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Hornblower signs lease on Tahoe Queen

Rob Bhatt

Lake Tahoe Cruises, Inc., on Thursday announced closure on the deal that will allow Hornblower Yachts, Inc., to operate the Tahoe Queen at Ski Run Marina.

The two companies a day earlier completed negotiations in San Francisco on an agreement that will allow Hornblower to charter the 119-foot paddlewheeler.

A joint press release issued by Hornblower and Lake Tahoe Cruises sets May 22 as the target date for the Tahoe Queen’s maiden voyage under its new operators. The date coincides with the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, generally recognized as the beginning of Lake Tahoe’s summer tourist season.

However, Roger Murphy, Hornblower’s recently appointed general manager for Lake Tahoe operations, on Wednesday said this may be a difficult deadline to meet.

Plans to add two 500-gallon water tanks are still under review by U.S. Coast Guard officials, and installation cannot begin until the plans are approved.

Murphy said that the Tahoe Queen’s schedule will initially mirror the 500-passenger boat’s past operations under Lake Tahoe Cruises. For summer, this consists primarily of four sightseeing cruises from Ski Run Marina to Emerald Bay and wedding charters.

“I think it’s the best thing that can happen,” said Capt. Leo Son, who has piloted the Tahoe Queen for the past eight years and was retained by Hornblower. “It’s the best place for the boat to run. It is part of Lake Tahoe’s history at Ski Run Marina. I’m just happy to still be with the boat, no matter who is running it.”

While establishing its Lake Tahoe operations this summer, company officials will look at expanding service. One of Hornblower’s goals is adding a second, speedier vessel to its Lake Tahoe fleet for possible passenger ferry service to the North Shore, Murphy added.

Hornblower’s corporate offices are in San Francisco. The corporation recently formed a subsidiary company – Hornblower Cruises Lake Tahoe – to manage operations in the “Jewel of the Sierra.”

In 1983 Lake Tahoe Cruises, under its former president Joe Thiemann, built the Tahoe Queen at Ski Run Marina.

Marina owner Michael Phillips, citing a long history of business practices that allegedly harmed the marina’s reputation, refused to extend Thiemann’s lease beyond 1996.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency on Feb. 26 denied Thiemann’s permit to relocate to nearby Timber Cove Marina. Thiemann was shot to death that afternoon after he allegedly fired at gun at Phillips.

At the time of his death, Thiemann was trying to secure a roughly $2 million loan to refinance debts that included liens totaling more than $1 million against his company’s vessels.

Hornblower officials are reportedly helping Thiemann’s heirs structure a payout on these liens.

“We didn’t want to have a long-term agreement to operate the boat if it had a lot of liens on it,” said Hornblower Chairman Terry MacRae, who did not rule out a future purchase of the boat.

Murphy has already appointed a marketing manager and a marketing consultant, and plans on putting together staff for sales, marketing and food and beverage service in upcoming weeks.

The roughly half-dozen employees still with Lake Tahoe Cruises are likely to be kept by Hornblower.

Hornblower’s entry to Lake Tahoe coincides with a multimillion renovation of the marina itself. A new, 31,000-square-foot shopping center is scheduled to open in June, and the first phase of a nearby timeshare development opened in April.

In a proposed second phase of the marina renovation, Phillips and his partner, Dena Schwarte, seek improvements to the harbor and a possible pier extension.

Murphy, 60, is the son of a marine developer who built bridges across San Francisco Bay. He spent much time as a youth at a family-owned home on Lake Tahoe’s West Shore.

Murphy, in the 1950s, raced hydroplanes in lakes across the country. He said his top race speeds on Lake Tahoe reached about 160 mph, although he hit 190 mph during practice.

Murphy also helped found and operate Pier 39’s Blue and Gold Fleet, which has provided sightseeing tours and passenger ferries across San Francisco Bay since 1979.


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