SOLAS Exemption Restored for Mississippi Riverboat

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Published Dec 6, 2018 1:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump signed the Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2018, including an amendment allowing the 1920s-era steamboat Delta Queen to return to service. The language exempts the Queen from certain fire regulations in the Safety at Sea Act of 1966, the federal law that implements IMO SOLAS within the United States' internal waters.

The steel-hulled Queen has a wooden superstructure, which does not comply with SOLAS' fire safety standards for vessels making overnight trips with more than 50 passengers. According to former Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft, the Queen has two additional features that raise questions for regulators: as of early 2017, her boilers were exposed to bare wood, and there was only one way to embark and disembark the vessel. 

The last Congressional waiver for the Delta Queen expired in 2008. She has been idle since, but Trump's signature paves the way to revive her operations.

The new exemption requires the Queen's operator, the Delta Queen Steamboat Company, to upgrade 10 percent of her superstructure per year to meet current fire-safety standards. In addition, it requires the firm to provide for multiple exits at both the bow and the stern, to prioritize fireproofing efforts in galleys and engineering spaces, and to post warning placards throughout the vessel noting that it "fails to comply" with Coast Guard safety rules. 

Cornel Martin, the company's president, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his firm couldn't put funding into restoration and upgrades until it had certainty about the Safety at Sea Act exemption. Now that the firm has secured approval to resume operations, it will replace her boilers, repair her piping, steam and HVAC systems and overhaul her paddlewheel. The company plans to complete the refit and begin offering 3-10 night Mississippi River cruises beginning in 2020. 

“Preserving the boat’s historic integrity and ensuring passenger safety are our priorities,” said Martin in a statement. “With this approval, we may now move forward with our renovations and return her the waterways, where she belongs.”

The Delta Queen has a long and storied history. She entered service in the 1920s, and she has carried three U.S. presidents and traveled over two million cumulative miles. The Queen was assembled and commissioned in San Francisco, where she originally served a river route to and from Sacramento. She was requisitioned as a U.S. Navy troop transport in San Francisco Bay during World War II. After the war's end, she was purchased by an Ohio-based operator, and she ran regular services along the Mississippi river system under several successive owners. She is a registered National Historic Landmark. 

The Delta Queen has received multiple Congressional exemptions from the Safety at Sea Act over the decades. The first, dating back to the law's implementation in the late 1960s, was intended to give her then-owner several more years to build a SOLAS-compliant replacement. Beginning in 1975, this replacement vessel - the Mississippi Queen - operated alongside the Delta Queen, which was not retired from service as originally planned. Both vessels were idled in 2008, and the all-steel Mississippi Queen was sold for scrap in 2009.