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Alaska Marine Highway

Alaska Marine Highway’s Wintry Northbound Passage
Jan 4-11, 1980.

by Ted Scull

Alongside Pier 48 on Seattle’s waterfront, the blue and white ferry liner Matanuska was quietly resting between voyages. There was a light, cold drizzle falling over the city. Awaiting the signal to board, the foot passengers were huddled in one of two temporary waiting rooms, while the vehicle passengers sat snugly in their cars, campervans and pick-ups.

January seemed an odd time of the year to think about taking a seven-day, six-night voyage 2,460 miles up the Inside Passage to Skagway and back. “There won’t be many tourists on this trip,” said the warmly wrapped reservations clerk, who was adjusting the height of the boarding ramp.

The Marine Highway is a Lifeline

The Alaska Marine Highway operates nine passenger ferries, all named after glaciers, over several different routes to complement the state’s underdeveloped coastal road system. On the weekly Seattle service — increasing to two sailings a week from May to September — the 408-foot Matanuska calls at seven Panhandle ports.

Alaska Marine Highway

An earlier brochure touting an adventure by the Marine Highway to SE Alaska.

Five of them — Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, Juneau and Sitka — have no road access to the outside world. At the northern end of the route, the port of Haines connects to the Alaskan Highway via a 150-mile gravel road through Canada, and Skagway has a newly constructed road and an old narrow-gauge railway leading to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.

Ever since 1963, when the State of Alaska’s Department of Transportation began operating its first ships, the service has developed into a new way home for many Alaskans, a cheap means to get to Southeast Alaska for newcomers, and a moderately-priced (about $50-60 a day including passage and a cabin) alternative to expensive cruise ships for visitors wanting to see some of the world’s most beautiful and unspoiled maritime and mountain scenery.

Alaska Marine Highway

North to Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

RELATED: Cruising Alaska on a Small Ship, an Overview. by Ted Scull.

The Fleet

Unlike luxury cruise ships, running only during the crowded summer season, the Alaskan ferries allow stopovers and a chance to meet travelers for whom Alaska is a destination, not a series of short port calls.

Three of the ferries were in winter layup and undergoing repairs on the far side of Pier 48. The flagship Columbia appeared particularly smart with the twinkling lights of the Big Dipper shining brightly against the dark-blue background of the ship’s tall funnel.

Alaska Marine Highway

Columbia is the Marine Highway’s flagship. * Photo: Alaska Maine Highway

All Marine Highway ships have representations of the state flag on their stacks. Next to the Columbia lay the Malaspina, slightly smaller, and a sister to the Matanuska. Both “M” ships were lengthened by 56 feet in the 1970s, adding much-needed space to the car deck and substantially increasing passenger and cabin capacity.

The third laid-up vessel was the Tustumena, a seagoing boat that runs on the choppy, Southcentral route to the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, and less frequently out along the Aleutian Islands chain, a potentially tempestuous passage with legendary mountainous seas.

Boarding the Matanuska

Once on board the Matanuska, a tour of the facilities created a most favorable impression. On the boat deck, the observation lounge with huge wraparound windows afforded views in three directions. Amidships, a dimly lit lounge bar was furnished with plush red chairs, and at the stern, a cheerful cafeteria had windows on three sides.

Alaska Marine Highway

The forward observation lounge is the most popular indoor space. * Photo: Ted Scull

The sleeping accommodation (which must be paid for in addition to the fare) includes 112 two-, three- and four-berth inside and outside cabins with and without bathrooms. The size, arrangement, type and number vary with each ship. Cost is based on size and number of berths — not location.

Since the accommodation is designed primarily for Alaskans (who make two- and three-night journeys), the cabins tend to be functional rather than well appointed. Mine was a relatively spacious double, arranged for single occupancy, with a shower and toilet attached. Passengers make their own beds or not, and if you take the roundtrip voyage you may request a change of linens.

The highest deck, Bridge Deck, had a reclining-seat lounge for those without cabins and deck space for the backpacking and camping set. According to the lounge attendant it is wall-to-wall bodies throughout the summer months.  Aft, on the same deck, a heated solarium allows passengers to view the spectacular mountain scenery in comfort. At night, the hale and hearty sleep here.

Alaska Marine Highway

Backpackers flock to the solarium, heated in winter and protected from the wind. * Photo: Ted Scull

Down on the car deck, the crewmembers were congratulating themselves on having boarded all the paying vehicles. The last few cars to make it were so closely packed together that the occupants had to climb across the bumpers with their suitcases to reach the stairway up to the passenger accommodation. They appeared not to mind the inconvenience and were happy to be aboard at all.

The deck hand told me that 19 ‘free pass’ cars had to be left behind. With that, the hydraulic doors slammed shut, and the vibrations under foot indicated that the Matanuska was away promptly at 8:00PM on Voyage 1172, north to Alaska.

Alaska Marine Highway

Truck drivers are happy to be on the ferry rather than the long drive, especially in winter. * Photo: Ted Scull

The Voyage Begins

By the next morning the dank, grey weather, so common in the Northwest, had given way to a crystal-clear day with the temperature rising into the 30s (Fahrenheit). The ship was threading her way through the fast-running Seymour Narrows, at times a less-than-quarter-mile-wide passage between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia Coast.

Precipitation during the night had left a blanket of snow on the mountaintops. On the lower slopes, the snowfall was lighter, until at the water’s edge it appeared as a fresh dusting. The waterway was quite busy with tugs pulling loaded and unloaded container barges.

Alaska Marine Highway

First and last day to read out on deck, northbound along the British Columbia coast. * Photo: unknown passenger

Take a Seat Please

An announcement from the purser broke the silence, “May I have your attention please? For the next 40 miles and two and a half hours, the Matanuska will experience some rough sailing conditions as the ship traverses Queen Charlotte Sound. It will not be dangerous, but the captain advises all passengers and their children to remain seated during the crossing. I repeat”….

The Matanuska was not built to seagoing specifications because of its overhanging car deck, and she did dance a bit and took a few waves over the bow. The seawater froze on the metal decks, making a walk outside a slippery business and not recommended.

By sundown, at 4:30pm, the ship was once again in the sheltered Inside Passage, and except for a 10-mile stretch called the Dixon Entrance, would remain protected from the Pacific Ocean swells for the rest of the northbound voyage.

Mealtimes

At dinner, some of the passengers in the food service line were grumbling about the dining room going cafeteria-style, so I asked the white-smocked cashier about this.

Alaska Marine Highway

Cashier predicted table service would be reinstated after Ketchikan. * Photo: Ted Scull

“Tomorrow after Ketchikan,” she explained, “there will be fewer people on board, and the new crew will probably offer table service for breakfast and dinner. Unfortunately, the ships went over to the cafeteria style service to cut labor costs, and now with reduced help and a different serving set-up, the ships cannot offer formal dining when there are more than 250 passengers on board.”

I looked forward to the new arrangement, paid for my salmon steak and took my tray to an empty window table.

Food is an extra charge and three meals a day averaged about $12. The menus offered about half a dozen main courses, including fresh seafood, at lunch and dinner.

Arriving Ketchikan, Wrangell & Petersburg

Ketchikan, the first call since Seattle, came early in the afternoon of the second full day. The small city of 12,000 inhabitants stretched for several miles along the waterfront at the base of a formidable mountain chain.

It felt good to be able to take a brisk walk to the boat basin where most of the large salmon fishing fleet was in for the winter. The town center was further along and had a fair collection of turn-of-the-century wooden buildings.

Of the 326 passengers on board, 152 disembarked here, to be replaced by 87 new faces. The atmosphere was now more relaxed and table service did come to the cafeteria as promised.

The Wrangell and Petersburg calls came during the night, and by the following morning, Monday, the Matanuska was approaching Juneau, the state capital.

Juneau, the State Capital

A richly colorful dawn began at 9:00AM and continued with slowly fading hues for more than an hour. The dock, adjacent to the center, allowed several hours to visit the state museum, take a stroll along the main street, visit the Red Dog Saloon (I had a cousin who once played the piano there), and climb the wooden staircases to the upper residential town for a long-range view of the surrounding mountains and waterways and directly down to the city’s waterfront.

Alaska Marine Highway

Dawn breaks late during Alaska’s winter. * Photo: Ted Scull

Juneau is far and away the most isolated capital amongst the 50 states, walled in by surrounding mountains, with no road access to the outside world, and none planned.

Later in the day, Jim Driscoll, the Matanuska’s chief purser, shared with me the state’s attitude toward the Marine Highway. “The representatives in the interior of the state, whose constituents do not depend very heavily on the Marine Highway, would like to see the service go away as it costs millions to subsidize every year. It’s not fair because they have their state-funded highways and down here we are without roads. While most consider the operation a necessary evil, and one which will never disappear, it should be run as cheaply as possible.

“The people in the Southeast who use it regularly want a quality service and that means things like waiter service in the dining room. This winter you have half the fleet laid up in Seattle and our best ship, the Columbia, is broken down. The Taku is still running out of Prince Rupert when she should be in drydock being given a complete rebuilding job like this one had two years ago. This is a fine ship now, but I don’t see how the Taku can make it through the summer when we need everything that floats in the timetables. There are plumbing leaks and peeling paint”.

Scenic Passage & Storm Warning

North of Juneau, the passage along the Lynn Canal, a natural channel, brought fine panoramas of the Mendenhall, Davidson, and Rainbow glaciers, all fed by huge ice fields up in the mountains.

Alaska Marine Highway

The Marine Highway Matanuska is named after a glacier located just outside of Juneau. * Photo: Ted Scull

Just before the Haines arrival late that same afternoon, Mike Crosby, the senior deputy purser, came on the intercom with a bulletin, “Canadian Customs advises all travelers that blizzard conditions now exist on the Haines Highway. Travelers should not to attempt to drive the road tonight. The border station is hereby closed until conditions improve and until further notice.”

The passengers preparing to leave the ship here had already gathered in the forward lounge to form a convoy. They all firmly agreed to stick together until they had all passed through the worst sections.

Skagway, End of the Line & Turnaround Time

Darkness had fallen by mid-afternoon when the almost empty Matanuska reached Skagway, the turnaround point. The winds coming down from the Coast Mountains made the walk along the deserted main street slippery and tough going.

The false-fronted Gold Rush-era buildings were either boarded up for the winter or closed for the night. The substantial-looking Golden North Hotel, where I once spent a night in a lovely brass bed, stood shuttered and empty. It was not a night to spend more than a half hour on the icy streets of Skagway.

Alaska Marine Highway

Baby, it’s cold outside. * Photo: unknown passenger

Skagway, in 1900, boasted nearly 30,000 inhabitants. The discovery of gold in the Klondike Region of the Yukon in 1898 brought tens of thousands of prospectors here by sea from Canada and the United States. A narrow-gauge railway was built to carry the gold seekers and their supplies over the mountains to connect with the Yukon River steamers.

In the winter, the White Pass and Yukon Route continued to be the only land route out of town, until the road was completed in 1978, for Skagway’s 800 inhabitants. I took that train in summer 1971, a nearly all-day trip to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory’s capital, positioned astride the Alaska Highway.

After climbing the spectacular White Pass and winding between lakes, the ride was monotonously scrub pine and bush country.

In January, Skagway feels like a dead-end place, while in summertime, it takes on the carnival appearance of a human zoo when the luxury cruise ships disgorge hundreds of passengers daily, all milling about until it is time to get back on the ship.

Returning South

During the night, the Matanuska touched at Juneau’s Auke Bay, a landing 14 miles north of the city, before working her way south and west to Sitka just in from the Pacific Ocean. The fourth day’s run through the twisting Peril Strait brought the ship within 100 feet of land on numerous occasions.

For the entire morning, there was not one dwelling seen along the evergreen shores of Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest with 16 million woodland acres.

Alaska Marine Highway

Making the rounds en route to Alaska. Photo: Ted Scull.

Wildlife Galore

White-headed bald eagles, our national bird, soared overhead, and an amateur bird watcher pointed out the young eagles, brown in color until they reach three or four years of age. Alaska has five times as many of these huge birds as the combined Lower 48.

A school of porpoises followed the ship, a deer came down to the shore for a look, and two humpback whales leapt completely out of the water at close range. Nobody got a picture, it all happened too quickly.

Sitka by School Bus

At Sitka, a local school bus took passengers into the town center, which had grown a lot since I first visited in 1959. Then, there was no Alaska Marine Highway, and I flew from Juneau in an ex-World War II PBY Catalina seaplane, occupying a seat in the former gun blister. We landed in the harbor and drove up a ramp to dry land.

The Russian Orthodox Cathedral, a product of 19th-century Russian occupation, had been rebuilt after a disastrous fire gutted the structure in January 1966. During our visit it was closed, a pity as once inside there is a fine collection of icons and religious paintings.

Alaska Marine Highway

St, Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church was rebuilt after a serious fire. * Photo: Ted Scull

In a peaceful forest setting at the edge of town rests one of the largest and best-preserved collections of totems in the world, with a story attached to every one. They sit in solitary splendour amongst stately evergreens.

Striking snow-covered Mt. Edgecumbe rises across the water to the west of Sitka, looking very much akin to Japan’s Mt. Fuji, and the story that I heard back in 1959 still circulates 21 years later. The residents rose one morning to seeing smoke pouring upward from the cone. Rumors soon spread that the long dormant volcano might erupt, so some adventurous souls sailed over there to see what’s what.

Alaska Marine Highway

Mt. Edgecumbe looks quite peaceful here. * Photo: Ted Scull

They discovered to their relief that some pranksters had piled up dozens of old automobile tires in the crater, poured petrol over them and set them alight. The town folks were mighty relieved to learn the cause of all that smoke.

Driving Snow

With the homeward rush now over, the Matanuska was lightly loaded on her southbound run via Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan to Seattle. The truckers depicted in a photo earlier in the text were fun to spend time with, and did they have stories of driving the Alaska Highway in winter. Often worse in some ways was the dust in summer.

I then shared my June and August northbound and southbound drives along the highway with a friend when I was 18. When a truck approached sending clouds of dust and flying stones, I simply pulled as far off the road as I could to let it pass. If I came up behind one, it was impossible to overtake as one could not see ahead. We stopped, took a break, ate something or wandered into the bush.

We learned our lesson near the start of our drive to Alaska when we had our windshield smashed in northern Ontario. We kicked the out remnants and then had to drive almost five hundred miles to find a garage that could install a new one. The truckers smiled, and one said something like, “Thems the breaks.”

Alaska Marine Highway

The Matanuska is lightly loaded for the southbound passage to the Lower 48. * Photo: Ted Scull

The remnants of a blizzard that paralyzed Seattle enshrouded the ship as she ploughed through the grey waters along the British Columbia coast. A lookout stood watch huddled against the driving snow at the bow, and the ship’s foghorn sounded regularly at two-minute intervals.

Alaska Marine Highway

The bow lookout has an unenviable job peering through the snow. * Photo: Ted Scull

Despite the adverse conditions, and the only really inclement weather since leaving the port of origin, the Matanuska arrived back at Pier 48 right on time on Friday at 6:30AM. The vessel would spend the day resting her engines and preparing for another sailing that evening — Voyage 1173 North to Alaska.

Home by Rail

I spent the night in Seattle and the next day boarded the Empire Builder for the two-day journey to Chicago, stayed a night there and continued on the Cardinal to visit relatives in Hamilton, Ohio. A couple of days later I rejoined the Cardinal overnight for Washington, D.C., connecting to the Yankee Clipper for New York.

Thus ends the original article.

RELATED: Alaska, Finding by Route by Car, Ferry, Train & Small Ship.  by Ted Scull.

Alaska Marine Highwy

Returning home via train, and here stepping off at a station stop on the Cardinal route.

Alaska Marine Highway Update 2020

Two of the original trio, Malaspina and Matanuska, completed in 1963, are still in service well over a half-century later, as is the Tustumena of 1964 and Columbia of 1976. Sadly, the Taku was sold to ship breakers; video here.

In November 2020, the Kennicott, built in 1998, presently holds down the Bellingham, Washington to Southeast Alaska route, with sailings every two weeks, terminating at Juneau’s Auk Bay with a connection to Haines and Skagway provided by the day vessel Le Conte.

Alaska Marine Highway

The day ferry Le Conte has been making connections with the Matanuska for decades. * Photo: Ted Scull

Early in 2021, the Matanuska will resume regular service and sail the full route to Skagway. However, funding has been further cut, largely for the same reasons as described earlier in the text. When planning a trip, carefully study the sailings schedules.

The Success of the Original Article

The January 1980 Alaska Marine Highway round-trip voyage would first appear in The Washington Post where travel editor Morris Rosenberg liked the full account enough that instead of editing it down to fit the space normally available, he chose to run over two Sundays, something he had never done before.

Additional shortened versions appeared in a dozen newspaper travel sections, and in the author’s three-volume ocean liner trilogy, specifically Ocean Liner Sunset, Overview Press Limited (UK) in 2017.

The point-to-point ocean liners, apart from Cunard’s Queen Mary 2’s transatlantic crossings, may be long gone but travel from A to B may still be enjoyed from Washington State to a half-dozen largely isolated communities along the Alaska Panhandle. Pick a port or two, plan a stopover, using the day ferry links, before heading back south.

And in Norway, a similar service known as the Hurtigruten plies a long stretch of that country’s west coast from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes above the Arctic Circle, a town situated close to the Finnish and Russia borders. During the one-week transit, the coastal ships call at 35 ports northbound and the same ports southbound, but you visit them at different times of the day and night.

For more info: Alaska Marine Highway  &  Norway’s Hurtigruten

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George Coughlin

Small Ship Captain George Coughlin

Interview by Ted Scull.

George Coughlin has been sailing in navigating roles from mate to pilot to captain for many small ship firms such as Coastwise Cruise Line, Exploration Cruise Lines, Clipper Cruise Line, Cruise West, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic, Alaskan Dream Cruises, and UnCruise Adventures, plus in the deep past, New England excursion boats and ships of the United States Navy.

George Coughlin

Captain George Coughlin

It’s the small ships that he has captained that are of interest here, including Newport Clipper, Nantucket Clipper, Yorktown Clipper, Spirit of Yorktown, Chichagof Dream, National Geographic Sea Bird and Sea Lion, National Geographic Endeavour, National Geographic Quest, and Pilgrim Belle, Colonial Explorer, Victorian Empress and S.S. Legacy. (Note: The last four are the same ship!)

Yorktown Clipper

Yorktown Clipper at St. Lucia in 1993. * Photo: George Coughlin

The small-ship industry has certainly expanded since visionary Luther Blount built, in his own shipyard, the 40-passenger Mount Hope in 1966 then took it out on a first cruise from Blount’s headquarters in Warren, Rhode Island.

The experiment was a success, and more small vessels were added to the line to allow for expansion of U.S. itineraries up and down the East Coast, into the Erie Canal, along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway and into the five Great Lakes. Additional small-ship lines were formed, and some were successful, others made it big, and a few fell by the wayside.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): As you were mainly associated with cruise lines that had American or Canadian owners, in those early years what do you think were main reasons for some of the lines to prosper and others to fail?

George C: You and I could talk about this for hours, but let me attempt to consolidate my thoughts here. Luther Blount started small and basic. He had his own shipyard in Warren, Rhode Island to build his vessels, which saved him from spending much more on construction costs, if an outside shipyard were to build them. He kept everything low key and expanded his small fleet of overnight passenger vessels at a safe pace.

With American Cruise Lines, Charlie Robertson (recently deceased), was clever and saw what Blount had achieved and eventually decided on building his own ships as well, in Salisbury, Maryland. They both knew that shallow draft vessels were needed in order to negotiate the itineraries they planned.

George Coughlin

American Star, American Cruise Lines, Maine Coast in August 2007. * Photo: Ted Scull

American Cruise Lines decided to build larger vessels than Blount and at a quicker pace. This worked for a while until the 1980’s recession hit and put the initial company out of business. American regrouped and returned back on the scene and has been growing successfully ever since, with one major exception. American decided to build an upscale foreign-flag vessel at a shipyard in Canada. There were delays and disagreements with the shipyard and little has been heard about Pearl Cruises since initial sailings began.

Coastwise Cruise Line was formed as a division of Hy-Line Cruises, Hyannis, Massachusetts, and the Pilgrim Belle was launched at Bender Shipyard in Mobile, Alabama in 1985. She was/is a steamboat replica with very comfortable and upscale accommodations. Unfortunately, after an accident, the vessel was taken out of service for nearly a month for shipyard maintenance during her first year of high-season operations in New England, and the consequences called for selling the vessel.

George Coughlin

Pilgrim Belle with a traditional steamboat profile. * Photo: George Coughlin

Barney Ebsworth developed Clipper Cruise Line in the 1980’s. He had a vision for an upscale country club product. Two 100-passenger sister ships were built at Jeffboat in Jeffersonville, Indiana: the Newport Clipper in 1984 and the Nantucket Clipper in 1985. The ships were well received, and passengers enjoyed the modern comfortable onboard surroundings and amenities.

The 138-passenger Yorktown Clipper was built at Green Cove Springs, Florida and added to the fleet in 1988. This is when Clipper realized that having three vessels on similar itineraries was going to be more of a challenge than anticipated. Key upper management changes were made.

George Coughlin

Clipper Cruise Line fleet in 1988. * Photo: George Coughlin

The Newport Clipper was taken out of service and eventually sold to Spirit Cruise Line and renamed Sea Spirit. The focus on the Yorktown Clipper and Nantucket Clipper, with expanded itineraries for the larger Yorktown Clipper, worked so well, that Clipper decided to experiment with some small foreign-flagged ocean-going ships.

First chartering the World Discoverer, they eventually purchased two ships and renamed them Clipper Odyssey and Clipper Adventurer. The future looked bright, the ships were sailing full, but it didn’t last. I believe it was a combination of being overextended and the economy.

Delta Queen Steamboat Company decided to expand into the coastal cruise market with the Cape May Light and the Cape Cod Light, two 300-foot vessels built in Florida. I was offered the first captain’s position on the Cape May Light and went on her builders’ sea trials. I decided not to follow through with the offer.

George Coughlin

Cape May Light at Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard. * Photo: George Coughlin

The coastal ships had elegant/spacious interiors, but the planning and overall design of the ships had problems from the start. They were too large for the IntraCoastal Waterway and there were no plans for stabilizers while operating strictly coastal and no design plans for bridge wing control stations.

Delta Queen Steamboat company was also building an ocean-going passenger ship with another on the drawing board at the same time. This to me was a prime example of poor planning and too much happening too fast that led to the company’s demise.

Now might be a good time to mention that all of the American-built ships up to this point were new construction. This opened up a whole new chapter of opportunity for existing companies and newly formed companies, to purchase these now-used vessels from firms no longer in business or just downsizing, for very reasonable prices.

I recall walking down Straight Wharf, Nantucket, with owner Robert Giersdorf, as he and his team from Exploration Cruise Lines came out to survey the Pilgrim Belle for purchase. He was interested in the vessel and with me staying with her as captain.

George Coughlin

Pilgrim Belle will become the Colonial Explorer. * Photo: George Coughlin

I asked about his new venture with Anheuser Busch entertainment division. He stated that Exploration Cruise Lines was the operator and Anheuser Busch had the deep pockets. I learned several months after accepting the position as captain on his now named Colonial Explorer, that Anheuser Busch backed out of their agreement with Exploration, meaning that the deep pockets no longer existed. Soon after, Exploration Cruise Lines was no longer in operation.

Wilderness Cruises, later to become Lindblad Expeditions, would on occasion charter the Alaska Explorer (now National Geographic Sea Bird) and the Great Rivers Explorer (now the National Geographic Sea Lion) from Exploration Cruise Lines and would later purchase both of them when Exploration Cruise Lines went out of business. During my time with Lindblad, I sailed as captain aboard the National Geographic Sea Bird/Sea Lion and more recently as pilot aboard the pair National Geographic Venture/Quest.

George Coughlin

Captain George as pilot aboard National Geographic Venture Sept. 2019

There are several reasons why I believe Lindblad has remained successful. They have a family following with expedition cruising. Until recently, they have been successful with older ships because their theme is not the ship, it’s the education aspect of the journey. More than enough expedition staff, photographers, and their connection with National Geographic, all add up to something special.

Colonial Explorer lay idle for a while and was put back in service by Exxon as corporate housing/offices following the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster. When she was no longer needed there, she returned to Seattle from Valdez where she awaited her fate.

Bob Clark, owner of St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, purchased her, renamed her Victorian Empress, and had her repositioned and delivered from Seattle to her new home on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Three captains made that delivery. One from Seattle to Florida; the second from Florida to the Connecticut River; and I captained the third leg from the Connecticut River to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

George Coughlin

Victorian Empress at Kingston, Ontario * Photo: Ted Scull

Bob Clark, being Canadian, and the Victorian Empress being a U.S. flag vessel, caused for questions and complications with his operation, which only lasted a season. I filled in for a few weeks as captain during that season. Once again, the Victorian Empress was up for sale.

Cruise West purchased the Victorian Empress, the Sea Spirit (former Newport Clipper), the Nantucket and Yorktown Clipper, the New Shoreham II from Blount (which I delivered from New Orleans to Seattle) and others, eventually becoming the largest company of used overnight small passenger vessels.

Now they wanted to get even bigger by adding a used ocean-going passenger ship to their fleet. I was sailing as captain on the Yorktown Clipper in the Virgin Islands when owner Dick West visited the ship to make arrangements to purchase her and the Nantucket Clipper. It was obvious from Dick’s comments that this was going to be a big stretch for the company.

I stayed as captain for several months following the purchase, but sensed that Cruise West had got ahead of itself and the handwriting was on the wall. Not long after I left, Cruise West was history and a lot of the small ship U. S. flag fleet lay idle again.

When I first met Dan Blanchard he was director of marine operations at Cruise West. He is now owner of UnCruise Adventures. UnCruise has been successful while now operating many of the ships once owned by Cruise West. Dan is a driving force and motivator. They are continually tweaking their itineraries and focus mostly on off-the-ship hiking, kayaking, with the expedition theme. All but one of their vessels is U.S. Flag.

George Coughlin

SS Legacy, Uncruise Adventures, Glacier Bay, Alaska, August 2013. * Photo: Ted Scull

Alaskan Dream Cruises is an Alaskan family business out of Sitka, Alaska. They have four previously owned small overnight passenger vessels. They cruise only in Alaska. They have their own shipyard, a lodge for passenger stop-overs, an introduction to Alaskan food and hospitality. They operate a fleet of day-passenger vessels as part of Allen Marine in Auke Bay. I filled in as captain for a brief stint a few years ago aboard the Chichagof Dream (formerly Nantucket Clipper). Again, like Blount and American, having your own shipyard is a huge cost savings.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What affect did the Passenger Vessel Service Act have on operations such as effects on American flag vessels; foreign flag vessels; crews; itineraries?

George C: The Passenger Vessel Services Act of 1886 states that no foreign vessels shall transport passengers between ports or places in the United States, either directly or by way of a foreign port, under a penalty of $200.00 (now $762.00) for each passenger so transported and landed. As a result, all vessels engaged in the Coastwise Trade have been required to be Coastwise qualified (ie: US-built, owned, and documented.)

George Coughlin

Small U.S. flag ships can nose right up to the ice in Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull

Then there is the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, which is similar and applies to cargo vessels. This is most commonly referred to as the Jones Act. Both of these acts have pluses and minuses in today’s world. They need to be revisited and updated periodically.

Some people, like the late Senator John McCain, believed the Jones Act should be eliminated. Both acts have protective measures regarding US shipbuilding, operating between US ports for commerce, and the question of port security with foreign ships and crews. I’m all for revisiting both of these acts and making any adjustments needed.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): As the years passed, what improvements came into being that most affected your position as captain, such as new equipment or the design of the pilothouse or bridge; engine room; hull design; improvements on deck?

George C: We’ve come a long ways with ship improvements. Internet communications have made a world of difference with office-to-ship messaging. Maintenance has improved with advanced cleaning and painting systems, prolonging the life of the ship. Bridge electronics and technology continue to improve. Better, more reliable engineering systems have been a big improvement.

George Coughlin at the helm

Captain George Coughlin has seen so many changes in the small ship industry over the decades. *Photo: Ted Scull

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What were some of your favorite innovations?

George C: There are many, but to name a few — electronic charts. These have taken the burden of making manual corrections on paper charts away from the navigating officer. Also, the A.I.S. (Automatic Identification System) acts like a transponder for aircraft identification. It tells you all the information you need to know about ships in your vicinity that are required to have this equipment onboard. And, this feature can be overlaid/interfaced with your radar and electronic chart.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Many small-ships are built for relatively calm waters such as protected passages (Inside Passage to Alaska, Intracoastal Waterway), rivers, and bays, yet sometimes it is necessary to make ocean passages such as along the New Jersey or Maine Coast in the East and Washington, Oregon, California and Mexican coasts in the West and Southwest. What precautions do you consider, and at what point do you say — I plan to wait a few hours or a day until the seas calm?

George C:  Weather information is so important. Forecasts are updated regularly and available from several online sources. I generally check and compare forecasts. I also like to make the ship ready for coastal passages well before getting underway and not while you are already out there. Good communications by informing the passengers and crew what weather conditions may be expected and what to do and not to do, is paramount.

There will be times when you have to wait it out. That’s only prudent. I often look back at the positioning cruise I made as captain aboard the Victorian Empress. It was April and the Strait of Canso, Nova Scotia, had just opened and was free of winter ice. It was clear sailing past Prince Edward Island, but as night settled in, the winds freshened and the seas began to build. On top of that, there was reduced visibility due to snow squalls. I was just off the Gaspe’ Peninsula, so I opted to pull into Gaspe’ and dock until morning. It was just the right thing to do at the time.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): The newer vessels often offer more equipment and diversions for the passengers on and off the vessel. What are some of the tried and true options?

George C: It’s become very competitive out there and everyone is trying to come up with the latest innovation. The tried and proven are Zodiacs and enough of them onboard to accommodate demand. Kayaks, with the option for singles and doubles is very important. Snorkeling is also popular along with paddle boards.

George Coughlin

Zodiacs are one of the most important features to have on any expedition cruise. * Photo: William J. Mayes

Having passenger briefings before each event is very important for safety. Having a passenger feel comfortable enough knowing it might be the first time they ever experienced an event, is also very important.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted):  What are the caveats and suggestions that you give to passengers at the initial briefing, so that they can fully appreciate the week ahead?

George C:  I have a list of important topics that I include in my passenger briefings. I mainly want them to feel comfortable and at ease. I stress safety, security, and good health. I try to point out some of the itinerary highlights and always encourage everyone to have fun, while also knowing their limitations when it comes to hiking or other forms of exercise.

George Coughlin

This Alaskan cruise passenger can enjoy the scenery while relaxing at the rail. * Photo: Ted Scull

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Choose a couple of different itineraries you know well and share what you have found that gets your passengers excited and eager before a landing, such as Zodiac ride, kayaking excursions, etc.

George C: Southeast Alaska is an amazing place with lot’s to do and see. The 7-day Juneau to Sitka or the reverse, covers a lot of interesting highlights. Tracy Arm is a spectacular fjord that matches those in Norway. The two active glaciers display lots of calving and blue ice.

George Coughlin

Yorktown Clipper crew in Tracy Arm, Sawyer Glacier. Newport Clipper at left.

Safely taking the Zodiacs out and cruising amongst the ice is really special. Or, perhaps an impromptu stop along the way for humpback whales to engage in complex bubble-net feeding as a group.  Baja California is also one of my suggested itineraries. If you would like an option of swimming with the sea lions or touching a baby grey whale, then this might be the itinerary for you.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Undoubtedly, some passengers may be anxious about swimming in semi-tropical waters or walking through a thick forest. What can you say to help calm them?

George C: It’s very important that passengers attend and listen to the safety briefings. The staff is well trained to answer questions and will be there on their hikes as well as nearby for any water sport activity questions or assistance.

I’m regularly there on the fantail to see guests off and greet them back aboard. On occasion, when time permits, I’ll get out there and join in with the guest activities. I enjoy driving the Zodiacs and kayaking and taking hikes with the guests.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Having sailed with you several times, I am aware that you join the passengers before and during meals, after dinner, and perhaps after the ship is anchored or tied up. You seem to really enjoy that.

George C: I enjoy being around the guests and making them feel relaxed. There’s a lot more in the day’s work of a captain than just getting the vessel safely from point A to point B.

George Coughlin

Capt. George Coughlin, Green Inlet, B.C.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): What itineraries are nearly always successful?

George C: There are the so-called in-season itineraries. These are usually the most successful. Then there are the shoulder season itineraries. These can sometimes be the more challenging. Then the winter itineraries. They can be either okay or great.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Are there dull ones from time to time?

George C:  They are all good. Some are just better than others.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): You have strong interests in music and singing. How have you worked that into your working life and your free time?

George C: It’s been a real balancing act. I have to thank my employers and relief captains for working with me on this. I also have to thank the music directors who have allowed me to miss rehearsals and performances and still remain an active choral singer.

George Coughlin

George Coughlin at the Tanglewood Music Center Boston Symphony Orchestra 2018

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Do you have a few thoughts to share that illustrate how rewarding your life has been as a ship’s captain, and perhaps what challenges or sacrifices there have been?

George C:  As I near full retirement, I look back and think, would I have changed anything along the way? It’s been an exciting ride through time. I’ve been to Africa twice, Antarctica three times, Australia twice, then New Zealand, the Arctic, South Korea and Inland Sea of Japan, Mediterranean, Galapagos, Leeward and Windward Islands, Orinoco River, Panama Canal (a dozen transits), Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Pacific Northwest, Columbia and Snake rivers, British Columbia, S.E. Alaska, Virgin Islands, East Coast from Florida to Canada and the Saint Lawrence Seaway into the Great Lakes.

Yes, there have been sacrifices along the way, but being a captain has afforded me to go to all of these destinations, whether in command or just because I was in the cruise industry.

QUIRKYCRUISE (Ted): Thank you George. It has been a great pleasure knowing you and hearing your story. See you in person, soon, I hope.

George C:  Thanks for the opportunity to share some of my tales and experiences Ted. I look forward to catching up in person soon. All the Best.

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Blount's Mount HOpe

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

By Theodore W. Scull.

Once “The World is Our Oyster” literally as well as figuratively contributed to the start of Blount Small Ships Adventures.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

Grande Mariner & Grande Caribe share a berth at New Bedford. * Photo: Ted Scull

So, it is with great sadness that this pioneering U.S.-flag cruise line has called it a day 51 years after the company founder, Captain Luther H. Blount, set out with 40 paying passengers aboard the Blount-built Mount Hope in 1969 bound from the company’s HQ along the waterfront of Warren, Rhode Island, into Long Island Sound, around New York City’s Battery and northward up the Hudson and through the locks into Lake Champlain.

Blount's Mount HOpe

The cover of the August 1969 “Maritime Reporter Magazine” featured Mount Hope. * Source: https://magazines.marinelink.com/Magazines/MaritimeReporter/196908/page/1

Luther Blount’s Legacy

He pioneered modern-day overnight cruises along the length of the Erie Canal even though the railroads had built bridges in the 19th century to kill the lucrative freight and passenger traffic.

Not to be stopped dead in the water with too low bridges over the Erie Canal, Blount’s answer was to create a pilothouse that could be lowered into the vessel’s main body and the railings folded to the deck.

Captain Luther Blount

Captain Luther Blount on board. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

I recall intensely watching from the bow of the Niagara Prince as the captain inched his way under a railroad bridge with his wife’s eagle eye on the narrowing gap, to within maybe two inches to spare until the vessel was clear. I think I may have stopped breathing for a few seconds.

On another occasion aboard the same ship heading from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, we passed under a railroad bridge with slightly more clearance, and seconds later Amtrak’s Super Chief bound from Chicago to Los Angeles thundered across the same span. I did notice that one bit of deck railing had a dent in it, from an earlier encounter.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Inches to spare. * Photo: Ted Scull

“Go where the big ships cannot” became the slogan.

However, the two most recently-built Blount vessels, the Grande Caribe and the Grande Mariner, actually had a problem. They were too high in clearance to pass along the western end of the Erie Canal. Hence cruises between the Hudson River and the Great Lakes would enter the canal just north of Albany then switched over to the Oswego Canal near Syracuse leading to Lake Ontario for onward passage through the Welland Canal and into Lakes Erie, Huron, Superior and Michigan.

RELATED: Ted’s Erie Canal Cruise with Blount Small Ship Adventures.

Luther’s Ingenuity

Now back to oysters. Luther Blount, born at Warren, Rhode Island, near the Head of Narragansett Bay, grew into adulthood and joined the family business – oystering – with its base of operations in the same waterfront location where the cruise line and shipyard exist all these many decades later.

Then came the legendary 1938 hurricane, the largest storm to hit the Northeast in modern times, and in a few short hours the oyster beds and the business were in shambles. Luther, a graduate of Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, then set out on a different course — briefly.

With his inventive nature and New England pluck, Luther developed a steaming process for his brother’s clam business that attracted Campbell Soup as big buyers for the firm’s clam chowder.

Luther’s association with oysters returned when he built a highly-successful new type of steel oyster boat and that led to large and more diverse vessels such as small tankers, launches for the Panama Canal Company, passenger vessels for the Circle Line, ferries for owners throughout the northeast, Spirit-class dinner boats, and as reported earlier, the company’s first cruise vessel, the 40-passenger Mount Hope in 1969.

Blount’s Shipyard

Then followed the New Shoreham, New Shoreham II, Mayan Prince and so on, each slightly larger than the previous new builds.

Blount's New Shoreham

New Shoreham. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Sometimes he would start constructing a hull and if he received an order for a dinner boat, he would complete it as such, and then start another that might end up in his own fleet.

Bllount Small Ship Adventures

Blount Boats – The yard in October 1999. * Photo: Ted Scull

The boats he built for the Circle Line in New York have carried over 75 million passengers.

Blount Marine Corporation eventually became Blount Boats, Inc. and the yard, built on top of a shell dump, has always had a reputation for quality and reliability.

The Blount 65 (a 65-foot passenger boat) was and still is found all over North America in multiple roles as excursion boats, dinner boats and ferries. One of the newest that I am fully aware of is the passenger and vehicle ferry for Governors Island, that separated piece of New York sitting just off the Battery in Lower Manhattan.

Three Daughters

Luther’s daughter Marcia is president and daughter Julie vice president, and Blount Boats has an enviable reputation in otherwise a largely man’s world. His third daughter, Nancy, joined the cruise side.

Blount Sisters

The Blount Sisters Three — Julie, Marcia & Nancy. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Their father died in 2006 at the age of 90. Nancy had started as a stewardess aboard the boats in 1966, then when she complained about being away from her friends during the summer months, she asked for a job closer to home. Luther made room for her as a welder in his shipyard.

By 1979, she was number two at the cruise line, back then known as American Canadian Line with Caribbean inserted later to form ACCL. The more recent change to Blount Small Ship Adventures came under her watch, to honor her father and more clearly define the cruise line’s mission — “Go where the big ships cannot.”

As Luther, a tried and true Yankee, did not believe in buying or building anything that he could not pay for, the company had no debt and that firm foundation put them in good stead during the last recession.

Blount's Grand Caribe

The Grand Caribe on a fall foliage cruise. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Go Where the Big Ships Cannot

Luther’s thrust was “go where the big ships cannot,” and the signature itinerary became the inland water cruise between home base at Warren, Rhode Island and Montreal and Quebec in Canada.

Blount Small Ship Cruises Bows out

The morning sun reflected in the Erie Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

Leaving Narragansett Bay, the route passes through Long Island Sound, skirts by New York City via the East and Hudson Rivers, then above Albany turns west into the Erie Canal and Oswego Canal to enter Lake Ontario and continue on eastward along the St. Lawrence River and Seaway to French Canada. Passengers are never out of sight of scenery, and there is little chance of being seasick. No other line, not even competing coastal cruisers, can do this itinerary as we will see.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Passing West Point sailing south along the Hudson River. * Photo: Ted Scull

He established winter itineraries that cruised amongst the Bahamas, Caribbean islands and Belize and its impressive barrier reef. Then there were the Intracoastal Waterway cruises from Florida and the Deep South, an inland route bypassing Cape Hatteras into the Chesapeake Bay, thence through the Chesapeake and Delaware  Canal, along the New Jersey Coast, past New York and onto Long Island Sound and finally passing through the choppy waters off Point Judith and into Narragansett Bay to the Blount’s HQ.

So “go where the big ships cannot” morphed into landings directly on the subtropical beaches via Luther’s patented bow ramp allowing passengers to go ashore almost anywhere there was a few feet of water and without resorting to tenders.

In fact, his patents eventually numbered 20, a Yankee entrepreneur par excellence.

Luther Blount's bow ramp

Luther’s patented bow ramp. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Blount bow ramp

The bow ramp was super convenient for passengers. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures Facebook page

Pint-A-Flush Toilets

One device that he was particularly proud of — though not all his passengers might agree — was the Pint-A-Flush toilet, the pint being the minuscule amount of water needed the complete the job. Simplicity reigned and that meant accordion type folding bathroom doors and hand-held showers in the same space as the toilet. Cabins were tiny, and still are by industry standards, but each cabin had its own separate air supply instead of the same stale air being circulated throughout the accommodations.

Most passengers soon got past the diminutive scale and appreciated the comparatively reasonable, but hardly cheap, fares and not being lured into dropping lots of extra money once aboard, other than for gratuities and shore excursions.

There were no casinos, spas, bars, extra tariff restaurants, shopping malls, inches of gold, or art auctions.

The line always had a BYOB policy as it did not sell alcohol. Passengers brought their own wine and spirits, and BSSA provided free storage, ice, set-ups and help about where they can top up ashore. On special evenings, the line offered fancy hors d’oeuvres and complimentary wine. Later wine at meals was included.

Meals were single sitting affairs where passengers freely join whomever they wish. Tables had places for six or eight, setting the scene for the fast-developing social atmosphere. Most came from the U.S. and Canada and occasionally, English-speaking foreigners found their way aboard. Generally, Blount’s clientele was retired or getting there, college educated and either refugees from the mega ships or never had a bit of interest in them in the first place.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Large tables attract those who like meeting and mingle with fellow passengers. * Photo: A crew member

Young American Crews

The crew numbering 17-18 were all Americans, and most of college age or older. They received a wage, shared in the pool of tips, and got medical insurance and a 401K plan. The captains often started as deck hands and rose to mate and captain. Many stewardesses came for the travel experience and training in the hospitality industry. There was no question that they developed a work ethic as well as living in close proximity to one another over long periods of time.

Breakfast times catered to early or late risers, and the buffet set up included juices, cereals, fresh fruit and yoghurt. Once seated the stewardesses brought the hot entrée of the day that might be blueberry pancakes and bacon, omelets and sausages or French toast.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

The table is set for lunch. * Photo: Ted Scull

Lunch and dinner were at set times, with at lunch, a tureen of soup set on the table and at dinner, a salad at one’s places as one sat down. The main entrée at lunch might be a quiche or make your own sandwich and at dinner, tender roast beef, pork loin, breast of chicken, grilled salmon, and thick lamb chops.

A serving window looked right into the galley, and what passes through the opening was very good American cooking, and the type of food that most North Americans eat at home. Of course, vegetarian, vegan and restricted diets were catered to with advance notice. Over the 35 years that I have known Blount, the food had in more recent times taken a noticeable step up in quality, preparation and presentation.

Since 1986, I have made Blount trips among the New England Islands, along the Intracoastal Waterway between Rhode Island and Georgia, and from Toronto via the canals and Hudson River to New York.

Toronto to New York

For the most recent cruise beginning on Toronto’s waterfront, my wife and I occupied a Grande Mariner twin-bedded cabin on the main deck aft with the new-style bathroom now dividing the toilet and sink compartment from the shower stall. The attractive bed fabrics were dark blue and red, with signal flags decorating the curtains. The picture window slid open to bring in the fresh summer air, and stowage was more than adequate for what is always a casual dress code.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

A typical double cabin with a window that opens. * Photo: Ted Scull

The lounge had comfortable seating and became the social center where passengers got acquainted, form friendships and have a drink before dining together.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

The forward lounge is a social and reading center. * Photo: Ted Scull

It’s hard to imagine a more relaxed venue to meet others from all parts of the U.S. and Canada and share what we were all about.

The Grande Mariner sailed across Lake Ontario to spend the day at Niagara Falls on both sides, including a ride on the Maid of the Mist, lunch in the flower-bedecked town of Niagara-on-the-Lake that hosted a summer-long Shaw Festival and ending with a Niagara Peninsula vineyard visit conducted by an excellent tour guide.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

A stately Victorian has many impressive neighbors in residential Kingston. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing nearly the full length of Lake Ontario, we called in at Kingston, once capital of Upper Canada, docking adjacent to the city center where a jazz festival was taking place and enjoying its lovely commercial and residential architecture on a walking tour. Cruising amongst the Thousand Islands, the captain gave a running commentary of the sights and famous people who frequented the resort region.

At Ogdensburg, we toured painter Frederick Remington’s house and art collection, then entered the Oswego Canal that led to the Erie Canal running nearly the full east-west length of New York State. Sections of the present canal use the Mohawk River, and bits of the earlier 1825 canal. The canal’s completion was a boon to New York City as its port became directly connected to the rest of the then known U.S.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows Out

Early travel on the Erie Canal

Near Amsterdam, a member of the Oneida tribe came aboard to give us a talk about the traditional crafts her people are engaged in, and a local historian told stories of early canal travel and introduced us to some of the historic writings and songs of the era. A photographer accompanied the cruise and gave popular talks and private lessons on camera use.

We passed under lots of low bridges and descended through a series of locks to the Hudson River just above Albany. Docking at nearby Troy, the city’s local historian gave us a wonderful tour of this once rich manufacturing center with its important civic buildings, handsome residential architecture and preservation successes.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

The crew prepare to lower the pilothouse to enter the Oswego Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

 

Blount Small Ship Adventures

The pilothouse has disappeared into the cavity. * Photo: Ted Scull

There was much to see on the all-day trip down the Hudson, including a top deck barbecue, so we would miss nothing en route. We passed historic houses with glorious Hudson River views, fringing Catskill Mountains, numerous lighthouses in the river and ashore, while sliding by the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and slipping under stately suspension bridges.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

Buffet lunch while sailing the Hudson River. * Photo: Ted Scull

Then the grand finale, passing Manhattan skyline’s at dusk and docking at the West Side’s Chelsea Piers, with city life less than a block away.

Other Connections to Blount

My direct connections to Blount continued on in an additional manner. When the Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner docked at the Chelsea Recreation Piers, once serving the White Star Line, and latterly excursion and dinner boats, sailing vessels and visiting yachts, I would take the subway from my New York apartment, meet the newly embarked passengers at dinner, then give a Power Point talk about New York harbor and the adjacent neighborhood.

Blount Small Ship Adventures Bows out

Grande Caribe docked at the Chelsea Piers, embarkation and disembarkation port. * Photo: Ted Scull

After a night in one of the vessel’s cabins, I would lead an after-breakfast walk into the fast-changing Chelsea neighborhood and take a hike along the High Line, a former elevated freight rail line. Its new role caused a post-industrial district morph into more of a residential neighborhood and a destination for the art world, including the relocated Whitney Museum, and a bar and restaurant scene.

I have happy memories of all my associations over the years, but as the cruising world kept growing (until the COVID-19 pandemic), the new small- and medium-size cruise vessels being launched were more upscale than Luther Blount’s idea of New England simplicity and down-home atmosphere.

Today’s older generation seems to want larger accommodations, plusher atmosphere and more amenities and willing to pay for it. Those who cannot afford all that, and want to sail aboard smaller and less costly cruises, may now be out of luck. Much lower per-diem fares are readily available — on the big ships with their economies of scale — if that is any attraction.

Finished With Engines. R.I.P.

The current three-vessel fleet is for sale: 68-passenger Niagara Prince (1994), 96-passenger Grande Caribe (1997) and 96-passenger Grande Mariner (1998).

Note: This essay is partly adapted from a piece I wrote for Cruise Travel magazine centering on Blount’s boat building side, a thriving business.

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small ship cruise captain

By Ted Scull.

George Freeman Coughlin has been sailing as a small ship cruise captain for many years, working for Coastwise Cruise Line, Exploration Cruise Lines, Clipper Cruise Line, Cruise West, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic, Alaskan Dream Cruises, and UnCruise Adventures.

Traveling as a journalist, I first met Captain George in May 1986 aboard the Colonial Explorer, a replica steamboat (now SS Legacy for UnCruise Adventures), for a week’s cruise in the Chesapeake Bay. Then I met him again two months later as a lecturer (at his request) on the same ship for the relighting of the Statue of Liberty over the July 4th weekend. It was a Smithsonian charter, and those three days were tremendous fun with New York Harbor packed with all sorts of vessels: liners, small cruise ships, excursion boats, sail training ships, warships, ferries, and tugs.

After that, when the Colonial Explorer came to New York, I would give a harbor talk before the farewell lobster dinner at which George and I would show the passengers how to crack a lobster as most did not hail from the East Coast. That was the beginning of a long friendship.

George Coughlin has been captain of the Pilgrim Belle, Colonial Explorer, Newport Clipper, Nantucket Clipper, Yorktown Clipper, National Geographic Sea Bird/Sea Lion, Victorian Empress, Spirit of Yorktown, Chichagof Dream, and S.S. Legacy.

small ship cruise captain

Captain George Freeman Coughlin at the wheel of UnCruises’ SS Legacy

Ted: Where did you grow up and what made you interested in taking a job at sea?

George: I grew up in Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. In the summer months, my parents took me on frequent day excursions from Rowes Wharf in Boston to Nantasket Beach and Provincetown, Cape Cod. This was my introduction to becoming very interested in passenger carrying vessels, which at the time, I never realized would be the foundation of my career as a mariner.

Ted: What was your first ship and your role aboard? Did you think you had made the right decision?

George: My first ship was the S. S. Potomac in 1962. She was a former vessel owned by Wilson Lines. Built in 1910, I believe. All steel construction, 4 decks and a passenger capacity over 1,000. She was a true oil-fired steamboat. I was a 14-year-old deckhand.

Ted: Any stories to tell from those first months?

George: I remember the very first time that Capt. Herb Patterson had me take the helm, and under his direction, gave me rudder commands to bring the Potomac alongside Rowes Wharf. I also remember that going back to school after working that first summer aboard wasn’t so easy. I had to join a union for the summer, but really wasn’t old enough to be working onboard. Management felt that I looked old enough, so we worked around that obstacle pretty well.

Ted: When did you think you had settled in and were making good progress in the cruise industry?

George: I was in the Navy from 1965-1968. During that time, I had my sights on the Merchant Marine after completing my term of duty and really had no interest in staying with the Navy as a career. I remember being fascinated with the liner S.S. United States and thought that perhaps being a deck officer onboard would be of interest. As things turned out, I opted to stay involved with smaller passenger vessels and I have no regrets.

Ted: Where did you get your professional training?

George: As the expression goes, I worked my way up the hawse and through the ranks. Many individual classes have been taken at various schools for all the license endorsements, including Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Buzzards Bay MA.; Maritime Professional Training, Fort Lauderdale, FLA; and Northeast Maritime Institute, Fairhaven, MA.

Ted: What ranks did you hold before becoming a captain and on what ships?

George: My time in the Navy was shipboard as a Quartermaster and when I was discharged I opted to sail as Mate aboard a yacht for the winter in Florida. During that winter of 1968-69, I focused on accumulating my combined sea time and sitting for my first Coast Guard License.

small ship cruise captain

Captain negotiates a lock chamber.

Ted: What was your first command and where did you go?

George: My first command was a classic Harbor Tour vessel owned by Hyannis Harbor Tours (Hy-Line Cruises) Hyannis, MA. Her name was/is Prudence, a 65-foot wooden-hulled 150-passenger vessel, single screw, and built in Booth Bay Harbor, Maine in 1911.

Ted: Did you have favorite ships and what made them special?

George: I’m a little superstitious about naming favorite ships. It’s rather like showing favoritism to a child of a family of 10. Just don’t want the word to get around to those other ships that I may possibly be sailing on again. They have a way of retaliating. With that said, the “Prudence” will always be dear to me, as well as the now S.S. Legacy.

small ship cruise captain

Capt. George Coughlin aboard the Colonial Explorer in May 1986, now SS Legacy, UnCruise Adventures.  Photo: Ted Scull

Ted: Did you have preferred seasons and favorite itineraries?

George: It’s like comparing apples to oranges. There are just so many places to see and enjoy. If I had to choose — in the winter, The Virgin Islands; and in the Fall, The Chesapeake Bay. In the Spring, it’s the Inside Passage from Seattle to Juneau; and in the Summer, S.E. Alaska.

small ship cruise captain

Daws Glacier, Endicott Arm, SE Alaska. * Photo Capt. George Coughlin

Ted: Any unusual occurrences to share?

George: It was nearing the end of one of my Alaska summer seasons, and we had what was considered a good year for wildlife sightings. I was sailing through Frederick Sound towards Petersburg and almost in disbelief there were literally 25+ Humpback whales ahead of us breaching, sounding and as a group, being very playful. As I recall, the following week, there was but one whale in that same area. We decided that the week prior was the Humpback’s gathering together and bidding us farewell before making their long migration to Hawaii for the winter.

Ted: Any funny stories to tell as a small ship cruise captain?

George: I was sailing on the Panama/Costa Rica itinerary one winter and after consulting with one of our onboard local guides, I opted to anchor off a beautiful uninhabited island off the Panama Coast. I sent the ships Bosun in with an inflatable to check out the sandy beach landing. He radioed back to me and said there was a pretty good swell, but the landing was doable. I made a shipboard announcement and said for those who are agile and in the spirit of adventure, we will be offering zodiacs to/from the beach. All was going well, and I was standing in the companionway just outside the lounge, when a returning guest, rather elderly and looking frail, approached me and asked me if I was the Captain. I looked at her and noticed that she was missing one of her rubber shoes and her eyeglasses that she was wearing were full of sand. She looked like the cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, and I did all I could to restrain from laughing. I noticed that she wasn’t hurt in any way and replied that I was the Captain, not knowing what she might be gearing up to say, thinking that she was probably infuriated about her experience on the beach. She looked up at me and smiled, saying “I just had one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.” Needless to say, I was greatly relieved and very happy for her.

Ted: Have you fully retired?

George: I keep my license renewed and current. I enjoy doing random fill-in stints as Captain and also some piloting/training. I did a few relief stints with Lindblad/National Geographic this spring. I also did a few relief Captain stints aboard the S.S. Legacy on the Columbia/Snake Rivers last summer for UnCruise Adventures. I’m looking forward to a few more years before full retirement.

Ted: What do you like to do with your free time?

George: I’ve always had an interest in music, especially classical and opera. I’ve been singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Holiday POPS and Boston Symphony for the past 20 years. I had my own small sailboat and was a member of the Hyannis Yacht Club for over 30 years. I enjoy travel and hold a single-engine aircraft land/sea license.

Ted: You have a good balance in your life that will serve you well. I hope we get to meet up soon, and thank you sharing your seagoing story. I am sure there is more to tell.

small ship cruise captain

Captain Coughlin at leisure.

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Erie Canal

Erie Canal with Blount Small Ship Adventures

By Ted Scull.

In this installment, it’s all about the Erie Canal — an integral part of America’s western expansion and of incalculable value to New York City.

Low bridge ahead on the Erie Canal

Low bridge ahead on the Erie Canal.

Residing in New York all my working life, I cannot get enough of the region’s history, development and major events. As an aside, I incorporate research into talks for general audiences and special interest groups. For purposes of QuirkyCruise.com, I first turn to big draws in my own back yard that you too might wish to experience some day, or maybe already have.

A few years ago, I took a cotton to a Blount Small Ship Adventures’ cruise that no other line can do, travel a section of the Erie Canal as part of a much longer, complex inland water route linking the Great Lakes and New York.

The Erie Canal, dug east-west across New York State between Albany and Buffalo, connected by water the growing Port of New York with much of the rest of the still developing U.S. Railroads and paved highways were still in the future.

At the time, Boston and Philadelphia handled more trade than New York, but these cities’ fathers could not solve getting over the mountain barriers to the Midwest that New York was about to accomplish with the Erie Canal’s completion in 1825. Almost immediately, New York’s fortunes took off to become the fastest growing port and city in the country.

Erie Canal

Approaching a lock on the Erie Canal. * Photo: Ted Scull

That slim little waterway was later enlarged and became what we can travel along today at a slow jogging pace. But you must choose a specifically-designed low-rise canal boat, in my case the GRANDE MARINER.

Grande Mariner

The Grande Mariner. * Photo: Blount Small Ship Adventures

Bingo, you can experience a low bridge on the Erie Canal made famous by “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” a song written by Thomas Allen in 1905. Clear the top deck and lower the pilot house to allow the boat to slide under bridges with inches to spare. Many were built by the new enemy, the railroads, to impede canal traffic. In fact, Blount’s present pair cannot travel the western end of the canal because of even lower clearances.

Approaching the enemy, a railroad bridge. * Photo: Ted Scull

Just west of Troy, a former industrial powerhouse a few miles north of Albany, the GRANDE MARINER drops down via a flight of canal locks to reach the lower level of the Hudson River — just 140 miles downriver to New York City. No natural waterway in the US combines so many scenic surprises, natural wonders, and stately homes that inspired the Hudson River School of painters.

For the next two days, be dazzled by the Catskill Mountains at sunset, the Hudson dramatically narrowing at Bear Mountain, Storm King’s massive headland thrusting itself into the river, the vertical drop of the Palisades, lighthouses dotting the shallow bits to warn of dangers, and a slew of historic houses with magnificent Hudson River views.

Stately mansion with a Hudson River view. * Photo: Ted Scull

Few know that you cannot drive along the Hudson to experience all these as parallel roads follow the river for just a few miles at a time. The water-level train route is second best though you clearly see only the western side, while by boat you see America’s Rhine the way it was meant to be seen.

The icing on the cake is sliding under the George Washington Bridge and sailing past Manhattan. Some Blount cruises end at the West Side’s historic Chelsea Piers, while others continue around The Battery and head up the East River to Long Island Sound and New England.

When I have stayed aboard, I get to pass my apartment just two blocks inland. Let me know when you are passing, and if I am in residence, I will come down and give you a wave from the riverside promenade.

How about a wave from above? * Photo: Ted Scull

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Star Clipper in the Andaman Sea off of Thailand. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

By Ted Scull.

Seated in the forward-facing lounge aboard the Queen Mary 2 bound from Britain to Brooklyn, I begin recalling favorite moments at sea. The ocean is typically North Atlantic gray, intermittently streaked with white caps. The fog of early morning has lifted and the booming fog horn, erupting every two minutes, is silenced for now.

Looling out to sea in Mid-Atlantic. * Photo: Ted Scull

Captain Christopher Wells informs us that we are taking a more southerly course because this spring more ice than usual has been breaking off Greenland’s ice cap, and that which sank the Titanic is to be avoided at all costs. We are presently just 40 miles north of the ship’s grave.

Svalbard Adventures

It makes me think about deliberately navigating the National Geographic Explorer through the icy waters of Svalbard looking for polar bears. But then it was not at high speed during the dark of night or before the aid of radar and ice pilots.

A tiny speck of a polar bear is sighted about a mile away, so the ship gingerly breaks the ice to get a closer look and perhaps interest the bear to come our way. He or she does just that, and while the passengers gathered at the bow remain silent soon the bear is sniffing the air just below the bow.

A curious polar bear comes across the ice to have a look. * Photo: Ted Scull

Sailing amongst a sea of ice bergs in Antarctica aboard the Hanseatic was even more of a thrill. There was time to take in the amazing shapes, jagged and smooth, towering and linear, exhibiting many shades of blues and greens. Any sense of danger never even came to mind.

Hapag Lloyd’s Hanseatic amidst the ice in Antarctica. * Photo: Hapag Lloyd

Serenity is another effect of being on a ship at sea, and in a swift change of course, it also can happen on a river and one as seemingly mundane as the Ohio — with apologies to the fortunate folks who live along its banks.

Paddlewheeling

When I suggested a cruise aboard the American Queen, my wife’s reaction was — we have done that. I persevered and soon we were on a train to Pittsburgh to join the steamboat at the junction where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio.

Two evenings later while we were enjoying a barbecue dinner three decks above the thrashing red paddlewheel, the full moon appeared from behind one of the West Virginia hills. Soon its light reflected in the river’s waters directly ahead as if leading the way, though the riverbanks were quite sufficient to keep us sailing on course. This serene scene was repeated the next two nights, if later in the evening.

Moon over the Ohio from the steamboat American Queen. * Photo: Ted Scull

Alaska Steamboating

A dramatic two-day ship passage leads from the Lower 48 States in the Pacific Northwest to the 49th state. If reasonably well versed in local history, these waters provided the hope to be the road to riches following a gold strike in the Yukon Territory.

Sailing aboard the SS Legacy, a replica turn-of-the-19th-century steamboat, provided the perfect conveyance to recall the era. In the month of May, the narrow waterway was not yet choked with massive cruise ships crowding out the natural scene of fringing mountains, their winter snow cap providing raging torrents of water cascading down the steep cliff faces just a hundred feet from the railing. Changing course and entering one narrow inlet, the captain edged ever closer to a plunging chute of water until the spray peppered the bow close to where we were standing.

Edging up to a waterfall en route to Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

Tall Ship Beauty

An entirely different sense of place occurred aboard the Royal Clipper, the world’s largest sailing ship, during a passage approaching the Pillars of Hercules, as the Ancient Greeks referred to today’s designation, Strait of Gibraltar.

The mighty five master, bound for the West Indies, was leaving the confines of the Roman Lake, a Roman Empire designation, sailing between the towering rock face of Gibraltar to starboard and the African continent to port to then enter the vast Western Ocean and once, the unknown beyond. Many believed daring fate and staying the course would end in certain death as the ship would simply fall off the edge of an earth believed to be flat.

The majesty of a sailing ship. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Tasman Strait

In almost completely opposite circumstances, following a crossing of the notoriously tempestuous Tasman Strait between New Zealand and Australia, the Oceanic Discoverer rode the heaving swells between the North and South Heads into Sydney Harbor. It was not until fully protected by the South Head that we were proceeding over truly calm waters toward the gleaming white opera house to tie up at Circular Quay. The buzz of the city quickly erased recent memories of holding on for dear life during the 48-hour passage.

Approaching the Sydney Opera House. * Photo: Ted Scull

Additional thoughts of being at sea in memorable settings keep flowing through the Queen Mary 2’s forward-facing window — sailing through the Maldive Islands at sunset, tasting sand in my mouth during a strong wind storm in the Gulf of Suez, and edging close to two islands that rose from the sea along the south coast of Iceland.

Sunset in the Indian Ocean passing through the Maldive Islands. * Photo: Ted Scull

It’s still two more sea days to New York, and now over sparkling seas my eyes follow a flock of storm petrels swooping in wide circles off the bow hundreds of miles from shore. The sea is endlessly fascinating and ever changing.

 

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