NEW ORLEANS -- Nearly a year after the pandemic canceled the debut of the American Countess, American Queen Steamboat Company's fourth paddlewheeler, godmother Angie Hack cracked a bottle of Maker's Mark across the boat's boiler deck to launch its inaugural sailing.
"I can't believe we are actually here," American Queen chairman and CEO John Waggoner told guests just before the vessel was christened by Hack, one of his three daughters. "So I'm going to pinch myself before I start my speech."
Aside from the delay since last April due to the Covid-related shutdown in travel, last week the pandemic again threatened to sideline the launch, this time because of confusion over whether the Countess had been exempted from a CDC order barring any vessel from sailing in U.S. waters with more than 250 people on board.
The American Countess can hold up to 245 passengers and 110 crew. But American Queen said it had been permitted to launch the vessel with 249 people or less. The dispute, which Waggoner Sunday attributed to a clerical error, was resolved on Thursday, just four days before the naming.
"Today, we finally -- and I don't say that lightly -- we finally get to celebrate the inaugural cruise of this extraordinary vessel," a choked up Hack told the crowd of some 100 passengers invited for the preview cruise from New Orleans to Memphis.
She told of her father, "Papa John's," vision for the American Countess, which was built from a casino boat that was stripped to its shell, cut in half, lengthened by 60 feet and then "transformed into this world-class vessel."
"I challenge all of you to find the seam," Hack said.
Angie Hack prepares to christen the American Countess with a bottle of Maker’s Mark in New Orleans on Sunday. To the right is CEO John Waggoner and his wife, Claudette; they are Hack's parents. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser was among the VIPs on hand to christen the vessel and welcome cruise ships back to the Mississippi.
Last Monday, American Queen operated its first sailings since the pandemic with the first of two charters of the 166-passenger American Duchess. American Cruise Lines, meantime, on Sunday launched its first river cruise in more than a year with a sailing of the American Jazz.
Nungesser said he hoped the return to cruising on the Mississippi helps the state recover the record-breaking tourism numbers it was seeing before the pandemic.
"We're excited because these vessels will not only benefit New Orleans but the many stops along the Mississippi before they leave Louisiana," he said.
All guests were required to arrive in New Orleans the day before to be tested for Covid-19 before boarding. Starting July 1, the company will require that all guests are vaccinated.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly gave the date for the launch of the American Jazz. It is Sunday, March 21.