Paddle-wheeler to stir up Inner Harbor charters

January 27, 1994|By Wayne Hardin | Wayne Hardin,Staff Writer

The first paddle-wheeler to ply its trade in the Inner Harbor in 60 years was formally introduced to Baltimore yesterday.

Although the Harbor Belle, a 64-foot, 10-inch steel-hulled replica of an 1890s Mississippi River side-wheeler, is still enjoying better weather in Miami, it will soon finish its contracts there and head north for a March arrival in the Inner Harbor.

J. Leonard Schleider, owner of the Belle and Schleider Caterers and Cameo Caterers here, announced details of the Belle's arrival in the Maryland Room of the World Trade Center.

Come April 15, Mr. Schleider, whose firms are the caterers for the boat, will offer private charters, corporate events and public cruises on the boat.

"We want to be right in the middle between the smaller excursion boats and the large ones" as a tourist attraction, he said.

The two-deck Harbor Belle, certified to carry 149 passengers, seats 80 for full dining and will have a limit of 125 people, he said.

Its side-wheels are just for show. Two 140-horsepower engines do the work.

The Belle will be moored "somewhere between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point," Mr. Schleider said. It now floats at the pier of a Miami condominium in its pre-Baltimore incarnation as the Spirit of Miami.

The Harbor Belle is "a dream I conjured up four years ago," said Mr. Schleider, a caterer for 34 years. That's when he catered on the Clipper City, the only comparable-sized excursion boat in the harbor. He saw the Belle advertised for sale in a boating publication, appreciated its "style and grace" and "made a deal."

Skipperliner Industry, on the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis., built the boat in 1986. It's seen its share of America since then.

"It left our yard April 26, 1986, as the Hiawatha," says Doug Shupe, Skipperliner purchasing agent. "It was taken to Lake City, Minn., about 50 miles south of Minneapolis."

Don Punkka, who will be captain of the Belle in Baltimore, first encountered the replica there in 1990.

"I was hired to deliver it from Minnesota to Florida," Captain Punkka said in a telephone interview from Miami. "I brought it down the Mississippi to the Ohio, east to the Tennessee and south into Alabama, then through the Tenn-Tom Canal to Mobile."

From Mobile, Captain Punkka and three crewmen took the Hiawatha/Spirit of Lake City/Spirit of Miami/Harbor Belle across the Gulf of Mexico to Clearwater, Fla., then by inland waterways to Miami -- 2,500 miles and 23 days from Lake City.

Now reunited with the replica, he will take it on a more direct route on the 1,200 miles to Baltimore -- via the Intracoastal Waterway and Chesapeake Bay. "We'll run days and decent weather," he says. "With good weather, we can make 80 or 90 miles a day. It should take two or three weeks. We need to have it in early for painting and to dress it out."

Captain Punkka, in his 30th year as a captain ("I started very young"), said he has a couple of years of experience here, operating the Pilgrim II, an antique 98-foot motor yacht.

Yesterday's announcement was held 21 stories above Pratt and Light streets, the area where hundreds of real steamboats once filled the harbor. The Old Bay Line, the most famous, operated between Baltimore and Norfolk for more than 100 years.

Its last side-wheelers similar to the type replicated with the Belle were the Carolina and the Virginia, built in the 1870s. Both were 251 feet long and operated for 50 years or more.

Even though the debut reception featured seafood gumbo and mesquite-grilled chicken, Mr. Schleider said he won't ignore local tastes when the boat begins operation: "Don't worry, we will be serving crab cakes on the Belle," he said.

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