Delta Queen moves closer to sailing again

The Delta Queen’s chances of returning to overnight cruising improved in late September as the House of Representatives reinstated an exemption for the historic paddlewheeler.

The approval came with a union blessing and an affirmation of just how competitive the inland river market has become.

The legislation (H.R. 1961), which passed on a 280-89 vote, also bolsters the financing hopes of a group of prospective investors led by a former Delta Queen Steamboat Co. executive.

“We’re still working with the owners and working to raise money,” Cornel Martin, who was with Delta Queen for nearly a dozen years, said after the vote. “We’re thrilled. This moves the effort forward significantly.” He said he has a tentative purchase agreement for an undisclosed amount with the boat’s current owner, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Greenwood Village, Colo. The 176-passenger boat is now a dockside hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The measure, which goes to the Senate where it has bipartisan support, provides a 15-year exemption from the 1966 Safety of Life at Sea Act (SOLAS) that requires passenger vessels for 50 or more be built of fire retardant materials. The steel-hulled Delta Queen with its wood and steel superstructure had been kept alive with a series of exemptions until her luck ran out after a new owner in 2006 took over the vessel but not the union contracts it operated under. The boat stopped sailing in 2008 when money-losing Majestic America Line shut down.

Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, one of the bill’s sponsors, said it preserves an important piece of U.S. history and creates jobs. Built in 1926 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1989, the vessel is expected to provide 170 jobs. Crews from the Seafarers International Union (SIU) and the American Maritime Officers (AMO) have operated the boat in the past. 

SIU spokesman Jordan Biscardo said the union favors the exemption “because it means jobs. We hope to have a very active role in the boat’s future.”

Before the bill passed, several representatives raised issues of safety and favoritism.

Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., citing Chabot’s reference to history and jobs, said, “That history is one of disaster after disaster in which thousands of people have lost their lives in boats that were not safe … that were made of wood. This is not about jobs. This is about saving lives.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called the bill an earmark that would “create a potential firetrap on the water.”

What’s more, he said, it “would interfere in a competitive market to pick winners and losers by giving an advantage to one vessel.” He then cited the Queen of the Mississippi, which debuted last year on the rivers and was built “with all applicable safety standards.” American Cruise Lines’ 150-passenger boat came out of Chesapeake Shipbuilding Corp., Salisbury, Md., which also is building another riverboat. 

“The safety issues are red herrings,” Chabot said. “The Coast Guard will ultimately determine whether it’s safe.”

Martin estimates the boat will need $4 million to $5 million in improvements including new boilers and work on the paddlewheel, generators and HVAC system.

Xanterra did not respond to a request for comment.

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