The Vista Queen and Vista Star were found floating unmanned in the Duluth Harbor Thursday morning. Owner Justin Steinbach explains how hard it is to just take the boats off the dock. (Clint Austin/Duluth News Tribune)
Written by Brady Slater, Duluth News Tribune
The Vista Fleet of boats were tampered with, unmoored and left unoccupied and adrift for hours overnight near the Aerial Lift Bridge, avoiding what could have been a catastrophic loss for Justin Steinbach, owner of the tourist and event boats, Vista Star and Queen.
Steinbach arrived to the scene a short time after being alerted by phone call around 6 a.m., using authorities and on-call crew members to reach the boats and drive them back in behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center within 40 minutes.
He estimated the boats were unmoored and on the open water of Superior Bay for four hours or more.
Steinbach was cooperating with the Duluth Police Department on what he said was a criminal investigation when the News Tribune arrived on a sunny morning to see police combing through the Vista Queen in the Minnesota Slip off Harbor Drive, just up from the William A. Irvin tour boat.
“Somebody came between midnight and 2 a.m. and untied our boats,” Steinbach said, describing how the suspect accessed places on-deck in each boat to turn off shore power and even turned the smaller Queen around from shore using their hands — setting it down the slip and out into what is the last of the St. Louis River leading into Lake Superior.
The Vista Star appears to have bounced along the seawall behind Grandma’s Sports Garden, the owner said, but suffered no apparent visible damage. A DECC worker was the first to spot and report the boats undocked.
Lt. Jeff Kazel of the Duluth police would only confirm that the case has been assigned and is currently under investigation.
Steinbach described “the height of the drama,” as being a U.S. Coast Guard vessel maneuvering itself between the Queen and an early morning 1,000-foot lake freighter coming in under the Aerial Lift Bridge.
“The Coast Guard was in radio contact with the ship,” Steinbach said.
The potential for running aground and even sinking the boats was a $1.5 million proposition, said the owner, who seemed to have been spared damage and any obvious vandalism aboard the boats, which were searched by police and included the possibility of getting fingerprints, said Steinbach.
“Only if somebody knew our operation would you know how to untie the boats the way they did,” said Steinbach, who couldn’t recall any obviously disgruntled workers or former workers.
At its peak earlier this season, the Vista Fleet employed more than 50 people — lots of college students working for the summer, but also a well-heeled layer of experience, especially among its four captains who have each been with the fleet for a half-dozen years and more, Steinbach explained. Police were working off still images sent from Duluth police headquarters on North Arlington Avenue. Steinbach said there is video as well, from a surveillance camera positioned along Harbor Drive, of a suspect working alone to free the Queen.
“It takes us two people to unmoor at a minimum,” Steinbach said, describing how the person worked a series of exercises to shut down the shore power that runs generators, beer and food coolers and more — including pulling a thick-gage electrical cord connected to power on land that would itself hold the boats to the deck under still conditions.
Steinbach said it doesn’t appear as if the two ships connected with one another at any point. The first Vista Fleet tour on Thursday was set for 11:55 a.m., and figured to be on schedule, the owner said.
The Star had been out the previous night, put away by 5 p.m., but the Queen hadn’t been in use since a private party Tuesday, he said.
Steinbach said he would have to fill out a marine casualty report with the Coast Guard — a necessity anytime a vessel is impeded with in any way.