Visitors to the charming waterfront village of St. Michaels come for the world-class museum, great shopping and restaurants and, for the last five decades, a highlight of the trip has been a voyage on the scenic Miles River aboard the Patriot, a replica of a 1930s steamboat.
“This year marks the 50th anniversary of Patriot Cruises and we are honored to be the stewards of this great local tradition,” says the Patriot Cruise’s General Manager Robin Marrah, who, with her husband, Captain John, have owned the boat since 2009. “The Patriot plays an important role in preserving the history of this special place. You can’t fully appreciate the beauty and the wonder of the Chesapeake Bay without getting out on the water.”
Daily, passengers board the big red, white and blue ship and climb the stairs to the upper deck to get a great view of the sights to come. The Patriot motors out into the harbor that was bombarded by the British Navy during the War of 1812. It takes its passengers up the Miles River through waters once plied by colonial sailors, Confederate naval officers, working watermen and famous yachtsmen.
In his narration, Captain John tells his passengers that the Patriot is the second oldest tourist attraction in town. The Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, near where the Patriot is docked, is four years older. For the next hour, the passengers learn about local history and the history of the grand historic homes that line the river banks and the lives of the people who built them and explains the habits of the wildlife that abounds on the Bay. The tour features information on the ecology and the environment of the region.
This is how a recent passenger described the Patriot on TripAdvisor: “The Captain slowed the boat to enjoy some dolphins running alongside, and a mother osprey feeding her young on a nest. He showed and explained the setup of a local crabbing boat putting out their baited lines for their catch and explained some of the information on the massive yachts at anchor outside the harbor in the Miles River, one so large it had a heliport and helicopter. Great for singles, couples or families and dog-friendly, too.”
The adult passengers frequently take advantage of the full bar to order cool tropical drinks while kids sip sodas and eat hot dogs. Once underway, Captain John invites the children on board to take a turn at the big ship’s steering wheel while he stands over their shoulder giving gentle instructions and making lasting memories.
Since the Marrahs have operated Patriot Cruises, they have expanded their offerings to include private as well as corporate events. They offer floating wedding rehearsal dinners, wedding receptions and even the wedding itself with Captain John officiating. The Patriot is also one of the two VIP venues for the annual St. Michaels Winefest, combining top-flight wine tasting with a river cruise.
Captain John says one regular event that has been very successful is the Island Music Cocktail Cruise on summer Saturday evenings. “We play island themed music and songs on request. Everyone has a great time with a little singing and dancing mixed in.”
In many ways, the Patriots (there have been two of them) have come to represent the gradual transition of St. Michaels from a working seafood and shipbuilding center to a more gentrified retail and travel destination.
Ed Heikes recalls that when his father, Jim, started Patriot Cruises in 1969, he based the old wooden boat first at the Crab Claw Restaurant on St. Michaels harbor and then next door at the fledgling Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. “Dad always wanted to work on the water, but he didn’t want to be a waterman. He was crazy about boats his whole life and was trying to figure out how he could get a job and be on the river every day. All this tourism was new, and he was looking for something that would fit in with that. Back when Dad got started, there were no places in town for people to even stay overnight.”
Jim Heikes bought a 65-foot fishing boat called the Miss Tek Ni Color in Destin, Florida, and sailed it up the coast to St. Michaels where he refitted it as a cruise vessel, complete with a new pilothouse and a fresh paint job. Ed says his father worked out deals with tour-bus operators who brought visitors from Baltimore and Annapolis over the Bay Bridge. He remembers that his father penned out a narrative for those first tours on a yellow legal pad, timing his trip to be just off certain landmarks as he was explaining their significance over the loud speaker. “One day, a gust of wind went through the wheel house and the paper blew over the side and he had to retrieve it with a boat hook.”
Ed says his father sold the boat four years later to Bob Lambdin, who grew the business and eventually ran other day-cruise boats and water taxis in Baltimore’s developing Inner Harbor. The ownership changed hands two more times over the years before the Marrahs took over.
The “new” Patriot, the steel-hulled, bluff-bowed cruiser built in 1989 in Virginia, attracts almost 20,000 visitors a year. Even in the heat of the summer, the Patriot offers creature comforts. “We keep the air conditioning at 72-degrees and that makes the passengers very happy when it its 98 outside.”
Robin Marrah says the Patriot has a lot of repeat visitors. “We have even had people who were married on the boat come back for anniversaries. We have a lot of fun with kids. Families have taken pictures of their kids driving the boat at age three and then they come back and take the same photo when they are four and five. We have a ‘season’ pass for people who pay an annual fee and ride the boat as often as they want.”
Over the last half century, Robin says the Patriot has become a floating fixture on the St. Michaels harbor and a familiar sight as it cruises up and down the river. “The Patriot itself has become part of the long and illustrious history of the Chesapeake Bay.”
For more information about Patriot Cruises and to purchase tickets online, go to www.patriotcruises.com, follow The Patriot on Facebook, or call 410-745-3100.