For nearly 30 years, the Port Welcome supplied plenty of memories for Baltimoreans who jammed its decks for proms, class trips, office parties, bar mitzvahs, moonlights, and cruises to Betterton, Tolchester and Annapolis.
While not the most attractive-looking vessel ever to ply the Chesapeake Bay, the Port Welcome enjoyed years of popularity since its 1959 christening by Maryland first lady Helen Avalynne Tawes.
It was built by R.T.C. Shipbuilding Corp. in Camden, N.J., for the Maryland Port Authority, which used it for promotional activities.
The Port Welcome was later sold by the state to the city, which in turn sold it to Harbor Cruises Ltd. in 1981. After operating the ship for six years in local waters, it was sold to Champion's Auto Ferry Inc., in Algonac, Mich.
The new owners converted the vessel into a stationary floating restaurant on Lake St. Clair, between lakes Erie and Huron. It kept its original name, while the restaurant was named the Boat.
"It sank in an ice storm, and we raised and reconditioned it," said Dave Bryson, Champion's owner and president, in a telephone interview the other day.
Sold in 1994 to Atlantic Casino Cruises in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the ship left the Great Lakes under its own power and steamed through the St. Lawrence Seaway and down the East Coast to its new home in Florida.
And thus commences the weird seaborne odyssey of the Port Welcome, renamed the Ocean Club by her new owners, who operated offshore gambling cruises.
When Atlantic Casino Cruises, now defunct, expanded its operations to Gloucester, Mass., the Ocean Club was sent north in 2002 to be converted into a gambling vessel with blackjack tables and slot machines.
While en route, the ship lost power during a heavy Atlantic storm and for a time threatened to break up off Palm Coast, Fla. After it was towed to a shipyard in Jacksonville, Fla., for repairs, the vessel sailed on to Gloucester.
Its brief stay in Gloucester was "plagued by bad luck and bad publicity," reported the Salem (Mass.) Evening News in a 2003 article.
The Ocean Club finally left Gloucester in early 2003, "beset by lawsuits over unpaid bills and rumors that one of its operators had ties to organized crime," according to an article in the Gloucester Daily Times at the time.
"She went south again and sat in the Intercostal Waterway for a year before becoming a doctor's office in Hollywood, Fla.," Bryson said.