa on Monday, most passengers caught buses to Orlando's Walt Disney World. At the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel, general manager Mary Scott got a surprise call: Do you have 180 to 500 rooms available Wednesday night?

A New York tour operator hired by the ship's management company signed a contract for 170 rooms and dinner for 550. Other passengers were booked in the Embassy Suites, Westin Tampa Harbour Island and Hyatt Regency Tampa.

By Thursday evening, the Marriott bill alone — for rooms and four group meals — was more than $100,000. Hotels use the term "pop" for an unexpected windfall. "This," Scott said, "is a big pop."

Business also spiked at Jackson's Bistro on Harbour Island. A young couple sat down and ordered 10 orders of nigiri and three rolls, a large order that usually indicates that the customer is a seasoned sushi connoisseur, said head sushi chef Phillip Barone.

"I told the server: If they compliment me, it's probably the best compliment I could get," he said. "They didn't say anything, but they did eat every bite."

Only a handful of the visitors speak English. Peace Boat workers set up a bulletin board in the Marriott lobby in Japanese. There were instructions on dialing international calls, notice of the hotel's no-smoking policy and maps showing landmarks.

A group of 20-somethings took a chartered van to Clearwater Beach. Miyagi Tomokazy, 22, of Osaka, just lifted weights in the Marriott gym. "I'm kind of worried about gaining weight with the food," he said. "It's so oily."

Ryo Ijichi of Peace Boat spent much of Thursday on his iPhone, trying to find out when the ship might be ready to go. He and the passengers, a mix of college-age youths and senior citizens, appreciate the city's hospitality, but waiting isn't easy.

"Everyone had a life on the boat the last two months," said Ijichi. "Suddenly that lifestyle changes to being in a hotel in Tampa. Steaming hot and it rains a lot."

The ship was scheduled to be in Panama on Thursday with later stops in Guatemala, Mexico, Canada and Alaska before returning to Japan.

Thursday afternoon, Scott learned her guests were staying at least one more night. "We're guessing they might be here till Saturday," she said. "Though nobody's telling us that."

Times staff writer Joshua Neiderer contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Stranded Japanese cruise passengers wait, spend 07/24/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 2:15pm]
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