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Red ink forces seizure of "Big Red Boats'

Premier Cruise Lines ceases operations, spoiling the plans of area vacationers. Big Red Boat II was to hit Tampa next month.

This fall's arrival of the Big Red Boat II at the Port of Tampa seemed a golden fundraising opportunity for Penny Morrill and the Dade City domestic violence center she heads. She gave the cruise operator $3,200 of the agency's money to reserve spots for a seven-day outing in December.

Then came the bombshell dropped Thursday by her contact at Miami's Premier Cruises Ltd., owner of the Big Red Boat. "He called my husband this morning and said, "I've just been blindsided. I'm out of a job and you're out of a cruise,' " Morrill said.

The abrupt action by Premier, a discount cruise operator, in shutting down operations Thursday caught travel agents, passengers and its own employees off-guard. About 2,800 passengers were on ships at sea, and the company said it was making arrangements to care for them. Some were being flown back to the mainland. Others continued on a cruise or were transferred to a sister ship.

At a Thursday evening news conference, Alan Twaits, Premier's senior vice president and general counsel, said negotiations with the company's lenders failed late Wednesday, and the creditors seized the ships.

Twaits said a hotline will be set up today for passengers holding unused tickets. He did not say how much of a refund they can expect. In the meantime, the company was taking inquiries at 1-800-327-9766.

With a fleet of six vessels, including Big Red Boat I, II and III, Premier has offered cruises to the Caribbean, Bahamas, Central and South Americas, the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands.

Premier was supposed to bring its 1,426-passenger Big Red Boat II to Tampa for a two-year, wintertime commitment beginning in late October. It promoted Saturday sailings on "a Mayan Americas adventure" to Cozumel, Roatan, Belize and Key West.

Discount operator Premier catered to vacationgoers who might not otherwise be able to afford a cruise.

Among them: 72-year-old Mabel Paquette of Spring Hill, who saved $1,200 to take her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren on a seven-day cruise slated to pull out of Cape Canaveral today.

Instead of packing, her daughter Joan Paquette Kelly spent Thursday on a fruitless mission to reach anybody with Premier who could tell her what was happening.

"I've never been on a cruise; my husband either. We were really looking forward to it," said Kelly, who also lives in Spring Hill. "I don't know how many things I'll be able to do with my mom like this. . . . It's just very upsetting."

The owner of the three Big Red Boats was drowning in Big Red Ink.

Premier cut jobs last summer because of a financial crunch. But with fewer employees, the cruise line had trouble handling the peak season demand on the accounting side, Premier chief executive Bruce Nierenberg has said in recent interviews.

Premier even faced expulsion from the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association because it stopped paying membership fees.

"It was pretty well known, some of the problems they've been having," said Cindy Sharpe of AAA Travel Agency in Tampa.

For several months, AAA has been advising passengers from the Tampa Bay area to avoid Premier and strongly urging those that stick with Premier to buy travel insurance. "We have an obligation to our customers to help them make an informed decision," Sharpe said.

Her advice to those who have booked a Big Red Boat without insurance: call their travel agent immediately and, if they paid by credit card, stop payment.

On Thursday, a representative of Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette, Pre-mier's chief lender, said her company seized five of the six ships the company operated for fear that other creditors were about to do the same thing. The owner of the sixth ship, Big Red Boat II, quickly followed suit.

For the Tampa Port Authority, which has been celebrating a boom in the cruise business, the timing was ironic.

The port was holding a news conference Thursday morning to talk about Celebrity Cruise's planned entry into the market when news about Premier's woes started circulating.

"I don't want this to limit the good publicity Celebrity is getting," said port spokeswoman Lori Rafter. Celebrity, which is bringing its 1,375-passenger ship Zenith to Tampa in 2001, is known as an upscale cruise operator.

At the Sunrise Domestic Violence Center in Dade City, chief executive Penny Morrill was skeptical that she would get back her group's money.

"They've got $3,200 of ours," fretted Morrill, who is also president of the Dade City Chamber of Commerce. "I know $3,200 may not seem like a lot of money to folks, but to this agency it's a big chunk of money."

Her agency hoped to raise up to $5,000 from its fundraising cruise, including money from a raffle. About 500 people donated $5 apiece for a chance for a free cruise for two.

"I'm sure the major creditors are going to be the first ones in line," she said. "The little folks are going to be the ones left hanging out to dry."