Sternwheeler scheduled to stir up SE waters in 2003

Posted: Sunday, January 27, 2002

This news would spur Mark Twain to pack his river pilot's license.

American West Steamboat of Seattle has contracted with a Washington state boat yard to construct the Empress of the North, a sternwheeler that will be used in summer cruises in Southeast Alaska and fall cruises on the Columbia and Snake River complex.

The Empress is expected to arrive in Southeast in late May 2003 in time for a full cruise season. It would be the first sternwheeler to cruise the Inside Passage in more than a century. It will move to Portland, Ore., in September 2003 in time to participate in the three-year celebration of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial.

The 360-by-60-foot sternwheeler will be the largest single-boat contract for Nichols Brothers Boat Builders, Inc., of Whidbey Island. The vessel will cost $50 million, said company Vice President Bryan Nichols. The cost includes furnishings, many of which will be built in at the yard, as well as art work that will be hung after the boat is launched.

Henry Hillman Jr., president of American West Steamboat, said the United States Maritime Administration will provide a loan guarantee to facilitate funding of the project.

The Empress will be used for one-way trips between Juneau and Seattle, said Joel Perry, vice president of marketing for American West Steamboat. The tentative date for the departure of the first trip is May 24, 2003. Ships will stop at Victoria, British Columbia, as well as Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway, Petersburg and Glacier Bay. The north-bound trip would take 11 nights; the southbound trip, 10 nights.

Perry noted the ship's signature design elements: A high-ceilinged, chandeliered dining room that will accommodate all passengers at a single seating; a lavish showroom for showboat-style entertainment; and a lounge overlooking the sternwheel. The top deck will feature a Calliope Bar and Grill. Most of the suites and staterooms will have private verandahs, and all boast large windows.

Attractions include a historian and naturalist who will deliver an ongoing interpretive program and serve as curator for the vessel's extensive collection of paintings, sculptures and historic artifacts.

The vessel was designed by Guido Perla & Associates, Inc., a Seattle firm of naval architects and marine engineers. It is a "stretched" version of the Queen of the West, a sternwheeler now operated by American West Steamboat on Columbia and Snake River cruises. The Queen of the West began service in 1995.

The vessel will accommodate 236 overnight guests and 84 crew members. "From the waterline up, it looks like the real thing," Nichols said. "Under the waterline, it is somewhat different from the historic sternwheeler. We have modified the hull shape so that it would handle well in open ocean."

The vessel has a functional paddlewheel. "Water power does move the vessel at a speed of about two knots," Nichols said. "But otherwise there are Z-drives and diesel electric generators which supply the power."

The majority of power is generated by four 1800-rpm Caterpillar 3516B diesel engines with KATO generators putting out 1825 kilowatts each. The service generator will consist of an 1800-rpm 3406 Caterpillar with a 315 kw generator.

Matt Nichols, president of Nichols Brothers, said the engines will meet regional and international marine organization emissions and antipollution standards.

Two DC2000 General Electric motors will drive the twin-blade Z-drives for primary propulsion while a DC1000 GE motor will turn the paddlewheel. Another 1000-hp GE motor supplies electricity to a jet pump bow thruster. Service speed with a full load is expected to be 14 knots.

The vessel will comply with U.S. Coast Guard rules for ocean vessels. It also will conform to the latest Safety of Life at Sea rules for passenger ships employed in international voyages.

Juneau does not have adequate docking facilities for a sternwheeler of that size, said city Harbormaster Joe Graham, who had a phone query from American West about two months ago.

"We don't have facilities that would accommodate it except on an intermediate basis, at Auke Bay or at the 400-foot intermediate float in front of Taku Smokeries," he said.

Both sites already are busy, he said. "We try to steer that kind of traffic to private facilities in town. But it would be good for the community, no matter where it ties up," Graham added.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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