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MAID PILOTS TAKE MIGHTY NIAGARA IN STRIDE

The captains with greasy hands and paint-splattered work clothes chuckle at the thought that sailing a 145-ton Maid of the Mist boat would be difficult.

The eight full-time sailors -- who make 22 trips per day on the famous vessels and have safely shepherded the likes of the late Princess Diana and her sons to the base of the Horseshoe Falls -- say sailing these tour boats is easy, enjoyable work.

Most of these sailors once handled ships on the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico that are 10 times the size of each of the four Maids.

"These boats are small to us," said Mal Bunting, a full-time captain who has spent 30 years with the attraction. "The long hours are stressful, though."

However small they might seem to their seasoned navigators, when the first of four Maid of the Mist boats dipped its rudder into the Niagara River on Thursday, it was undeniably a huge deal for the Niagara Falls economy.

The launch means a new tourist season has begun.

Before visitors can line up to pay $11.50 (U.S.) per adult ticket, test runs and a Monday inspection by the Coast Guards from both sides of the border will have to be completed.

Two boats on each side of the border will begin carrying passengers Thursday.

To be on the safe side, the Maid of the Mist changes parts more frequently than a normal operation. The bearings are replaced every five years, for example, where 10 to 12 years is the norm.

"Because of the conditions we're operating under we want to make sure they're safe," Bende said.

Those conditions include a 5- to 6-knot current as well as the force of the water underneath the falls, where sailors try to keep the boat stationary for up to six minutes.

Even the most senior sailors say the powerful falls keeps them on their toes at that point of the ride.

email: gnorheim@buffnews.com

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