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King of the Empress

PRESCOTT:  The Canadian Empress is about to set sail from the Fort Town to its next port of call - Brockville - with passengers from all over North America when its indomitable owner Bob Clark climbs aboard.

Surveying the scenery on the St. Lawrence River under sunny skies on the top deck with its shuffleboard and oversized checkers, Clark stops to lean down and speak into a vent linked to the vessel's dining room on the level below.

"This is God," he says in a booming baritone voice. "Bob Clark will be joining you for dinner tonight."

Welcome aboard one of Canada's last built overnight cruise ships on another voyage through the Thousand Islands marking the unique boat's 27 years of sailing the St. Lawrence River and Ottawa River.

Piano music starts playing in the Grand Saloon as Clark settles into his seat at a table near the bar and the ship heads west past Maitland. The pianist, however, is conspicuously absent.

"Oh, that's just Harvey," said Clark with a dismissive wave of a hand towards the vacant piano bench. "He's my invisible rabbit," he said, referring to the classic Jimmy Stewart movie by the same name.

At 108 feet long and 30 feet wide, The Canadian Empress is a small ship compared with most cruise liners. It's modeled after the steamships that cruised the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence from the early 19th century to the late 1940s.

40 passengers, including some from as far away as California, Georgia, Saskatchewan and Indiana, are en route to Brockville on a four-day cruise from Ottawa to Rockport. They are gathering in the replica of a turn-of-the-century Victorian dining room - complete with portraits of Queen Victoria and John A. Macdonald - for dinner as the ship makes its way to the gateway of the Thousand Islands in Brockville.

 Since 1981, the Canadian Empress has shown thousands of passengers from all over the world the sights of the St. Lawrence River and Ottawa River, with stops in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Prescott, Brockville and Rockport and tours during stopovers of the area's tourist sites.

The cruise ship has 32 staterooms and a capacity of 60 passengers and offers up to six-night cruise packages, including fine dining and entertainment aboard.

Clark designed his dream boat on a piece of paper and hunted down furniture, old clocks, doors and materials for its turn-of-the-century tin ceilings to replicate another era. But make no mistake: the most interesting fixture on this cruise ship is the owner himself.

Canadian Empress has been a labour of love for Clark since he came up with the idea nearly 30 years ago with some neighbours on Treasure Island - connected by a causeway to Kingston - over "beer talk" on a Sunday.

The former Kingston Businessman of the Year and developer of parks for mobile homes came up with the plan for the Canadian Empress at 43 when he had already taken an early retirement.

Clark said he wanted to build a cruise ship so people could "wine, dine, and dance and meander through all of the islands." There was nothing else like it on the St. Lawrence River.

"I said 'jeez that would be a neat thing. That would be slick,'" he said. "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. The idea wouldn't go away."

But Clark's vision for a replica riverboat overnight cruise ship for the Thousand Islands and elsewhere in the region was not easily launched.

The bank turned him down six times for a loan even after he had put up a third of the $1.7-million for the project with the Ontario government putting up another third under the Eastern Ontario Economic Development Plan.

When the bank turned him down the sixth time, Clark jovially told the bank employee he would be applying for a seventh time.

"I just believed in it," he said of his unwavering perseverance. "I hate the word can't," he said. "I just hate it."

The Canadian Empress launched in 1981 only to hit a rock on its maiden voyage on the Rideau waterway system, forcing an evacuation of passengers, repairs to the vessel and rerouting future sailings to the Ottawa River and St. Lawrence River. Clark remained unfazed.

 "You get a problem, you stop. You fix it. You get at it."

The ship's crew of about a dozen, including stewards, cruise director and chef, is used to Clark's all-hands-on-deck approach to business.

"This is his baby and he has a great interest in it," said Captain Terry Thomas, who has been at the helm of The Canadian Empress for 20 years.

The ship caters to an older crowd with most passengers over the age of 55. While it may be no Love Boat, there have been some on-board romances that have sparked aboard the ship.

They include none other than Capt. Thomas himself. The Kingston native met his wife Diana, of Columbus, Ohio, when she first stepped aboard the Empress some years ago. They married last year.

First mate Tristan McCoubrey, also of Kingston, says the scenic voyage always reveals uncharted sights and surprises no matter how familiar.

"It never gets boring even if you've seen it 1,000 times," he said. "There's always something different."

 Many of the staff are long-term employees - including the entertainment. A trio from Cornwall has been playing big band music on the ship for over 20 years.

"He's a good boss," said Moe Lemieux, a pianist and singer for the band. "And he's a good businessman. He runs a tight ship."

The gregarious Clark proves popular with passengers. Lorraine Graham, of Saskatoon, approached him on the observation deck at Blockhouse Island for his autograph.

"It's beautiful," exclaimed Graham. "I can't say enough good things about it. It's wonderful. We've been on cruises many times and this is the best."

At "71-years young," Clark is well-seasoned in the lore of the Thousand Islands and it doesn't take much prompting to get him to tell some stories.

He jokes his wife Myrna, of 43 years, who is accompanying him on this overnight voyage, is the "real boss." The couple join passengers throughout the season between May and October for sailings.

The Canadian Empress is a frequent anchor at the dock at Blockhouse Island in Brockville. Its passengers dance while the trio plays "Moon River" against the milky reflection of the moon outside on the river with the backdrop of Hardy Park and boats in the marina. Brockville's clock tower and churches steeples can be seen from the windows of its staterooms.

Wendell Bunting and his wife Connie, of Indianapolis, Indiana, found out about The Canadian Empress online.

"It's just amazing," said Bunting of the cruise as the boat heads past Singer Castle on Dark Island towards Rockport and, finally, Kingston for its last day. "The scenery is incredible and the food has been excellent."

Clark's first mate, Myrna, says the ship has a family-like atmosphere with so many long-term employees and passengers who return repeatedly - including one couple who made over 100 voyages on the ship.

The couple spend holidays cruising on other riverboats around the world, including Mississippi and China.

 But Clark never likes to be away for too long from the St. Lawrence River aboard the cruise ship and a business many said would never set sail.

Back at Blockhouse Island, before taking Myrna by the arm for one last dance as the band strikes up "Blue Moon," Clark said, "We just don't appreciate our country enough."

He waves to the other passengers when the song's over and leaves the Grand Saloon.

There's no announcement from on high, but the King of the Empress, it seems, is saying good night.

By Kim Lunman

For more information about the "Canadian Empress," see and to learn more about the building of the" Canadian Empress" by Robert W. Preston see the TI Life Book section

Kim Lunman is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Reader's Digest, The Calgary Herald and other newspapers. This article appeared in a series on the Thousand Islands called “Island Treasures” published by Recorder and Times as a souvenir magazine in September 2008. 

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Peter Lutz
Comment by: Peter Lutz ( )
Left at: 10:54 PM Tuesday, February 17, 2009
As a current cottager on Treasure Island in Kingston and an avid boater I especially enjoyed the story. We'll look for the Canadian Empress when the River reawakens in the next couple of months.