Yukon cruise boat draws complaints

Posted: Monday, September 25, 2000

ON THE YUKON RIVER (AP) -- On a crisp September weekend, tourists aboard the riverboat Yukon Queen II took in the blazing yellows and burnt ochers of dying aspen and birch leaves as they sipped wine and nibbled turkey tetrazini.

While relaxing, a ride aboard the Yukon Queen is no lazy river trip. The $4 million, double-hulled catamaran, equipped with 4,000 horsepower, doesn't exactly snake through the river on its twice daily trips.

Powered by four 1,000-horse-power engines, the 99-foot Yukon Queen II travels at 40 mph along the Yukon River on the 100 mile trip between Eagle and Dawson, Yukon Territory. Kicking up a powerful wake, it sends swells lapping to the shoreline.

Many locals say the Yukon Queen is a safety hazard and a general nuisance. Holland America, the boat's owners, say the vessel is operated safely and is an economic boon to the area.

The boat dwarfs everything else on this stretch of the Yukon, including canoeists, kayakers, fishermen and recreational boaters in skiffs and rafts. A number of people who ply the river say they've been swamped by the Yukon Queen's wake and fear that an inexperienced boater will eventually drown.

''It's a dangerous situation. Sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt,'' said Mike Sager, who runs a canoe rental business out of his log cabin in Eagle. About half of Sager's clients return with horror stories about their encounters with the tour boat, he said.

The Yukon Queen's skipper disputes the stories of the vessels critics.

''It depends on your point of view,'' said captain, Al Bruce, who describes the wake as ''a very gentle roll.''

Locals on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border complain they've had their skiffs, tied to shore, tossed up onto the beach and damaged. Others say they have had their fish wheels and nets uprooted and sometimes lost.

''I had a 28-foot riverboat with two outboard engines. The Queen took it out and smashed it against the rocks,'' said Eagle resident Greg Birchard. He considered a lawsuit but figured it would cost him more than the damage was worth.

Bruce has heard the stories before and feels they're exaggerated.

''It's a very safe river to navigate. There's not very much traffic. We'll go for weeks at a time without seeing anyone,'' Bruce said from his perch in the wheelhouse.

When it crosses paths with another boat, the Yukon Queen always slows to minimize its wake, Bruce said, and the vessel even shifts into neutral if it appears the boater is heading to shore where the wake will be bigger.

Not only does the Yukon Queen always slow for others, it cuts the throttle when passing cabins, ecologically-sensitive areas, historical sites or boats tied to shore, he said. The vessel always has at least two or three crew members looking out for boaters, according to Bruce.

But problems arise when the Yukon Queen fails to spot a boater in time, either because of fog, topography or smoke from forest fires, Eagle and Dawson boaters said. The biggest danger seems to occur when people panic and gun it for shore. Although scrambling for firm ground in the face of an intimidating vessel is a gut reaction for many, it's safer to stay closer to the Yukon Queen and remain in the deep water where the wake is smaller, said Bruce and others.

''I always warn them and give them a lecture not to go to shore,'' said Colm Cairns, who rents canoes at Dawson City Trading Post.

The 110-passenger Yukon Queen II went into service on the river last summer. Holland America owned a smaller version of the Yukon Queen that it had operated on the river since 1988. The company buses cruise-ship passengers north along the Top of the World Highway to catch the boat.

Before 1988, another riverboat, called the Klondike, also took passengers on day trips between Eagle and Dawson, and by most accounts, the captain made no effort to slow down or be courteous to other boaters. The Klondike was not owned by Holland America.

The company has gotten a bad rap because of the Klondike even though it had nothing to do with that vessel, Bruce said.

The new Yukon Queen was built in western Australia by a company that specializes in designing high-speed, low-wake ferries. Several boats similar to the Yukon Queen are operating in busy ports like Sydney and Tokyo that have ''no-wake'' rules, Bruce said.

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