Is Delta Queen Sailing Back to Life?
PHOTO: Tyler Tinsley posted a picture of the Delta Queen sailing by Paducah, Ky., on Facebook on March 30.
The Delta Queen steamboat, a 1927-built National Historic Landmark, is making its way south on the Mississippi River to Louisiana in preparation for a possible return to overnight cruises.
The paddlewheeler is heading for a private slip off the Intracoastal Waterway near Houma, La., where it will undergo some minor repairs and maintenance.
“We’re going to start doing some maintenance and top-side repair work to the degree that funding allows, mostly focusing on the hotel side of the vessel,” said Cornel J. Martin, president and CEO of the recently reborn Delta Queen Steamboat Co. “She’s been laid up for quite a while and hasn’t been operating as a dockside hotel since early 2014. There has not been a lot of maintenance in that time.”
Martin and his partners, Randy and Leah Ann Ingram, who operated the Delta Queen as a permanently moored hotel in Chattanooga, Tenn., estimate the ship needs about $5 million in repairs before it could return to overnight cruising. Those three own almost 90 percent of the vessel, but there are three other owners as well.
The immediate repairs will focus on allowing the ship to operate again as a hotel or banquet facility. The major marine repairs will wait until a congressional exemption is passed that will allow the historic vessel to comply with federal safety regulations and operate overnight passenger river cruises once again.
“We think the entire repair bill will total about $5 million — $1.2 million on the hotel side and $3.8 million on the marine side,” Martin said. “Obviously, we’ll not tackle the marine repairs until the congressional exemption is approved and she is able to sail again as a cruise ship. If the exemption is delayed or takes more time than we hope to get approved, we can always use her again either as a hotel or reception facility, or at least open her for tours, to generate some revenue until it’s time to do the marine side and get her back into her true service, which is our ultimate goal.”
As the Delta Queen makes her way down the river, fans line the shores to take photos, posting them on Facebook.
The Delta Queen stopped sailing in 2008 after it lost a federal Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) exemption that allowed it to operate overnight cruises, despite being built with wood, considered a fire risk. The vessel had received the exemption nine times over 40 years before that. Rep. Steve Chabot, a Delta Queen supporter from Cincinnati, in early March reintroduced legislation to grant the exemption again. A previous effort didn’t pass by the time the last Congress ended.
“Hopefully this time around we’ll make much quicker progress,” Martin said. “The last time we were up there lobbying for the legislation, we didn’t even own the vessel, we just had plans to purchase it. It wasn’t until we got a purchase agreement in July last year that we were able to really start making progress in Senate. Now we own the vessel, so when we tell congress we will replace the boilers and make those commitments, they can hold us to them because we own the boat. There was always the danger last year that they’d pass the legislation and someone else could buy the boat.”
The boilers indeed are a major part of the work needed. “The Delta Queen’s boilers date back to 1919. They were initially intended for a WWI destroyer, but then the war ended, the ship was never built and the boilers were sold as war surplus,” Martin said. “They’re way beyond their useful life, so we’ll replace those with much more modern, efficient and environmentally friendly boilers. Those boilers burn bunker-C fuel and the new ones would use low-sulfur diesel, which is much more environmentally friendly. That’s really the biggest part of our marine renovation.”
Otherwise, the Delta Queen is equipped with modern safety systems, he said. “She’s got very modern and efficient smoke, fire and heat detection systems with more than 300 sensors and more than 1,200 sprinkler heads.”
What’s more, much of the wood structure is being replaced. “Since 1993, we agreed with Congress that any time we made repairs we would replace any wood outside of the public view,” Martin said. “We replaced the wood with non-combustible material. All of that is steel now in the crew quarters. Each year we continue to reduce the wood by 10 percent and will going forward.”
Plus, Martin said the SOLAS regulations adopted almost 50 years ago were aimed at ocean-going wooden vessels, not riverboats.
“In the early 1960s, there were a couple of incidents of ocean-going ships made of wood, so the intent was to stop ocean-going cruise ships made of wood from coming into U.S. ports,” he said. “No one considered the Delta Queen in 1966, as it was the only vessel operating overnight cruises on inland rivers. Unlike ocean-going vessels, it was never more than a couple of hundred yards from shore. If anything happens, it can pull in to shore and evacuate.”
Martin knows the ship very well. He worked for its former owners, the original Delta Queen Steamboat Company and its later parent company, American Classic Voyages. The Ingrams asked him to partner with them since he had the expertise and knowledge about acquiring the federal exemption. He joined them in 2012.
Martin said the Delta Queen could return to overnight passenger service in 2016 if the timing works out.
“Our best case scenario is if we can have the legislation done by the fall, she could be steaming by next summer, in 2016,” Martin said. “We’re looking at six to eight months after the legislation passes, we should be ready to book cruises again. Once the legislation is secured, a number of banks will work with us to make the financing happen.”
Where the Delta Queen would be based is still under consideration. Communities competing for the ship include Cincinnati, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Kimmswick, Mo., a small, historic community 25 miles south of St. Louis, has made “a fairly aggressive offer,” Martin said. “We’re considering it.”
If and when it does return to overnight service, the Delta Queen will operate similar itineraries as it did before, on the Mississippi River system, from Galveston, Texas, to Mobile, Ala., from New Orleans up to Pittsburgh or up to St. Paul, Minn., and to places like Chattanooga, Nashville, and all the way to Tulsa, Okla., Martin said.
“Our immediate concern was getting the boat out of Chattanooga and to Louisiana, getting her secure and safe so we can start doing maintenance and repair work,” Martin said. “All the repair work in the interim is being done with donations and support from our existing owners. The Delta Queen has a huge fan base, and people have been very generous in working to rescue and preserve her. Regardless of the legislation, we still have to preserve this national treasure, and a lot of folks are working to make that happen.”
But regular overnight river cruises is the way to ensure the Delta Queen survives. “It allows you to generate the kind of revenue needed to preserve and keep her alive,” Martin said.
Why is that so important to so many people?
“The Delta Queen represents part of our history that we can’t get back,” Martin said. “She’s the only 1927 overnight paddlewheel steamboat out there, although there are replicas. An authentic steam-driven paddlewheeler is a step back in time to the whole Mark Twain era. That’s of importance to all of us. This vessel pretty much has a life of her own, and a huge fan base not only in America but internationally.
“For us, it’s a matter of saving a piece of American history,” Martin said. “We’re saving a National Historic Landmark. It’s in the National Maritime Hall of Fame, and was named a National Treasure on the National Register of Historic Places, the most elite of the national landmarks. The Delta Queen has all of this historical significance, and it would be a shame to lose that.”
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