Paddle-wheeler has antique charm, plus all the modern conveniences.

This may be due to the depth of his involvement in the design and construction of the 360-foot cruise vessel Empress of the North.

Empress of the North on its way out of Vancouver.
   Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

Wengel captained the paddle-wheeler Queen of the West on the Columbia River for American West Steamboat Co. When the owners made the decision to build a larger paddle-wheeler for the Columbia as well as for Alaskan cruises, Wengel, who is also vice president of marine operations, became involved in all aspects of the new vessel’s design. Then while the boat was being built at Nichols Brothers in Freeland, Wash., in 2002 and 2003, Wengel lived onsite in a trailer.

One of the perks of this kind of activism is the captain’s office, a few steps down from the wheelhouse. It has windows on two sides, is adjacent to his quarters and opens onto the port-side promenade deck. This was a design improvement that makes it a more suitable space for meeting with one of the 85 members of the crew, while providing Wengel with a view equal to any that the 235 paying passengers have from the boat’s 112 staterooms. Of the crew, 20 are deck and engineering, while the balance provide a high level of hotel and catering services to the guests.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

The paddle wheel, which is over 36 feet tall, is driven by a 1,000-hp electric motor.

The staterooms are decorated in a frontier Victorian style, and most have private balconies. All have water views. Visiting Empress during a daytime stopover at the Port of Vancouver, British Columbia, my primary interest was in the propulsion and navigation aspects of the vessel. But Wengel’s enthusiasm for the passenger areas and their décor was infectious. He walked me down the companionways, explaining that they have been built wide enough — 6 to 10 feet — for guests to appreciate the hundreds of thousands of dollars of art that was purchased for the vessel.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

Capt. Bob Wengel oversees the vessel from its port-side controls.

One companionway is devoted to historic photos and paintings of the Klondike Gold Rush era, another to Lewis and Clark, yet another to Pacific Northwest aboriginal paintings and carvings. One display case is filled with jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs, lending emphasis to early Alaska’s connections with czarist Russia.

The public and dining rooms are no less resplendent. Aft, on the top deck, the Calliope snack bar is done up in gay 1890s stripes. Two decks down, the Paddlewheel Lounge is set right ahead of the boat’s big red paddle wheel. From windows across the stern, passengers can watch the “big wheel keep on turning,” while they hum the tune of Proud Mary. On the main deck forward, a showroom with tables, a bar, a stage and a small dance floor invites passengers to enjoy the entertainers who come aboard at each of the vessel’s many stops. In Vancouver a musician came aboard and left with the vessel for an evening cruise up nearby Howe Sound. In the morning the entertainer was dropped off to a water taxi outside the port, while Empress continued on to her next stop.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

The Romanov Dining Room can accommodate all 235 passengers in a single seating.

Aft on the main deck is the formal Romanov Dining Room, capable of feeding the full complement of 235 passengers in a single seating. In the center, under the chandelier, the captain’s table promises that special attention cherished by waterborne travelers over the generations. Wengel brings to the table 20 years of navy experience and over 20 more years on tugs and passenger vessels. But conversation is not limited to the captain’s sea stories. “It is fun,” he said. “The passengers all want to talk about what a good time they are having. When they are on the boat, they aren’t interested in the stock market or who is running for governor of California.”

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

A companionway decorated with art by native Americans from the Pacific Northwest.

Wengel is much more than an affable storyteller, and Empress is no dowager. The wheelhouse, while sporting a huge, wooden ornamental wheel, is the state of the art for modern passenger transport. Its electronics include a new Leica MX420 DGPS integrated with an automatic identification system, as currently mandated for passenger vessels. The readout listed the names and showed the bearings of several other cruise ships in the harbor. Midship on the instrument console are the four propulsion controls, designed and fabricated by Vancouver-based Prime Mover Controls. Two wheels control the direction and speed of the boat’s twin Schottel z-drives that provide the main propulsion. A third identical wheel serves the bow thruster that sucks water up from the vessel bottom and then jets it as directed. On the starboard side of the console section with these controls, a fourth control provides clutch and speed control for the boat’s paddle wheel.

While the paddle wheel is essentially redundant in terms of propulsion, it is used when maneuvering fore and aft while docking or for quiet propulsion when whale watching. The wheel alone can move the boat at a respectable 6 knots. The z-drives can move Empress at her 14-knot design speed. At that speed, the paddle is kept turning fast enough to prevent drag but not enough to take load off the z-drives.

All main controls are replicated in port and starboard wing consoles for docking or maneuvering in confined spaces. A full set of controls is also in the engine room.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

Chief Engineer Brian Elliott with one of the two Schottel z-drives that constitute the primary propulsion system. The z-drives, in combination with a bow thruster, give the vessel excellent maneuverability.

With a nod in the direction of the 14-story-high, 1,950-passenger Sun Princess and the 781-foot, 1,440-passenger Volendam moored nearby, Wengel explained, “A big ship like that is your destination, but on a small ship like this, we take you to a lot of destinations. We include shore excursion tours at each stop.”

On a typical 11-day Seattle-to-Alaska tour, Empress visits Victoria on southern Vancouver Island and then cruises overnight through the Gulf Islands to arrive in Vancouver at 0800. The vessel leaves there at 1630 and travels for two days to Ketchikan, Alaska. This is the longest uninterrupted haul on the voyage. Once in the sheltered waters of Southeast Alaska, the passengers get to see Petersburg, LeConte Glacier, Sitka, Glacier Bay, Skagway, Tracy Arm and Juneau. At Juneau all passengers leave the ship to fly back home. A fresh complement of passengers boards, and the crew retraces the route in a southward direction.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

One of the two 2,000-hp electric motors that power the z-drives. Five Caterpillar diesels energize the generators that produce electricity for the ship’s various systems.

In Alaskan summer and during the winter schedule along the Columbia and Snake rivers, Empress’ 12.5-foot draft allows her to go where the large ships cannot. “On the rivers, we’ll run in 16-foot depths over the bars,” Wengel explained, “but mostly we have 25 feet. In Alaska we go through Wrangell Narrows, while a lot of the big ships avoid those narrow passes.”

The ship’s quiet comes not only from the paddle wheel. Her diesel electric power allows for steady rpm on the diesels and silent acceleration on the electric motors. “You’re used to hearing the engines rev up and slow down, so you know things are happening,” Wengel chuckled, “but when you speed up an electric motor, you don’t hear anything. We dump the exhaust out under the paddle-wheel extension, so there is almost no noise at all.”

The obvious question about the suitability of a paddle-wheeler for crossing some of the open waters between Seattle and Alaska, like Dixon Entrance, gets a quick reply from the captain. “We tank-tested this hull at the University of British Columbia. We can run into 6-foot seas without getting the bow wet, but we also have enough flexibility built into our schedule that we never have to do anything that would even make the passengers uncomfortable.”

The boat has 8 feet of freeboard amidships, with the deck following a shear that rises to give 14 feet of freeboard at the bow. The main engines and generators are on the main deck aft of the Romanov Dining Room. Four Caterpillar 3516B diesels each turn a 1,825-kw generator. A smaller Caterpillar 3406 powers a 315-kw genset for hotel use. These generators provide power to a pair of 2,000-hp electric motors, located in the hull one deck below, that power the Schottel z-drives. They also provide 1,000 hp to the bow thruster and another 1,000 hp to drive the paddle wheel. There is ample power to run all four at once, if required.

Image Credit: Alan Haig-Brown

Empress of the North draws just 12.5 feet, allowing it to go places larger cruise ships cannot.

This is Chief Engineer Brian Elliott’s first experience with diesel electric, and he is well pleased with its flexibility. A single engine can be taken off line at any time without stopping the vessel, and the steady rpm on the diesels saves on fuel and wear.

For anyone accustomed to the complex angles and Cardan shafting required to align engines with z-drives on most tug boats, the z-drive compartment on Empress is a revelation. A 2,000-hp electric motor is so much smaller than the equivalent diesel that it can be fitted easily in a relatively small space and at any angle to drive through a shaft to the z-drive.

From the main-deck engine room, a door leads aft to the paddle-wheel extensions. Elliot pointed out the 1,000-hp GE motor that turns into a massive 32-ton Lufkin gearbox containing 600 gallons of lube oil for the gears that give about a 90:1 reduction. Beside him, the mass of the paddle wheel rose up bright-red and powerful.

The boat has a 58-foot, 4-inch beam. The paddle wheel spreads across 32 feet of that width and is 36 feet 6 inches in diameter.

The paddles themselves are each formed from a pair of 4-by-12-inch planks set side by side. Even though it may be somewhat redundant, there is a magic in this big wheel.

This magic pervades the whole of Empress of the North, but there is no question that, from her navigation systems to her safety and comfort considerations, this is a thoroughly modern vessel. Wengel noted with pride the placement of the U.S. Coast Guard—required signage. He was able to persuade the Coast Guard to give him latitude to display the signs in a manner that would not detract from the vessel’s appearance, while still giving them suitable visibility. He also pointed to banisters that were specified as aluminum rails in the original design but were changed to ornate castings to maintain the riverboat style. However, he didn’t hesitate to take the elevator.

Asked about crossing the notorious Columbia River Bar with a paddle-wheeler, he dismissed any concern. However, he did point out that on the repositioning leg from Puget Sound to Portland, the passengers will be bused around the open-ocean parts. This boat is about providing passengers with all the ambience of an older and grander era with all the safety that modern electronics and technology can provide, but none of the old-time discomfort of sea travel. •

By Professional Mariner Staff