Friday, September 14, 2012

Cruise and Excursion Boat Development in Montgomery.


 As we mentioned in a previous blog Montgomery's waterfront with its festival park like setting which could discharge passengers right down town is the type of port of call that small inland cruise lines look for. The other ingredient is downtown itself which is compact, full of history, and entertainment. But in addition to the small cruise vessels with over night accommodations there  is another type of over night boat travel going on in the United States which I will call for lack of a better name the "extended excursion". In the "extended excursion" a day "tour" type boat in the 150 to 600 passenger capacity range , usually under 165' in length takes on a reduced passenger load ( for comfort on the extended excursion) and makes a trip lasting a long weekend stopping at night to discharge passengers to nearby prearranged hotels and Inns. These are boats similar to your own HARRIOTT II, or the COTTON BLOSSOM that was in Mobile for a while, up to about the size of the CREOLE QUEEN which some of you may be familiar with in New Orleans. One terrific attraction of Montgomery for such excursions is that there are excellent hotels within walking, trolley, or carriage ride distance from the potential boat landing, no bus rental involved, more profit for the excursion boat company on the north bound route. Montgomery is also well suited for trips originating out of the city for points south like Mobile or Dolphin Island. Either way such trips bring hundreds of passengers through the locks, great for water way statistics and the locking through experience should be a a highlight of the trip. Such trips can be one way with a bus return, or some passengers may opt for a round trip. 

Bailey Gatzert near Cascade Locks, circa 1910.jpg
People have been taking day excursions through locks since the 1890s pictured above is the BAILEY GATZERT  which ran lock excursions on the West Coast in the 1890s. She was 177' in length and could have easily run the Alabama River. Today there are many diesel powered day excursion craft similar in size and shape certified to carry between 400 and 600 passengers and generally configured at about 165' in length, just right for Alabama locks.

 The distance between Mobile and Montgomery is a little over 100 river miles, total steaming time a bit more than 10 hours at typical excursion boat speeds, but increased  by the time it takes to"lock through". Passenger vessels are given a priority at locks so really only operation time is involved.  I once skippered a 600 passenger excursion boat that made two locks in a day. The "locking through" experience brought everyone out of the bar and up on deck. If you have never been through a set of locks it is an amazing sight and experience. First, to the typical passenger entering the locks and tying up seems a great feat of seamanship. These relatively small little ships appear to grow when they enter the confines of the lock chamber. The lock walls loom up and appear massive, it is difficult for the mind to comprehend that this massive civil work has moving parts. In most cases, once in the lock chamber the passengers, even on the upper decks, have only one view of the water; looking astern through the open lock gates. The view of the next stretch of river is blocked by the height of the lock walls.  I heard many an ooh and ahhh! as the lock gates close behind the boat. It is amazing to see a fixed man made structure so massive move. Then an uneasy silence tends to fall over the crowd as they realize that the little ship and all aboard are now inside a massive box, like a magician's assistant and there is no escape until the trick is completed. Then the ship begins to climb the lock wall as water enters the chamber. Mild anxiety is replaced with amazement as the little ship is lifted. The next set of oohs and ahhs comes when the gunnels meet with the top of the lock wall and the river scenery reappears. The gate opens and the magicians assistant steps triumphantly out of the box and proceeds on its way up river.  I had one retired judge who liked to ride once a month and spent most of his time in the bar, but he was up on deck for both lockings every trip.

 Far too many excursion boat marketing managers and captains think too much like jaded mariners. To the experienced river pilot the locks are a necessary inconvenience , delay in schedule, and an annoying maneuver problem. To the passenger who doesn't see the process every week or so it is a magic trick of mammoth proportions in which they are both audience and participant. Locks are a destination in themselves! Cruise ship companies charge thousands for the Panama canal Cruises, "The Path Between the Seas". Astute day excursion boat companies use similar marketing  hyperbole to market day trips through local locks. Which could be another angle; lock trips need not originate from the city front. Simple day excursions without the over night feature could be run from an excursion dock situated a short drive below the city, putting at least one lock within reach for day trippers. Marketed properly such day trips could be prelude experiences for the over night excursions. The day trippers increase the passenger count for at least the upper lock dramatically and yet most people who experience a locking while knowing (through the boat's narrator) that two more locks constitute the "path between the city and the sea" ,develop a real itch to see the other locks and travel the entire route. 

 I mentioned in an earlier posting how Montgomery is well situated for the existing and expanding overnight (on board accommodations) inland cruise industry. The landing where the HARRIOTT II is docked is perfect in terms of location for these small cruise ships. When a passenger disembarks they are right in the heart of fine sight seeing, historic, dining, and entertainment district.      

American Cruise Lines AMERICAN STAR:   All the amenities of a cruise ship on a vessel the size of a large yacht. This little ship has served thousands of satisfied passengers on waterways no larger than the Alabama River who look forward to new excursions. Such operators are always on the look- out for new destinations. These voyages are free of sea sickness, pirates, and marine terrorist. All the fun of the big cruise liners but you get to know your fellow passengers in a yacht like atmosphere  free of worries and where these little ships land you are never viewed as an "ugly American", or kidnapping target. They are building repeat customers all the time More vessels and more routes are being planned by these types of operators. Montgomery start getting ready to position your city for the expansion in this industry.

Tomorrow we'll conclude with a look at the bulk commodity barging industry.    

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