For more than 150 years, the iconic Maid of the Mist tour boats have ferried millions of awe-struck passengers on tours of Niagara Falls. In the 2014 season, Maid will have company.
Holding exclusive rights to operate from the Ontario side of the gorge will be a newly built fleet owned by Hornblower Yachts LLC. Hornblower will operate two 700-passenger catamarans, built by Hike Metal of Wheatley, Ontario, at a cost of $6 million each. Maid will continue to operate from the New York side.
The competing tour vessels are the result of a protracted no-bid-contract controversy that saw Maid of the Mist Steamship Co. lose its longstanding pact with Canada’s Niagara Parks Commission. Hornblower won that job by guaranteeing the Parks Commission $500 million over the life of a 30-year deal and now controls the launch the Maid vessels once used.
The new 85-foot catamarans have steel hulls and aluminum superstructures. They’re powered by a pair of 450-hp Scania D113s, turning five-bladed props. A third $3 million 72-foot guardian craft will carry 150 passengers and be used for overflow crowds and private tours. It can tow the catamarans in an emergency.
The company will face competition this season, as Hornblower begins service from the Canadian side with two newly constructed catamarans, including this boat, above, under construction at Ontario’s Hike Metal.
Jeremy White, port engineer for Hornblower, said the catamaran design was chosen because its modular design makes it easy to disassemble for transport and reassemble once it’s lowered into the gorge.
The design provides a stable platform for guests as they move from side to side for a better view. It allows for a wheelhouse design halfway between the first and second decks so passengers on the second deck can see over it. Passengers can board onto either deck. The shallow-draft vessel can operate at low water levels.
The water levels in the gorge drop as much as 13 feet at night as less water is allowed over the falls. Hornblower will be able to run sunrise and night cruises, when the falls are illuminated. Maid of the Mist offers neither.
When Hornblower won the Canadian contract, Maid’s future seemed to be in jeopardy. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Maid owner James Glynn worked out an amendment to Maid’s existing 40-year contract, signed in 2002. The deal guaranteed New York an additional $105 million over the life of the contract and Maid agreed to spend $32 million to renovate the former Schoellkopf Power Station site and turn it into a dry dock for its two boats, Maid of the Mist VI and Maid of the Mist VII.
That deal spurred two lawsuits — one by Hornblower, which argued that New York should have opened tours from the American side to bidding. The other suit was filed by the Niagara Preservation Coalition, a group that tried to block the conversion of the historic Schoellkopf site. Maid of the Mist was not named as a defendant in either action, said the company’s attorney, Brian Gwitt. “Maid of the Mist is taking the high road and feeling validated,” Gwitt said.
In both cases, courts ruled against the plaintiffs, but appeals are pending.
“I think we should win,” said Rich Jacobs, counsel for Hornblower. “The law is very clear in this matter (regarding opening bidding).”
Maid spokesman Kevin Keenan said the creation of the new dry dock ensured “business as usual” this spring for Maid. On Oct. 31, 2013, both Maid vessels were hoisted out of the water for maintenance and winter storage. “We will provide passengers with the iconic Maid of the Mist experience that they’ve come to expect, and that only the Maid of the Mist can offer,” he said.
Each Maid boat carries 600 passengers. The 74-foot Maid of the Mist VI has been in operation since 1990. Maid of the Mist VII, in use since 1997, is 80 feet long. Both will have a new paint scheme, Keenan said, making “Maid of the Mist” more prominent, and passengers will be able to book tickets online — a first. Passengers can still board Maid at its familiar launch site at New York’s Niagara Falls State Park.