Idling of river fleet may signal end of overnight cruises

Mar 26, 2009 12:00 AM

Majestic America Line has tied up three West Coast vessels. One of them, Queen of the West, was damaged by fire in April 2008, then put back in service in June, only to be laid up later. (Courtesy Majestic America Line)
The once-proud three-vessel fleet of the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. is no more. After being fixtures on the inland waterways until 2007-2008, at least two of the three vessels will probably never sail again. American Queen, Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen have been sent to storage in New Orleans.

The tying up of the three vessels — together with RiverBarge Excursion Lines’ decision not to operate in 2009 — virtually signals the end of the overnight cruise industry on U.S. rivers.

First to go was the 382-foot Mississippi Queen. She had been gutted in 2007 awaiting a rebuild. Parent company Majestic America Line said Mississippi Queen’s superstructure is infested with mold. The Seattle company’s only alternative may be to cut it down to the hull and sell it as a barge.

The 1926 vintage Delta Queen has another story to tell. It was made of wood, although the hull was covered in steel. The vessel operated from 1964 to 2008 via congressional exemptions excusing the boat from fire regulations the Coast Guard imposes on riverboats. Last year Congress balked at renewing the exemption.

The 428-passenger American Queen presents yet another challenge. Majestic purchased the vessel with a loan guarantee from the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd). American Queen has been turned back over to MarAd because Majestic could not keep up its payments.

Former Delta Queen captain Clarke “Doc” Hawley, 73, laments the potential disappearance of an important maritime industry segment.

“I hope someone buys the American Queen and puts her back into service before all the crew that properly know how to operate a steam engine are also gone,” said Hawley, who began as first mate on Delta Queen in 1959.

Majestic owns three overnight vessels on the West Coast that are tied up. Empress of the North, Queen of the West and Columbia Queen ran cruises to Alaska and overnight trips on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Majestic is a division of Ambassadors International Inc., an educational travel company in Newport Beach, Calif.

The 360-foot Empress of the North was a huge sternwheeler built mainly to offer trips to Alaska’s Inside Passage. The problem was that the boat kept running aground.

Four times since 2003, the vessel was hung up on sandbars or locks. In 2006, the boat failed a sanitation test from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the next month 26 passengers and seven crew experienced vomiting and diarrhea during a five-day cruise. The boat has been turned over to MarAd.

An engine room fire crippled Queen of the West in April 2008. It resumed its schedule in June, but has since been tied up.

Columbia Queen is another truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. It was built in 1993 as a gaming boat for Missouri. The company was denied a gaming license and the boat sat for seven years before being purchased and converted into an overnight vessel. The boat ran for the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Now it is tied up.

All six vessels have no 2009 cruising schedules.

Majestic America Line Chief Executive Joe Ueberroth, who will receive nearly $3 million in lost wages and bonus compensation as he steps down, states that Majestic was a “poor investment” for Ambassadors International.

In December, RiverBarge Excursion Lines of New Orleans announced it will not operate R/B River Explorer in 2009. The reasons are “increased costs and very soft bookings,” said Julie Ortego, assistant director of sales and marketing.

So, all seven of America’s inland overnight cruise vessels are tied up. In addition to the boats disappearing, so will more than 1,500 jobs.

Larry Pearson

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