"Fantasy" is docked at the Cork Factory dock in the Strip District.
By Brian O'Neill Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When you're a Pittsburgh guy and you buy a 70-foot yacht in New York, it's a long way home.
I reached Mark Schiller on Tuesday afternoon when he was still on the other side of Wheeling, W.Va. He'd been on the "Fantasy'' for most of the past seven weeks -- with a Halloween break to fly home and trick-or-treat with his 4-year-old daughter in Franklin Park -- and he'd gone more than 3,000 miles.
That would be from the Atlantic Ocean through the Gulf Mexico and then up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
I once flew from Pittsburgh to Newark, N.J., by way of Cincinnati, and I thought that was bad. But if you want to take such a big boat from New York to Pittsburgh to start offering party cruises, there are but two choices. Neither is great.
You can sail up the Hudson River, west on the Erie Canal and then through the Great Lakes to the rivers of the Midwest. But then you may find yourself humming that old Gordon Lightfoot song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,'' about the ship that sank in Lake Superior in 1975.
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
Capt. Schiller decided he'd prefer not to inspire any new folk songs on the big lake they call Gitche Gumee. Good thing, too, because while on this trip, he heard from another captain who encountered 12- to 15-foot seas on Lake Huron. The man told him he got off at the first dock and quit.
"His boat was an ocean-going vessel, meant to handle that,'' Capt. Schiller said. "We'd have been dead if we had gone that way.''
As for the gloomy economic skies stopping other entrepreneurs, Capt. Schiller and his partners sail blithely through them. They're launching Pittsburgh Luxury Cruises with "an anonymous group of mostly local investors.'' His wife, Janice, is president of the company, and friends, Merle and Mary Ann Crouse, help manage and run it.
"We think it's long overdue in Pittsburgh,'' Capt. Schiller said of his yacht. Taking nothing away from the Gateway Clipper fleet, he said, "They're riverboats.'' This will offer a different look for wedding rehearsal dinners and such.
He expects the Allegheny, the Ohio and the Monongahela to be much calmer than what he's seen.
The day after embarking from New York, he and his crew were about halfway down the Jersey Shore, listening to a weather prediction of a calm morning and afternoon followed by trouble around dinnertime. They figured that gave them time to make Atlantic City, but that proved another bad gamble on a town known for them. By early afternoon, the crew was bouncing like dice in a cup.
"We're in the wheelhouse,'' Capt. Schiller recalled. "We can hear tables and chairs being thrown around.'' They're going up 7- to- 8-foot waves and down the other side, and when a co-captain finally turns the boat toward Trump Marina, the high winds take out the front window. For the last hour of the journey, waves drench the crew.
And that was Day 2 of a two-month trip.
When they reached Jacksonville, Fla., late in October, the boat was pulled from the water and its bottom and hull were painted. The crew took a one-week break. A new crew arrived in the Sunshine State just ahead of Hurricane Ida. Another reason for taking the southern route was warm weather, but Ida blew all warmth away and held them up, too.
"When she moved and the winds were low," Capt. Schiller said, "we'd move. When the winds got high, we'd stop.''
"We didn't sleep a whole lot. There were 4- and 5-foot waves in the Gulf of Mexico, and we're in a dinner boat that's not meant to be in the Gulf of Mexico.''
This is the same group that has been hauling football fans to Steelers games for 10 years on its water limo, so they know the drill from here. The Coast Guard will inspect this boat. Mr. Crouse, who was on the boat for more than two weeks of the journey, said, "They'll find some stuff they want done and we'll do that.'' They plan to remodel and be ready by spring.
When the black-and-white boat with gold trim pulled into its Strip District dock at 23rd Street on the Allegheny about 10:30 a.m. yesterday, there were tears in the eyes of a tired, cold Capt. Schiller as he hugged and kissed his wife, who's expecting a baby girl in February. Daughter Ariana climbed into his arms and stayed there for more than a half-hour.
Yesterday was the Schillers' ninth wedding anniversary, and when he declared his wife the most understanding wife in the world, nobody gave him any argument.