(Recently was in USA Today)
NEW ORLEANS — There’s a new royal of riverboats on the Mississippi.
The company that operates the much-beloved American Queen on Monday officially welcomed a second vessel to the river, American Duchess, with a christening ceremony along the waterfront of New Orleans.
Marissa Applegate, daughter of American Queen Steamboat Company chairman John Waggoner, served as godmother for the vessel, smashing a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon against its front railing in lieu of champagne.
“She surely lives up to her royal name,” Applegate told an audience of invited guests at the event, noting upscale amenities on American Duchess that include two-level loft suites — a first for a riverboat in North America.
Applegate also talked movingly about her father, who she described as having an unceasing work ethic. She said it was evident decades ago when he got his start in the maritime world as a captain on a sports fishing boat.
“It has been such a joy to stand by my father and watch him grow this company from the ground up,” she said.
American Steamboat bought and rebuilt an existing casino vessel, the Isle of Capri, to create the American Duchess — an ambitious undertaking that Waggoner likened to bringing a baby into the world. The conversion included the addition of a third deck to the vessel as well as a working paddle wheel.
Initially “it was pretty fun … but about a month into the project, I started to get the morning sickness,” Waggoner said in a speech at the event, joking about construction headaches that included delays caused by high water on the Mississippi. The ship’s debut eventually was pushed back by two months.
“There’s been a lot of pressure to meet our deadlines and finish up the hundreds of projects on board, with a lot of stress for many people,” Waggoner said, equating the pain of the final weeks of work to the pain of childbirth. “But here we are today delivering this marvelous vessel.”
The ceremony also included the presentation of the ship’s Certificate of Inspection from the head of the U.S. Coast Guard’s New Orleans office, Capt. Wayne Arguin. He continued the baby-making analogy by quipping that the document was “like a birth certificate.”
Like the American Queen, American Duchess will sail on the Mississippi between Red Bank, Minn. and New Orleans. It also will cruise on the Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois rivers, with fares starting at $2,999 per person.
Billed as an all-suite vessel, American Duchess features an unusual number of large accommodations. Three Owner’s Suites measure 550 square feet, and there also are four of the Loft Suites that also measure 550 square feet. Standard cabins measure 240 square feet, which is large by cruise industry standards.
American Duchess also has unusually high ceilings on its first two floors, a remnant of its origins as a casino vessel. The floors measure more than 18 feet high. The ship also is slightly wider than the American Queen. The result is a vessel with notably spacious public rooms including a two-story bar area with ceilings more than 36 feet high and a restaurant with soaring windows looking out over the water.
The use of a bottle of bourbon to christen the ship was unusual. Maker’s Mark chairman emeritus Bill Samuels, Jr. who also spoke at the event, noted that the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II used a bottle of Scotch to christen Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth in 2010. Samuels also recounted the story of how his father and a Louisiana congressman secretly swapped a bottle of Kentucky bourbon for the champagne used to christen a submarine near the end of World War II.