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Publicly uncharted waters Leaving Buffalo, the Marine Star's future is under wraps

The Marine Star, the derelict Great Lakes passenger ferry that has spent the last 12 years rusting along the Buffalo waterfront, is now on its way to Quebec, and possibly Europe.

But its fate -- reuse or the scrap heap -- remains unknown.

The 62-year-old vessel, once the largest and most luxurious ferry on the Great Lakes, was towed away from its moorings along Fuhrmann Boulevard early Sunday morning. After spending a night in Port Colborne, Ont., where it was inspected by Canadian authorities for sea-worthiness, it worked its way through the Welland Canal on Monday, under the tow of the tugboat Radium Yellowknife.

A representative of Norlake Transportation, the Port Colborne company hired to tow the ferry, confirmed it is headed to a Quebec port.

"She's going to Three Rivers, then she's going overseas," said Norlake's Ed O'Connor. "We've been told she'll be in Quebec for about a month, then another company will take over and take her to Europe."

O'Connor said the crews who prepared the ferry for departure from Buffalo last week were initially under the impression it was going to be scrapped, but now its fate is unclear.

"As far as we know, she's not scheduled to be scrapped. It's possible somebody in Europe has a plan to do something with her," he added.

Rumors that the long-idle ferry is destined for a scrap yard in Alang, India, have been filtering through the shipping industry for months. In late June, James Everatt, a Canadian businessman with an ownership stake in the Marine Star, insisted there were no plans to scrap the once-proud vessel.

"I don't care what people are saying, no final decision had been made," he told The Buffalo News.

Everatt, whose ownership group floated a $40 million plan to restore the vessel, did not return phone calls Monday.

Fred Langdon, owner of South End Marina, where the ferry has been stored since 1995, said the owners provided him little information about its future.

"About a month ago, they said it was being moved, but we didn't know until about a week ago when that would happen," Langdon said. "It was supposed to take off Saturday, but it was too windy, so they waited until Sunday morning."

As recently as Friday, TradeWinds -- a shipping publication based in Norway -- cited scrap industry sources who said several brokers in Alang, the world's ship salvage center, were negotiating to buy the Marine Star.

A Great Lakes shipping source who asked not to be identified said the planned layover in Quebec indicates that Empire Cruise Lines, which owns the ferry, is continuing those talks.

"The price of scrap metal is very strong, and the cost to renovate is a lot higher. She's got scrap written all over her," he said.

One recent estimate put its salvage value at $1 million. The Empire group is said to have paid $50,000 to $70,000 a year for dock rental, insurance and other storage-related expenses.

Built in 1945 in Chester, Pa., the Marine Star was designed as a troop transport ship to ferry U.S. troops across the Atlantic.

At the end of World War II, it underwent an $8 million transformation into a luxury-class ferry. Rechristened the Aquarama, the 520-foot-long day cruiser was the biggest passenger ferry to ply the Great Lakes.

The first new liner on the Great Lakes in 20 years, it turned heads with its capacity -- room for 2,500 passengers and 160 cars -- as well as its style. From its glistening corrugated stainless steel exterior side panels, to interior amenities that included two dance floors, a children's playroom with baby-sitting services, four restaurants and a cigar shop, the Aquarama was in a class of its own.

It was operated by Michigan Ohio Navigation Co., and its Detroit-Cleveland service was quite popular in the 1950s. But its massive size, a lack of overnight accommodations and high operational costs prevented its owners from turning a profit.

By the mid-1960s, it was sitting idle at a Muskegon, Mich., dock where it was laid up until 1987, when it was purchased by a Port Stanley, Ont., company for $3 million. The fading Aquarama was first towed to Sarnia, then to Windsor, where it remained on the shoreline.

In 1994, Empire Cruise Lines, whose major shareholders included Everatt, bought the ferry with the idea of turning it into a floating casino and returned it to its original name.

In August 1995, it was towed to South End Marina on Buffalo's outer harbor. While legal obstacles blocked Empire Lines from converting the Marine Star to a gambling venue, the company publicly maintained a goal of turning the deteriorating ferry into a cruise liner offering top-shelf travel on the Great Lakes.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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