CINCINNATI — Queen City Riverboats owner Don Jones emphasized his experience on the river when he asked Cincinnati's Park Board to choose his boat dock proposal over a rival bid by H. Hafner & Sons Inc.
“I grew up on the river. I also own Rivertowne Marina,” Jones told the panel Nov. 11. “I’m also a United States Coast Guard licensed captain. I’ve been a captain for 17 years, with an impeccable record, spotless record.”
But Jones has yet to tell the city about one aspect of his river experience: The U.S. Coast Guard ordered Queen City Riverboats not to carry passengers for several months this year after it failed multiple inspections with dozens of deficiencies.
In a series of interviews, Jones initially denied that his boats were idled and later blamed prior owners for maintenance problems he inherited when he bought the company in July 2020. He also questioned the relevance of Coast Guard inspections to his dock proposal.
“The Coast Guard doesn’t even inspect a dock,” Jones said. “Why are the two related?”
But excursion boat operators say it’s unusual for passenger vessels to be idled for weeks at a time. Yesterday, two of those operators asked the Park Board to do more due diligence before making its final decision.
“A dock is just a boat without a motor,” said Andy Storch, owner of Classy Venture Riverboat Charters. “If you can’t operate a charter boat safely how can you operate a dock safely?”
'Routine and unremarkable'
The WCPO 9 I-Team has been looking into the safety record of Queen City Riverboats since April, when the city was gearing up for its boat dock bidding process after the Park Board withdrew its request for the city to negotiate a no-bid contract with Queen City Riverboats.
Last November, Jones won the board’s unanimous endorsement of a plan to build and operate a dock in front of Cincinnati’s Public Landing. But critics warned it would keep overnight passenger vessels like the Delta Queen from stopping in Cincinnati.
In April, some of those critics alerted the I-Team that Queen City Riverboats had lost its Certificate of Inspection, a Coast Guard document that allows it to offer commercial passenger service.
“Whoever your tipster is either has bad information or poor intent,” Jones told the I-Team May 6. “We cancel cruises all the time just due to high water or drifts or debris and things like that.”
One day later, the Coast Guard confirmed Queen City’s fleet was ordered not to carry passengers.
Lt. Commander James Brendel said that inspectors uncovered “deficiencies for all of the boats” in the company’s fleet and those deficiencies had to be fixed before the boats could be used for commercial service.
“I’m not going to get into the levels of different things that we’ve issued,” Brendel said at the time. “We’ve been working with them over the last few weeks.”
Ten days later came this response from Jones, through his attorney:
“Following the purchase of Queen City Riverboats, my partners and I are preparing for our initial launch of two excursion boats. As part of that process, we are undergoing routine Coast Guard inspections and have been asked to do some minor maintenance and training. Such a request is routine and unremarkable. We have attended to the items highlighted by the Coast Guard and are awaiting a follow-up inspection. The safety of those who operate and ride on our excursion boats is our highest priority, and we expect to launch them soon.”
Checking the record
The I-Team made a Freedom of Information Act request in May for five years of inspection records for seven boats owned by Queen City Riverboats or Jones himself. Those records, mailed to the I-Team in August, showed 81 deficiencies on the seven vessels since July 2020, compared to 45 deficiencies for the same boats in the four years prior to that date.
“That’s a lot of deficiencies,” said Storch, a former Navy commander who operates a towing business on the Ohio River in addition to his chartering company. “In my experience in the U.S. Navy, that number of deficiencies, if that happened during an inspection, a ship captain or his boss, a commodore of the squadron, would be relieved of their command.”
Records show Jones stopped using two of the boats, while others remained out of service until deficiencies were resolved.
Some of the more serious violations involved crew training.
“Vessel crew was unfamiliar with basic operations of multiple functions of the vessel’s systems," wrote one Coast Guard official in an April 22 inspection of the Spirit of Cincinnati paddle wheeler.
On the 150-passenger Destiny yacht, an inspector noted May 4: “During drills it was apparent the master (pilot) was unaware of the function of bow thruster, ships internal communication or location of first aid kit.”
The Destiny yacht passed inspection and was cleared to resume passenger service Aug. 25, said Lt. Nicholas Olmstead, who replaced Brendel as the Coast Guard’s top local official in July.
Olmstead said the Spirit of Cincinnati was “able to carry passengers for a short period” in July. “When we went back to clear remaining deficiencies, other ones were noted that prevented them from carrying passengers,” he said.
The Spirit of Cincinnati is now in dry dock undergoing repairs. Olmstead declined to reveal what deficiencies were cited in the boat’s most recent inspection July 29.
'Most qualified guy on that river'
“Many of the things that we got on those boats, we inherited,” said Brendan Sullivan, a real estate developer who partnered with Jones to buy the company as part of a larger land deal. “The guy we bought them from hadn’t done any work on them in probably five years.”
Sullivan is the managing partner of Riverbend Development at Manhattan Harbour, which is building apartments and condos on the Dayton, Kentucky riverfront. Sullivan said he negotiated a two-phase purchase of land owned by Bob Nolan, who wouldn’t sell the land unless Sullivan bought the Queen City Riverboats business too too. When the deal closed, Sullivan said he invited Jones to co-own and manage the business.
“Don Jones is maybe the most qualified guy on that river,” Sullivan said. “At first, we thought we’d just relocate that business or sell it, but our intentions have changed. We think it’ll be a really positive attribute and amenity to the real estate that we do.”
Nolan said he is not to blame for the Coast Guard deficiencies that followed the sale.
“They just don’t have anybody that knows the business and knows how to run the boats,” he said. “When I sold out, we had four boats and they were all certified.”
Nolan’s former captain agrees.
“No boat around here has ever been out of service that long,” said Dennis New, who left Queen City Riverboats last July and now pilots the Anderson Ferry. “When they bought Queen City, Queen City had no crew because we were in the throes of the pandemic. But it was up to them to hire a crew and train a crew before they went into operation. That was the failure.”
New said the Coast Guard halted passenger service because of safety concerns.
“They didn’t know anything about the equipment and they couldn’t answer questions for the Coast Guard and they didn’t have a crew that was trained to do drills,” New said. “The biggest thing is the safety of the passengers. And if people working there don’t have a clue what they’re operating, then the passengers aren’t safe.”
Queen City Riverboats was asked about its safety record as part of the city’s bidding competition, according to records released by the Park Board yesterday.
Chief Procurement Officer Bobbi Hageman asked Jones in August to provide details about “any significant safety incidents” and Coast Guard “concerns and/or certification issues that have arisen in the past five years.”
Jones responded with an email that said the company “failed some mechanical aspects of our USCG annual inspection" but it has "complied fully with all of their inspection requests and requirements."
Park Board Chairman Jim Goetz told the I-Team in September that he wasn't aware of the Coast Guard deficiencies at Queen City Riverboats, but he added, "That would be something important to us to know" because it would "give us a background on the type of operation that bidder would be running."
Goetz did not ask about Coast Guard deficiencies when Jones presented his boat dock plan Nov. 11. But the company submitted a lengthy explanation about those deficiencies without disclosing the number of violations or mentioning that its boats were idled by the Coast Guard for several months.
"QCR’s team purchased the 30-year-old business about two years ago and inherited its employees and boat deficiencies," the company explained. "Due to missing a paperwork deadline, QCR missed the opportunity to have compliance issues either grandfathered in or judged by the more lenient pre-existing Coast Guard standards. Instead, the boats and employees were put through the newly enacted and highly exacting federal marine standards. As a result, maintenance items were identified and rectified that might have otherwise gone unnoticed."