Hundreds safe after winds ground Missouri showboat

More than 600 passengers and crew members of the Branson Belle showboat walked off the vessel Sunday morning after spending more than 15 hours aboard the boat, which ran aground in strong winds and choppy water.

The 750-passenger showboat departed from its dock on Table Rock Lake near Branson in southwest Missouri around 4 p.m. Saturday for what was supposed to be a 2 1/2-hour dinner cruise and a presentation of a Christmas show. Strong wind gusts forced the struggling showboat aground around 6 p.m. near a site known as Poverty Point, a stone’s throw away from the inlet where the boat docks.

Lisa Rau, a spokeswoman for showboat owner Herschend Family Entertainment, said the boat’s captains decided it was safer to leave the boat wedged against the rocky shore than try to guide it in the dark between private boat docks nearby.

“In the inky dark of last night with incredible winds, swells and waves, when the captain found himself on a slopey, rocky point, he said ’We are safe, let’s make the most of an uncomfortable situation,’” Rau said.

She said the boat had food, beverages and warmth for the 643 people aboard, including 70 crew members. The cast and orchestra that had presented the Christmas show during the cruise performed their summer show to pass the time and entertain the stranded passengers, she said.

Nine people, including four with pre-existing medical conditions and members of their families, were removed from the boat overnight by the Coast Guard, Missouri Water Patrol and several other agencies that responded to the scene. Otherwise, nobody needed medical attention, Rau said.

“It was a difficult thing to maneuver because the waves on that lake were 4 feet high with white caps,” said Sgt. Dan Bracker, a Highway Patrol spokesman for Troop D. “Trying to get people down a ladder, dealing with the water and freezing water on the boat, the rocks, everything . . .”

Herschend, which also owns Silver Dollar City theme park, brought in a bulldozer to clear a 50-yard path through a wooded area between the lake and the road throughout the night, and an excavation company built berms from the shore toward the stranded boat.

A local marina donated a 30-foot-long docking ramp that passengers loaded onto Sunday morning. They started around 9 a.m., with the final passengers off the boat by 11:30 a.m.

“The people were in such good spirits. It was just amazing,” Rau said. “The passengers were walking up the new road we created, actually saying ’Merry Christmas’ and ’thank you.’ We literally had tears in our eyes.”

She said the company would look into propulsion issues that caused the boat to struggle in the wind.

All passengers will receive a refund and 2011 season tickets to Silver Dollar City, Rau said. She said the company has contact information and will keep in touch with everyone who was on the boat.

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