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From Navy ship to tour boat

A Southeast tour company faced its share of regulatory battles to put its cruise boats into operation

Posted: Tuesday, August 14, 2001

For one Southeast tour boat fleet, it took Bill Clinton's signature to get its boats on the water and open for business.

In 1993, The Boat Company launched by a nonprofit organization to offer small cruises rebuilt an old U.S. Navy minesweeper Liseron, outfitting it to accommodate 20 passengers and 10 crew members.

Because the boat was made of wood it did not meet U.S. Coast Guard fire protection regulations and as such could not be certified. Without certification the boat wouldn't cruise in Alaska waters anytime soon.

"We do have concerns with wooden boats," said Wendall Bishop, inspector for the Coast Guard. "We are very concerned and want to ensure the planking is sound during inspections and it has a fixed firefighting system."

 

The Boat Company appealed to Congress, and later that year the Senate passed a bill authorizing the Coast Guard to write specific regulations for the ship.

"Because they came in at slightly over 100 gross tons they were under a stricter set of guidelines for vessels carrying far more passengers," Bishop said. "We were allowed to re-write the regulations to bring them under more realistic guidelines for what they were using the ship for."

But Boat Company President Michael McIntosh said the process of getting into compliance with Coast Guard regulations was confusing.

"My Bible has 1,200 pages; the Coast Guard regulations run in excess of 9,000 pages. If I don't know my Bible that well at 1,200 pages, I sure don't know the Coast Guard regulations that well," he said.

 

Bishop, who works with the Commercial Vessel Safety Division of the Coast Guard, said inspectors use a four-page circular of specific guidelines during a ship's certification process. Some of the criteria includes checking the fasteners that hold the planks of wooden boats together as well as the boat's potential as a fire hazard.

However, The Boat Company wasn't able to operate this year until it won another round on Capitol Hill.

Though its newest ship, the Mist Cove, is aluminum-hulled, the company used enough wood in its construction to again fall outside of Coast Guard regulations for fire safety. After being held up for five weeks in Congress, the bill was signed on July 6, 2000, by President Clinton.

The revised criteria falls in line with the guidelines set forth in the Passenger Vessel Safety Act, enacted by Congress in 1993 providing, among other things, special regulations for ships like those in The Boat Company's three-vessel fleet.

With its political wranglings behind it, The Boat Company is looking toward a brighter future in Alaska.

Currently, The Boat Company is building a warehouse in Sitka, complete with floating docks and a floating shed 165 feet long, 55 feet wide and nearly 60 feet tall where the boats will sit in the winter. Further, the heated warehouse will allow staff to maintain the boats throughout the winter.

"It's going relatively well. We are always fighting the elements," said McIntosh, president of The Boat Company. "We've already started on the warehouse and the slab is poured, and the steel will be going up soon. We've also already ordered the floats for our floating dock. We hope to be done by Sept. 22."

When the warehouse is complete, all of the company's boats and operations personnel will move from the company's home office in Seattle to Sitka, bringing jobs with it, McIntosh said.

Besides its wooden ships, The Boat Company offers small, personal cruises that take its passengers close to the wildlife and natural beauty of Alaska, said McIntosh.

Though its $700-per-person per-night fare is far from cheap, The Boat Company is not getting rich, McIntosh said. The company's primary mission is to educate visitors about the environment and the benefits of conservation.

"It can't compare to another cruise line, because it's not in a cruise line." said McIntosh. " It's the kind of experience you can't get anywhere else in the world."

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Melanie Plenda can be reached at mplenda@juneauempire.com.



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