Passengers aboard the Carnival Conquest cruise ship returning from a seven-day Caribbean vacation got an unexpected detour to Mobile Sunday, a diversion required by the closure of a 10-mile stretch of the Mississippi River near its mouth to shipping because of the sinking of a tug boat on Saturday.
At 2 p.m Sunday, the river closure following the capsizing and sinking of the 48-foot-long tugboat C-Pec near mile marker 8 above Head of Passes near Venice also had forced 22 arriving cargo ships to wait in Southwest Pass and has 28 cargo vessels waiting upriver for the 10-mile stretch to be declared safe for passage, said Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer 3rd Class Carlos Vega.
The delayed arrivals and departures could cost shippers millions of dollars, based on past estimates of the costs of a day's closure of the river, said Port of New Orleans President Gary LaGrange. In 2008, when the river was closed for several days to clean up an oil spill, the cost was estimated at $295 million a day, he said.
The Conquest was scheduled to arrive in Mobile at 2 p.m. Sunday, Carnival Cruise Lines officials said.
"Given the uncertainty as to when the river may re-open and the approximate nine-hour transit time required from the mouth of the river to New Orleans, it was decided last night to divert the Carnival Conquest to Mobile, Ala., to ensure we are able to get our guests home as quickly as possible," said a Sunday news release from Carnival's Miami headquarters.
"Upon arrival, guests will be transferred to New Orleans (where the voyage was originally scheduled to end this morning) via motor coach -- an approximate two-and-a-half-hour distance," the Carnival news release said. "Guests who wish to stay on board the ship tonight in Mobile as a result of missed flights will be allowed to do so and will be provided transportation via motor coach tomorrow morning."
The rerouting also will require the shortening of the Conquest's next cruise from seven to six days, with the departure now from Mobile on Monday, with port calls at Freeport and Nassau in the Bahamas. However, passengers arriving for the cruise in New Orleans will be bused to Mobile on Monday morning.
"Guests sailing on the shortened voyage will receive a one-day pro-rated refund of their cruise fare and have the option of canceling and receiving a full refund if they do not wish to proceed with the voyage," the news release said.
Carnival is asking guests scheduled for the Monday departure to take advantage of text alerts by texting CCL1 to CRUISE (278473) for updates.
Still unclear is whether the Carnival Elation, which was to arrive at the mouth of the river late Sunday, will also be rerouted to Mobile, said Joyce Oliva, a spokeswoman for Carnival. She said the company would issue a news release later Sunday when a decision is made on whether the ship must be diverted.
Vega said it remains unclear when the 10-mile stretch of the river will reopen.
"The river will be closed until further notice, until either the tug has been located or the waterway is determined safe for navigation," he said. He said Coast Guard officials are in contact with the Carnival Elation.
LaGrange said at least two vessels equipped with sonar had worked through Saturday night to locate the sunken tug. Another five sonar-equipped vessels were to arrive during the day Sunday or Monday.
LaGrange said the vessels were attempting to both locate the tug and to survey a 500-foot-wide center line in the river channel to determine if it could map out a passageway for shipping. He said at least one vessel had identified an anomaly on the bottom in an area to the side of the main channel that might be the tug, but more data was needed to insure it's the right vessel.
By Mark Schleifstein, NOLA.com
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