American Cruise Lines’(ACL) 150-passenger paddlewheeler Queen of the Mississippi left on its maiden voyage from New Orleans in August, and so far the company says that demand for cruises on the new vessel has been strong.
The Queen of the Mississippi offers 300-plus-sq.-ft. staterooms — the largest in the industry — and an all-American crew catering to passengers’ every need. Daily educational events and themed entertainment are designed to help paint a picture of what life on the Mississippi River was like in days gone by.
“You can see the difference” in the size of our suites, said Charles A. Robertson, ACL’s president and CEO. “The staterooms are about twice the size of the older boats.”
The new 295'×52'8"×11'6" paddlewheelerhas 78 staterooms — all with sliding glass doors out to private balconies — designed to maintain “the elegance and traditional Victorian luxury of classic late 1800s Mississippi riverboats,” said Charles B. Robertson, ACL’s director of marketing and Charles A. Robertson’s son.
American Cruise Lines operates the authentic paddlewheeler over the entire Mississippi River System, including the Ohio and Cumberland rivers. “It’s going very well,” the elder Robertson said. “People really like the single seating in the dining room. Room service is very popular. They love taking meals out onto the balconies, especially breakfast.”
ACL is offering eight-day, seven-night cruises that cost passengers an average of $4,000.
Regular itineraries include Memphis, Tenn., to New Orleans with stops at Helena, Ark.; Vicksburg; Natchez, Miss.; St. Francisville, La.; Baton Rouge, La.; and Louisiana’s Oak Alley Plantation. Another itinerary begins and ends in New Orleans. Each cruise has a theme such as Southern cuisine, musical, Mark Twain, and the Civil War.
“We do surveys of our passengers all the time, and they have been requesting this for three years and a move to the Mississippi River seemed a natural place to expand,” the younger Robertson said.
The Queen of the Mississippi is able to travel at higher speeds than older Mississippi riverboats (14 knots top speed versus seven to 10 knots), minimizing night travel and making more itineraries possible with longer visits to the river towns. Trips will take passengers as far north as St. Paul, Minn., on the Mississippi River and as far east as Pittsburgh on the Ohio River.
There will be some subtle changes to the Queen of the Mississippi for 2013. The changes will include additional laundry service, increased freezer space, and the addition of a calliope from the 1880s.
“It’s a steam calliope that was in a guy’s garage in Miami,” the elder Robertson said. “There’s a whole society of calliope lovers out there. I had no idea. We have people who have booked trips and want to know if they can play the calliope.”
While the passengers are aboard to enjoy themselves, Capt. John B. Ayer, ACL’s marine operations manager, stays busy in the wheelhouse surveying the Mississippi and all of its eccentricities.
“The Mississippi River is probably the most important maritime commercial tributary in the U.S.,” he said. “The river is constantly changing, and it’s got an incredible amount of commercial traffic on it.”
The new paddlewheeler has not run into any problems because of low-water levels as a result of a record-setting drought along the inland waterways system this year. “We’re blessed with an eight-foot draft,” said Ayer.
The company says it has had a good year, especially since the new paddlewheeler has joined the fleet, breaking previous company sales records.
“We predicted significant sales growth for 2012, especially with the launch of new itineraries on the Mississippi River, Alaska and Puget Sound,” Timothy Beebe, ACL’s vice president, said. “We are working with more new travel agents and our existing travel partners are booking more cruises than ever.”
In addition to the Queen of the Mississippi, ACL’s fleet includes the Queen of the West, American Eagle, American Glory, American Spirit, American Star, and Independence.
Construction of the Queen of the Mississippi was completed in June at Chesapeake Shipbuilding in Salisbury, Md., the parent company of ACL.
According to the elder Robertson, the new boat is the most elegant, fully functioning, authentic paddlewheeler in the industry.
“This boat was built in two halves,” he said, “and that made a big difference because we were in a controlled environment and the weather was not really a factor.”
Twin Caterpillar 32C diesel engines provide main propulsion to the paddlewheel and two Z-drives, which can be used individually or simultaneously. “I doubt we’ll build another boat for us that doesn’t have Z-drives,” the elder Robertson said.
A Hägglunds hydraulic motor powers the boat’s paddlewheel. “We really duplicated the Queen of the West. This boat has a little longer water line, but the propulsion package is the same.”
The Queen of the Mississippi was delivered from Chesapeake Shipbuilding ahead of schedule.
“The whole process was done two months early, so we weren’t crashing and dashing around at the last minute,” said Charles A. Robertson. “In fact, we finished up two months early and were in New Orleans about a month before the first cruise. It helps when you own the shipyard.”
He said that whether it’s one of his ACL passenger vessels or someone else’s boat, such as the two tugs currently under construction for Vane Brothers Towing or the refurbishment of a tug for McAllister Towing, planning and a good workforce make all the difference. “It’s all in the planning, the ordering of materials. We like to have materials in the shipyard four to six weeks before we need them.”
Charles A. Robertson said that the shipyard designs most of what it builds, so the learning curve from vessel to vessel is not severe.
“We don’t put ourselves under a lot of pressure,” he said. “Our shipyard guys have been with us a long time, so if we have to bump up a night shift because we’ve fallen behind, we do it.”
As sales continue to grow, so, too, does the company’s fleet.
American Cruise Lines has ordered another new riverboat, scheduled to enter service in 2014. Details such as the name of the new riverboat and its itineraries have not been released.
“The name will be announced sometime around the first of the year,” the elder Robertson said, “and it will be about 20 feet longer than the Queen.”