Alas, familiar waters await an industry sailing out of uncharted territory.
Uncertainty loomed over Adirondack tour boat operations last spring as COVID-19 infection rates soared and state-mandated countermeasures nearly shut down the tourism sector.
Although Gov. Andrew Cuomo in late May of 2020 permitted cruises, contingent upon social distancing guidelines, some companies bowed out from reopening public tours given the health risks and regulatory barriers of the time.
Raquette Lake Navigation Co.
The Pohl family in Raquette Lake withdrew $25,000 in private charter deposits after deeming the pandemic-induced business climate too much to bear.
“The 6-foot distancing kills us because our boat is small,” said Donna Pohl, daily operations manager for Raquette Lake Navigation Co. “And for us to have complied with the 6-foot distancing on all four sides of the table, we would have been able to seat maybe 16 people.”
Pohl and her husband, Dean, operate the 60-foot W.W. Durant on a lake free of competitors and, because roughly 80% of the shoreline is state-protected, rich with natural surroundings. The vessel is laden with decor close to the glitzy style of vacationers on Raquette Lake during the Gilded Age.
The couple’s love of history pushed them to ease back on a then-14-year-old construction venture to start a tour boat company. With their three fully grown children involved in current operations, Pohl said it warmly reminds guests of “The Waltons” cast from the 1970s.
Their guest list this year was limited to a number of private charters on their smaller second boat, the Avery May.
The W.W. Durant’s most public appearance in 2020 was during a celebratory wedding boat parade around Long Point.
Pohl said the business was saved by the federal government’s loan assistance program.
Additionally, her husband took on more construction projects to stay afloat.
“I would prefer to say this is our 31st year because I think we deserve credit for having survived last year,” Pohl said.
Raquette Lake Navigation’s greatest challenge this year, according to Pohl, has been finding staff to run the deck. The family typically relies on international workers for the season, much of whom have been stuck overseas as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
This struggle comes as they expect to transition the business to their son, Jim, and daughter, Rachel, the current beverage manager. Overall, Pohl is still optimistic about the path forward.
“Our way we earn a living is a lot like farming,” Pohl said. “You’ve got to earn the money when people are here.”
Where: 224 Main St., Raquette Lake
How much: $44 for group tours; private charters are determined separately
Fort Ticonderoga Carillon Boat Cruises
Like the Pohl family, Fort Ticonderoga halted Lake Champlain boat tours in the wake of the pandemic. It was not a difficult decision for the nonprofit museum organization.
“Can people sit together? We just didn’t know,” said Beth Hill, president and CEO of Fort Ticonderoga. “And it’s obviously a big expense to take a boat out of winter quarters and bring it all the way through the locks.”
Fort Ticonderoga’s 1920s-style Carillon was docked at Scarano boat builders in Albany over the 2019-2020 winter. It typically went through the Champlain Canal.
Taking the boat out that season from the Hudson River, Hill said, would have been “too risky.”
In a typical year, the Carillon, named after the fort’s Battle of Carillon during the French & Indian War, regularly departed during the summer months for scenic 75-minute tours at the southern tip of Lake Champlain’s narrows.
On its own, the 266-year-old landmark fort sustained significant traffic during the heat of the pandemic. About 30,000 visitors in 2020 attended the Lake Champlain fort.
Situated under the towering Green Mountains and the Southern Adirondacks, international crowds have flocked to the 2,000-acre historic site since it opened to the public in 1909.
The lake tour experience was added in 2015 to provide visitors with a different angle of history.
“For more than 100 years we did not have a boat, so the boat is somewhat new to our experience,” Hill said. “But still, it’s just one of the best features of the visit here.”
Fort Ticonderoga will reopen the Carillon to the public this summer under mask-only provisions. The first trip begins May 28.
Where: 102 Fort Ti Road, Ticonderoga
How much: Daily tours are $40 for adults, $25 for children 15 years old and free for children 5 years old and younger; private charters are $500 for two hours and $150 for additional hours
Adirondack Cruise & Charter Co.
For much of last spring, the General Schuyler was in storage for maintenance work. Its owner, Hal Raven, was uncertain whether or not he could profit off the public cruises around Saratoga Lake in 2020.
Raven reopened Adirondack Cruise & Charter Co. as the state lifted some tourism industry restrictions late last May. With seating nearly cut in half under COVID-19 regulations, the company received meager revenue from public cruises aboard the 24-seat General Schuyler. But its private charter service made up for lost revenue.
“What I saw is that people were coming out and could care less about the money,” Raven said. “They were willing to book any boats available, and any opening we had would be sold out.”
Much of the crowd was from New York City and Connecticut, according to Raven.
With sporadic bookings around the clock and bidding wars, Raven, who works full time as a railroad consultant, grew stressed. What’s more, Raven faced and continues to face a significant staffing shortage amid the ongoing private charter boom.
Many of his applicants have been unresponsive or have unsuccessfully asked for back pay to keep unemployment benefits. He expects to soon bring on new crew members and captains despite the shortage.
“The hardest part is getting captains that are well-trained and that meet my expectations in that they are very good with the people,” Raven said. “The most important part is not only that you drive a boat, but you have to be able to interact with the guests.”
Raven, who started the business in 2016, expects captains to provide different historical narratives on the tour each trip. Per the interest of private charter guests, the presentation’s length varies.
Where: Saratoga Lake Marina, 549 Union Ave., Saratoga Springs
How much: Public tour prices range from $15 to $30, depending on the age of patrons and time; private dinner cruises are $750; private charter prices are $725