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THE FOUR MAID OF THE MIST BOATS AND THEIR CREWS LAUNCH ANOTHER SEASON

The eight full-time sailors who make 22 trips per day on the four Maid of the Mist boats have shepherded the likes of the late Princess Diana and her sons to the base of the Horseshoe Falls. On Thursday, they began their work for this tourist season.

By the time their work is done in the fall, 2 million more passengers will have enjoyed the ride.

The average opening day is May 1 but always comes after the ice boom has been removed at Buffalo, said Emil Bende, general manager of marine operations. After that happens, Bende rents an airplane to survey the amount of ice on the river, check the wind and make a final determination.

When it looks safe, Bende gives the thumbs up, and the newly patched, nonpermanent docks are set on opposite sides of the Niagara River.

Then the first boat, with its freshly painted hull, is slowly lowered into the water. This year, it was Maid of the Mist V, which serves the American side and holds 300 passengers.

Getting ready for opening day takes a lot of preparation. At the end of each season in October, sailors stay on another month to work on the boats.

"We do maintenance, cleaning, we try and repair as much as we can on the equipment because we don't know how fast the ice goes in the spring," Bende said. "Opening day is questionable."

Each boat must also be inspected by the each country's Coast Guard every five years.

"It was (Maid of the Mist) VI's turn this year, . . . and it was completely torn apart," Bende said.

By torn apart, he means the captains took out the engine, rudders and all major parts of the boat and laid them out to be carefully inspected.

Coast Guard members check for things like trueness of the rudders, which means they must not be bent or warped, and look for any wear and tear on the bearings.

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, whereas 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.

Over the years, the size of the boats has grown with their popularity, from a few 100-passenger boats that were retired in the 1980s and '90s to the two large boats that today carry up to 582 guests in Canada.

The first Maid was a sternwheel ferry with twin smokestacks used to transport goods across the river. Maid of the Mist was officially launched as a sightseeing tour in 1848.

Although the size of the ships has grown, the number cannot.

"We can't put more boats in. We're on a time schedule," Bende said. "We have a boat leave every 15 minutes, and as far as time, there are only four 15 minutes in an hour."

He said they don't want to increase the size of the boat, either, because it would inhibit the most spectacular thing the attraction has to offer: its view.

As Rod MacDonald, who sails one of the two American vessels puts it, "Our job is to make (guests) have fun and get wet."

MacDonald was sailing lakers -- 700-foot-long grain and ore ships that transport goods across the Great Lakes -- when he applied for a job with the Maid of the Mist.

"When I was on the lakes, I was never home," said the 43-year-old Ontario resident. "You miss your family."

Despite the 12-hour workdays sailors endure during the tourist season, MacDonald and the others say the draw is that they get four months off during the winter to spend with their families.

Now his children have begun working at the attraction. His daughter Leahann gets visitors into those recognizable blue ponchos, and his son Justin is a deckhand who ties up the boats when they come in to dock.

That's how MacDonald said he, his father and most sailors learned the trade.

"You work your way up," he said, "and smile a lot."

Richard Schuyler, the attraction's senior captain, has 32 seasons under his belt.

The 63-year-old Canadian was the captain of the boat that Diana, princess of Wales, and her sons, Princes William and Harry, rode when they visited Niagara Falls, Ont., in 1991.

He said he remembers the day clearly and was honored to take her aboard for the trip.

"It was Princess Di. She was my favorite," he said with a wide smile. "She was a really nice lady. . . . She had the two boys with her. They were a lot shorter then."

email: gnorheim@buffnews.com