Oregon tour boat captain’s license suspended over chaotic 2015 boating festival

The captain of the Portland Spirit tour boat in Oregon had his license suspended for a month after navigating through an unexpectedly large crowd of recreational boaters during an event on the Willamette River in 2015.

A Coast Guard administrative law judge in early August ordered Capt. Lowell Gillespie Jr. to surrender his Merchant Mariner Credentials, saying he violated Rule 8 of the Inland Rules of Navigation by failing to take appropriate actions to avoid a collision. He faces an additional month of suspension if he does not successfully complete a year’s probation.

There was cosmetic damage to a boat and no reported injuries at the event, which drew hundreds more craft than anticipated, the Coast Guard said.

The Aug. 1, 2015, Portland Red Bull Flugtag event, sponsored by the energy drink company, was shut down by the Coast Guard right after the Portland Spirit incident. The conflict provoked an uproar in the local boating community and on social media that reflects the increasingly uneasy and potentially dangerous relationship between workboats and recreational craft.

Gillespie said he did nothing wrong. Before he boarded the 150’ vessel for the cruise, he could see “there was a heckuva crowd,” so he called the Coast Guard. “I said we’re going to need some help getting through that mess. They said, ‘We can do that,’ “ Gillespie told WorkBoat. “By the time I got under the Hawthorne Bridge, I could tell they didn’t have a plan.”

Dan Yates, president of Portland Spirit River Cruises, operator of the Portland Spirit, said he was “incredibly disappointed” with the judge’s ruling. “It was a political decision, not a legal decision.”

“On the plus side,” he said, “the local Coast Guard is taking these in-water events much more seriously, so that’s been a significant net positive out of this.”

Coast Guard spokesman, Lt. Michael Tappan, said the permit called for about 100 boats and more than 500 showed up. “We wouldn’t have an event that would shut down our navigable waterway,” he said.

The Spirit was aware of the event, and the Coast Guard let her know they were trying to disperse the recreational vessels, Tappan said. “It could have gone the other way.”

Gillespie, who’s been with the company 18 years, said he couldn’t have changed course because there were sailboats and other small boats behind him. So he crept through a space between two groups of anchored boats. “I did my best and got around and passed everybody,” he said.

Videos posted on YouTube show the Spirit creeping through the channel, with Coast Guard Auxiliary and Multnomah County sheriff’s officers escorting it up to the crowd of rafted boaters.

“While all this was going on, people on their boats were yelling and screaming at me,” and things were being thrown at his boat, the captain said.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said of the judge’s decision. “They didn’t do their job, and they’re blaming me for it.” He said he would not appeal the ruling.

The Portland Spirit near Elk Rock Island on the Williamette River. Portland Spirit River Cruises photo.

The Portland Spirit near Elk Rock Island on the Williamette River. Portland Spirit River Cruises photo.

Judge George Jordan found fault on all sides. Once the captain “placed his vessel at risk of collision with other vessels, he did the best he could to minimize the damage….[he]showed significant skill in maneuvering with bare steerageway. However, he could have used that same level of seamanship in maneuvering away from the marine event,” the judge said in his order.

He also said the event organizer “made little or no attempt to keep the event under control. The Coast Guard was initially unprepared for the size of the event and was slow in deciding what action to take, eventually revoking the marine event permit and cancelling the event. The Coast Guard did not close the channel at any point that day. Finally, the recreational vessels blocking the channel were in violation of Rule 9 and were an impediment to legitimate traffic on the river.”

Shortly before this event the Coast Guard had to deal with Greenpeace protestors dangling from a bridge over the Willamette to block the transit of a Shell offshore support vessel, the Fennica, as it headed back to Alaska following emergency drydocking to repair a gashed hull.

“The Coast Guard basically used up a lot of their resources for those two or three days working with that boat and were completely caught off guard” by the Flugtag event, Yates said. “It took hours for them to react to the river being absolutely congested.”

The Coast Guard said Red Bull was issued a warning letter for misrepresenting the scale of the event and failing to keep the waterways clear. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

About the author

Dale K. DuPont

Dale DuPont has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1998. She has worked at daily and weekly newspapers in Texas, Maryland, and most recently as a business writer and editor at The Miami Herald, covering the cruise, marine and other industries. She and her husband once owned a weekly newspaper in Cooperstown, N.Y., across the alley from the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Florida resident, she enjoys sailing on Biscayne Bay, except in hurricane season.

1 Comment

  1. A very good effort condensing the actual event, discovery, the trial and the decision into an article. I just want to add the only vessel that was struck by the Spirit was an anchored recreational boat that the occupants testified at trial saying they were drinking alcohol, smoking weed, and saw the Spirit coming and decided to take their chances staying anchored. Some paint was transferred as the result and no damage. The CG charged and convicted Captain Gillespie of a collision…not an allision (different violation). No other boater was charged for their actions that day and it still took the CG four hours after the incident to shut down the event. Captain Gillespie did an amazing job getting through that mess without hurting anyone or any vessel. It is easy to second guess him, but he has had dozens of escorts on the Willamette by the Coast Guard for fireworks events, Rose Festival, and two other Flugtags. This is the first time the CG was completely unprepared and never told him they could not clear the channel for him.

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