Cleveland dinner boat shares the river with lakers and more


As master of one of Cleveland’s premier dinner boats, Capt. Jim Dale must cope with difficulties including freighter traffic on the narrow Cuyahoga River, drawbridge closings and Lake Erie chop.

Sometimes, it’s a challenge just to undock from his home berth.

Dale is captain of Nautica Queen, a 132-foot tour vessel that has served as a party and wedding venue in Cleveland since 1987. Rated for 380 occupants, the boat regularly handles lunches and dinners for crowds as large as 300. In addition to the fine cuisine, the two- or three-hour tours allow guests to feast their eyes on waterfront scenery including dazzling lakeshore sunsets, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame building and the city’s working harbor. 

Transiting the river and lakeshore means sharing the water with lakers, salties, tugboats and other commercial vessels. The ancient Native American word “cuyahoga” means “crooked river.” Indeed, the waterway remains notorious for its sharp bends and tight spaces, and voyage planning is necessary to reduce risk and avoid delays. 

“The whole river is tough to navigate as a rule,” Dale said. “You can see it really gets interesting when there is vessel traffic, and with the bridges it makes for close-quarter maneuvering.”

Capt. Jim Dale is at the helm while his mate and rotational captain, Ed Broski, also stands watch on the bridge.

An April 15 cruise saw Nautica Queen host a group of 90 local accountants for an evening of dining, dancing and blowing off steam on the tax preparers’ equivalent of New Year’s Eve. They received a two-hour, 15-minute tour of the river and lakefront. 

Visibility was super, but it was a little windy. For Dale and his mate and deck hands, skill and communication were necessary just to get underway. The wind was pushing against the dock, so the crew manipulated a spring line at the stern to help Dale pivot off the dock. He moved forward about eight feet, received the “all clear” from watch standers, then backed down to nudge the bow away from the pier.

“With the way the wind is blowing, I had to kind of kick her in the tail a little bit just to get the nose to pop out,” Dale said. 

Nautica Queen’s homeport is along the Flats district, on the west shore of the Cuyahoga River near the heart of the city. The boat first pointed outbound to exit the river and tour the lakeshore at sunset. Dale’s track line quickly brought the party past the bending so-called “Old River,” which was previously the riverbed before a massive civil engineering project carved a straighter shortcut out to the lake in the Ohio Canal era of the 19th century. The Old River is the home of Great Lakes Shipyard and the Great Lakes Towing tugboat fleet. 

Immediately Nautica Queen encountered its first barrier to navigation. Norfolk Southern railroad’s N.S. No. 1 lift bridge, one of the nation’s busiest freight train arteries, is known to local mariners as the “Iron Curtain” because of the seemingly nonstop train traffic that keeps the bridge occupied. 

Deck hand Joe Slusarski manipulates a stern line while Nautica Queen departs its dock in the Cuyahoga River.

Earlier, Dale avoided N.S. No. 1 because the 630-foot laker Manitowoc needed to exit the Old River and transit the bridge. After that, five short blasts from the bridge tender meant the bridge needed to go down for a train. While waiting for an opening, Dale pointed the boat’s nose against the starboard riverbank, into the 15 mph wind, to hold his vessel’s position.

After some radio conversation with the tender, one long and one short blast signaled that the bridge was being lifted and it was Nautica Queen’s turn to move. Dale backed away from the bank, got the bow pointed outbound again, passed through the open bridge and soon was exiting through the breakwater and into the Lake Erie inner harbor area — just in time to sail a few miles westward and give the weary accountants a chance to enjoy a vivid springtime sunset over the lake horizon.

The difficult undocking and the holding pattern at the lift bridge prompted deck hand Joe Ihrig, Nautica Queen’s veteran engineering guru, to go below to check on the propulsion system. The main plant is a pair of Detroit Diesel 871s, with Twin Disc marine gears powering 42-inch four-bladed props. The primary genset is a 100-kW John Deere/Kohler.

Ihrig checked measurements for rpm, oil pressure and water temperature and entered the readings into the engineering log. He used a hand-held digital infrared temperature gauge “gun” to test the temperature of various piping from the main engines. He would repeat the process every hour.

“My temperature will fluctuate five degrees,” Ihrig said. “That was a perfect example. He was working it hard back and forth to maintain his position in the river.”

Deck hand and engineering specialist Joe Ihrig logs performance data from Nautica Queen’s propulsion plant.

After the foray out along the western lakeshore, Dale turned Nautica Queen eastward, past the Port of Cleveland docks where the 656-foot “salty” bulk carrier Federal Danube was docked. Soon the boat reach the eastern shoreline and the accountants were able to shoot lakeside photos of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame building, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, and the Cleveland Browns’ football stadium.

All the while, Dale kept an eye on his radar and electronic charting system to stay abreast of what was happening on the river. Even before casting off, he listened keenly to his radio, studied the automatic identification system to check for freighter traffic and adjusted the dinner boat’s departure time accordingly. That’s how he avoided Manitowoc on its outbound transit earlier in the evening. A particularly familiar neighbor is American Courage, a 634-foot taconite carrier.

Although the navigable channel can be as narrow as 45 yards wide, lake freighters can meander their way 5.6 miles up the river to the Mittal Steel facility, which marks the end of the federally maintained 27-foot channel depth. 

“Keeping a tight schedule is critical for us, especially when we have three cruises. If we get trapped upriver because of a freighter, it makes for a tricky schedule,” said Dale, a former golf pro who is also a qualified marine surveyor.

In addition to the lakers and oceangoing behemoths that call at Cleveland’s coal and steel terminals, Dale must contend with the tiniest of vessels that share the river — competitive rowing sculls. Over the past decade, interest in the sport has boomed on the river, with the Cleveland Rowing Foundation overseeing more than 1,500 high school, college and adult competitors. The boats are a constant presence on the waterway for most of the year. Chase boats, with radios, keep in touch with other vessels to help everyone avoid each other, Dale said.

The boat’s port-side naturally aspirated Detroit Diesel 871 main engine. 

“We make sécurité calls and they also make sécurité calls,” Dale said. “So everybody knows our intention, and that’s not only for the rowing club, it’s for the bridge operators and also for the commercial traffic.

“When you get rowing traffic and freighter traffic at the same time, it makes you pucker a little bit.”

As darkness set in and Nautica Queen re-entered the Cuyahoga River, the tour turned to Cleveland’s lit-up skyline and its myriad bridges. Upstream from his home dock, one interesting passage for Dale is the city-owned Center Street bobtail bridge, one of the nation’s last remaining swing bridges, and vicinity. 

“This is the narrowest pass in the river,” Dale said. “Because it’s a narrow span, it also generates the most current — lots of current. During heavy rains, with storm sewers spilling in, this becomes a whole lot of fun. The freighters monitor the outflow, and if it’s too great, they will just wait. It is not safe to come in.”

To make matters even more challenging, the area includes a 90-degree turn known as Superior Bend, near the Columbus Road Bridge, a lift bridge that features a rare incline, followed by Irishtown Bend. Upriver, a 60-degree turn is dubbed Collision Bend. Dale frequently glances at his anemometer. 

“We get prevailing westerlies. Northeast is a pain for us. North is a pain for us,” Dale said. “If you lose your sense of windage, you can make just horrible decisions. … There is hard edge up here that will rip the guts out of any freighter, or us, if you line up wrong.”

Nautica Queen not only shares the river with lake freighters and  tugboats, it also must avoid the growing number of competitive rowing sculls. The rowing club’s chase boats stay in radio contact with the commercial vessels.

On this voyage, Dale turned his vessel around just below the Carter Road Bridge — one of four vertical lift bridges on the river — and headed for home. “My worst scenario is to be up at the turning basin and have a freighter poke its nose in,” Dale said. “It’s like a big hopscotch match.”

The river was quiet during this transit, however, and Nautica Queen made it downbound, sailing again past Superior Bend and the Center Street swing bridge.  

Nautica Queen was built in 1981 at Blount Marine in Warren, R.I. It operated on Tampa Bay until 1987, when it moved to Cleveland.

Counting up all the lunch, dinner and custom cruises, Nautica Queen makes 300 cruises annually from Easter to New Year’s. The order of each tour and track line often varies based on the length, time of year, sunset, weather and other factors. While the accountants’ Tax Day cruise stuck to Lake Erie’s shoreline, the boat’s certificate of inspection allows the boat to sail farther out into open waters from mid-April through September.

Private events range from radio station promotions to fraternity parties to weddings. Dale himself will preside over 30 or so weddings this summer. Nautica Queen’s crew is looking forward to next July’s Republican National Convention, when the boat will be booked solid every night.

The approximate route of Nautica Queen during one mid-April dinner voyage. From late April through September, the boat’s tours can extend about a mile out into Lake Erie if weather conditions are favorable. Sometimes the tours enter the Old River bed.

Pat Rossi illustration/Dom Yanchunas photos/Sources: Nautica Queen and U.S. Coast Guard


By Professional Mariner Staff