River Cruise Ship Embarks on Inaugural Sailing After CDC Approval

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Last week we reported that a disagreement between American Queen Steamboat Company and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had resulted in the cancellation of the line’s planned March 21 inaugural sailing of its newest paddlewheeler, the American Countess. Happily, a last-minute reprieve has enabled the new ship to be christened and depart from New Orleans as scheduled.

american countess mississippi river
American Countess (Photo via the American Queen Steamboat Company Facebook page)

The cruise was canceled by the CDC on March 17, in what turned out to be described as a “clerical error.”

The CDC’s ‘Conditional Sailing Order,’ released on October 30, 2020, forbids the operation of any cruise ships carrying more than 250 people, including crew. The American Countess can carry up to 245 passengers and 110 crew members, which would exceed the CDC threshold. 

But the line says it always planned to launch the ship at reduced capacity — with the passenger and crew total below the CDC threshold — and that the CDC had been informed. A day later, the nation’s public health agency announced the cruise could go ahead.

READ MORE: Tired Of Waiting, U.S. Cruise Lines Are Heading Elsewhere

“We applaud the CDC’s swift review and reconsideration of our authorized passenger capacity for American Countess’ christening sailing,” the company said in a statement. 

All guests were required to arrive in New Orleans the day before the cruise to be tested for COVID-19. Starting July 1, American Queen Steamboat Company will require that all guests be vaccinated.

“I can’t believe we are actually here,” American Queen chairman and CEO John Waggoner told guests, as reported by Travel Weekly. “So I’m going to pinch myself before I start my speech.”

The christening, which saw ship godmother and Waggoner daughter Angie Hack smash a bottle of bourbon on the ship instead of the traditional champagne, came nearly a year after the original inaugural sailing was canceled by the pandemic.

american countess christening
The christening of American Countess (Photo via the American Queen Steamboat Company Facebook page)

Louisiana Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser was among the invited guests on hand to christen the vessel and welcome cruise ships back to the Mississippi. He told the audience that he hoped the return of Mississippi cruising would help the state’s tourism recovery.

American Queen Steamboat Company, which now operates four river paddlewheel ships, launched its first sailing in more than a year early last week, with the first of two full-charter voyages of the American Duchess on the Mississippi between New Orleans and Memphis. That vessel holds just 166 passengers and up to 70 crew, so it qualifies under the CDC order even without reduced capacity.

READ MORE: As Cruise Lines Resume Sailings, Masks Remain the Big Question

While the inaugural American Countess cruise was populated with invited guests, the first regular sailing is scheduled to depart Memphis en route to New Orleans on Sunday, March 28.

Small-ship coastal cruising and river cruising is just getting underway again in the U.S. after a year-long pause. American Cruise Lines (ACL) recently launched its first sailing since the pandemic began, when the 100-passenger Independence coastal cruiser set off on a journey from Jacksonville and Amelia Island, Florida en route to Charleston, South Carolina.

Meanwhile, pressure is increasing on the CDC to communicate the next steps it will require for large-ship cruise lines to prepare for a phased-in industry restart.

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