CLEARWATER — The tourists, sunset aficionados and partiers started lining up Saturday evening on the narrow marina sidewalk across from Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach as an orange sun plunged toward the gulf.
Some were waiting to board an imposing red faux-pirate ship. Others queued for a more modest double-decker boat docked at the next slip.
Most in the well-behaved crowd probably didn't realize that the Tropics Boat Tours and Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise have been tussling on and off for more than two years over everything — or nothing — depending on who's doing the talking.
"It's Hatfield versus McCoy on a bad day, yeah. Nobody is firing weapons, but they do fire a cannon," said city harbormaster Bill Morris, referring to a Memo's prop. "If we had anyone fit that description, it's them."
In 2010, Tropics took over a more sedate business that had previously been geared toward seniors. Tropics draws a younger crowd with its alcohol-themed party cruise on Saturdays. Captain Memo's attracts more families and children, although both tours offer alcohol onboard.
Captain Memo's owner, Pam Wozencraft, met with City Manager Bill Horne this month to air allegations against the Tropics, including that their employees intentionally play loud music, use foul language and party too hearty, all "specifically timed to intimidate the Captain Memo Pirate Cruise patrons and business," according to an e-mail sent by Horne to the City Council.
Horne said he wants the two tour boats to work it out among themselves, but said he would "terminate existing lease agreements if that is the only way we can achieve peace."
Wozencraft didn't respond to several requests for comment. Her attorney, Steve Williamson, declined comment, too.
One of the Tropics owners, Trisha Rodriguez, disputed Wozencraft's allegations. She has done everything that she can to make things work with her neighbor, she said, including pushing back her boat's departure and arrival times by 15 minutes to help keep the peace.
"We don't believe in stirring a negative pot. We would rather just ignore them," she said.
That shouldn't be a problem.
Rodriguez said Wozencraft has forbidden her employees from speaking to her workers. On Saturday, the crews didn't interact. The Memo pirates posed for pictures, one brandishing a knife, while blue-golf-shirt attired Tropics employees kept a close eye on a group of four 20-somethings who were loudly joking with friends on the Memo as both tours boarded.
Eventually, the Tropics management refunded the four people's money and asked them to leave.
Both ships returned to port after sunset without incident. The last Memo's customers had been gone for 10 minutes when the Tropics boat docked to the music of the Isley Brothers song Shout.
Morris hopes that this latest flare-up will simmer down as it has in the past. On Monday, Morris said he'd received a letter of apology from Wozencraft and had met with Rodriguez, who sought him out.
"Everybody right now is kind of trying to handle this in a more civilized way," Morris said.
But long-term, the demographic discord might be tougher to resolve.
"It's been a dramatic shift in demographics on the Tropics boat," Morris said. "I'm talking about the Ybor City crowd, that's what I'm talking about."
Rodriguez makes no apologies for pursuing a younger crowd.
"The city is thankful for what we're doing, reaching out to a Tampa crowd. Previously, it was tourists. And we do not focus on the senior crowd."
The Saturday night booze cruise is just one of 40 weekly excursions. Most are daytime dolphin-spotting expeditions, often with Pinellas County schoolkids, she said.
Rodriguez said she has reached out numerous times to Wozencraft, but has been rebuffed. She hadn't heard about the latest round of complaints until contacted by the Tampa Bay Times last week.
"We just want an end to it," Rodriguez said. "I'm tired of the negativity."
Meanwhile, Horne's patience is running thin.
"Both business owners should get together and resolve their conflicts once and for all," he said. "They can solve it among themselves."
Charlie Frago can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago.