Call of Leadership

The Call of Leadership

Want to go sailing around Lake Michigan? Then meet Patrick McKee, President of Aquastar Cruises.

Patrick shares his family’s generations-old connection to the maritime industry, the process of acquiring and renaming the Aquastar, and the exciting range of themed and public cruises they offer on Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan.

The discussion highlights Aquastar Cruises’ contributions to the community, their dedication to safety, and their commitment to creating memorable experiences for passengers.

Links:

Aquastar Website: https://aquastarcruises.com/

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Show Notes:

00:00 The McKee Brothers’ Dilemma

00:23 Welcome to Total Michigan

00:51 Introducing Patrick McKee and Aquastar Cruises

01:47 Patrick McKee’s Background and Family Business

05:00 The History of Aquastar and Its Predecessors

07:47 The Rebirth of Aquastar

12:49 Aquastar’s Themed Cruises and Community Engagement

14:36 How to Experience Aquastar Cruises

21:25 Seasonal Highlights and Special Events

24:15 Conclusion and Contact Information

Transcript
Patrick McKee:

My brother and I looked at the numbers and said

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not so sure we want to pay that.

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But word got out in Muskegon

that The Precious Port City

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Princess was leaving town.

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The only people that could save

it were the McKee boys if they

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exercised their right of first

refusal and matched the price.

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Max and I looked at each other

and thought, Ah, what the heck?

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Hello, everyone,

and welcome back to Total Michigan,

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where we interview ordinary Michiganders

doing some pretty extraordinary things.

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I'm your host, Cliff DuVernois.

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So I'm in Muskegon.

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Muskegon has got miles and

miles and miles of shoreline.

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Which means they have a ton of

boats, they have a ton of ships.

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And in doing the research for the

area, trying to figure out who I

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would like to interview, uh, this

one place popped up because it is

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just crazy popular with people who

like to spend time on the water.

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So with that being said, today I want to

introduce you to the president of Aquastar

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Cruises, and that would be Patrick McKee.

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Patrick, how are you?

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Patrick McKee: Fine.

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Thanks Clifford.

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I'm glad to have you in Muskegon today.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): It's

an absolutely beautiful day.

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And right now for those of you that

watch on YouTube we're actually

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sitting on the deck of the Aquastar.

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And getting ready for a new season here.

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So Patrick if you would

just tell us real quick.

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What is Aquastar cruises?

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Patrick McKee: Aquastar Cruises

is a tour boat providing

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cruises, public and private, on

Muskegon Lake and Lake Michigan.

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We go out Wednesdays through Sundays.

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And the boat tours It has a capacity

of 150 passengers, two decks, two bars.

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And it's a lot of fun if you're in

the Muskegon area because, uh, if you

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don't get a, if you don't have a boat

and you want to get out on the water,

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Aquastar's the way to do it and watch

a beautiful West Michigan sunset.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Definitely.

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Yes.

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And Patrick if you would, just tell us,

where are you from, where did you grow up?

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Patrick McKee: I grew up, like

you, on the east side of the state.

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But always had a connection

here to Muskegon with a

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family business and cousins.

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And so I've been coming to

Muskegon since the:

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with a business, a family business

we have here at the Mart Dock,

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where the Aquastar departs from.

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so, here we are, at the, at the Mart Dock.

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that's my connection here

with Muskegon, but, um, I did,

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I did grow up Detroit area.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Ok.

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So, now, let me ask

you this question here.

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At what point, because,

from what I understand, your

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family has been on the water.

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You were talking about your grandfather,

you were talking about your dad.

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Is that how you got interested

in being on the water?

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Patrick McKee: guess you could say I

fell into it that way, yeah, always

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had a fascination with the, uh, the

company I'm with here, It's 100 years

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old and has been involved in commercial

shipping since throughout that time,

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as well as some other endeavors.

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So the Aquastar, which we started in

:

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Is this something

where you said, you know what?

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I want to get into the family business.

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Did you try to go off on your own

and like, you know, be an accountant

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or something like that first?

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When did you join the family business?

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:Patrick McKee: I joined in:

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Prior to that, I was working in Boulder,

Colorado at a cross, cross cultural

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training company, believe it or not.

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This company, before the world

really went global, there was a

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company in Boulder that trained

people on their overseas assignments.

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And major multinational companies

like GM or GE would send their, their

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business people to Boulder to learn

about the country they were going

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to, whether it was Brazil or Belgium.

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We teach them business practices,

culture, how to get around the city.

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Basically how to not make a

fool of yourself at a cocktail

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party, to avoid cultural clashes.

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And I was in marketing for that company.

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So the fellows who ran it

were ex Peace Corps guys.

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And all very worldly.

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And I'll say out of college that was

a fascinating business to get into.

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Later, I, uh, met a, a

gal from Michigan and,

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Cliff DuVernois (2):

Oh, famous last words.

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Ha ha ha

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Patrick McKee: and, uh, my

name's Patrick, her name's Patty.

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We thought it was a match made in heaven.

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so I moved back to Michigan in 91.

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I got married and, um, the, uh, worked

in another part of, of the business,

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the parent company of, of the Aquastar.

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And, um, when the Aquastar started in

:

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Nice.

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Now where did you go to college?

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Patrick McKee: University

of Colorado, Boulder.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Oh, interesting.

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you study when you were there?

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Patrick McKee: Economics.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Interesting.

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What was it about economics?

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Patrick McKee: economics?

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It came to me.

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Um, you know, it was one of those

ones I seemed to do well at.

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There were some great professors

there that were, well known

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and wanted to learn from.

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it just seemed better than

basket weaving, I guess.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): On Skeegan Lake.

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Definitely.

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So you move back to Michigan.

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You're getting into the family business.

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And now was this something

your grandfather started?

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Patrick McKee: Yes.

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My grandfather and his brother

started the business in:

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So, they, uh, primarily

as a mining company.

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But also shipping that 30s.

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And passenger vessels.

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They operated the Milwaukee Clipper.

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Departed from this very dock where

the Aquastars is now birthed.

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And the Milwaukee Clipper, now a museum on

Muskegon Lake, is another fascinating site

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to see if you happen to be in the area.

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It's open for tours in the summer.

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as far as other passenger vessels, I guess

you could say that, yeah, it's in our DNA.

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It was a bit before my time, but the

company also operated a vessel called

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The Aquarama, which carried 2, 500

passengers and was a ship that ran between

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Detroit and Muskegon in the, uh, rather,

Detroit and Cleveland in the 50s and 60s.

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Now, the unique color scheme you see

on the Aquastar here is you might

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say, uh, homage to the old Aquarama

with its aqua and red colors.

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it was sort of a streamlined,

modern type of styling.

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So we've given a nod to

that with the new Aquastar.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): And in

addition to because you're talking

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before about passengers, was this

passengers and automobiles as well or

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Patrick McKee: The, the Aquarama, in the

old days that, uh, Famous old vessel.

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Yes, that was passengers

and carried autos.

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The Aquarama carried over 200 automobiles

automobiles and and the getting back

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to the Milwaukee Clipper that also

carried 160 automobiles as well as 900

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passengers between Milwaukee and Muskegon

from the forties until until:

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It's last season.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Man there has

to be some kind of great, appeal

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for people to take a boat across

Lake Michigan versus driving around

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Patrick McKee: around?

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Well, you know, it's a bit of a

shortcut, and why not relax and

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sit back, listen to some music?

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now there's, those days

are, you know, in the past.

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And now there's the Lake Express.

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But not quite the same, not the, not the

leisurely cruise, more commuter style.

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But we've still got the Milwaukee

Clipper to visit and, Take a

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look as it's permanently moored.

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Now, on our Aquastar cruises, we, we

pass by the Milwaukee Clipper, so you

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get a waterfront perspective from it.

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And, it's Art Deco stylings are,

uh, it's a, it's a unique boat.

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And it's really a very beautiful

streamlined boat that I

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encourage anybody to visit.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Sure.

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And so you were talking before

about the Milwaukee Clipper,

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and you had the Aquarama.

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How did the Aquastar join

your fleet of vessels?

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Patrick McKee: Well, I'll go back to a

little history about the Aquastar itself.

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:It was built in:

Mackinac Island ferry from 66 to 86

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with the Straits Transit Company,

going between Mackinac City and St.

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Ignace, and, Mackinac Island.

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In the late 80s, it was purchased by

a Muskegon family, who brought it here

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and converted it to a dinner cruiser.

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They named it the Port City Princess.

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And it ran off our dock here at

the Mart Dock for years and years

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it was it was very popular then.

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And The family that operated it,

um, Sylvia was in her 80s and

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decided she'd like to retire.

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Now, we had a right of first refusal

on the, we had a right of first

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refusal while it was at our dock.

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Never really expecting the boat

to come back to come our way.

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But one day Sylvia came waving a

contract to my brother and me saying

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Boys, I I've got it sold the Port

City Princess is leaving town.

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It's it's going to Charlevoix,

Michigan It's been purchased by a

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group up there and they're going

to operate it on Lake Charlevoix.

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And now you want to if you

want to exercise your right

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of first refusal, here you go.

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My brother and I looked at the numbers

and said not so sure we want to pay that.

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But word got out in Muskegon

that The Precious Port City

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Princess was leaving town.

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The only people that could save

it were the McKee boys if they

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exercised their right of first

refusal and matched the price.

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Max and I looked at each other

and thought, Ah, what the heck?

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You know, um, Passenger boat business

is in our DNA, you might say.

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It's not something we were used to.

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Now we operate several tugs

and barges on the Great Lakes.

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And in the past, we've moved stone

and sand and iron ore and coal.

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It's a little different than passengers.

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Rocks don't talk back,

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Cliff DuVernois (2): No, they don't.

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Patrick McKee: But we, uh, we

thought, hey, this will be fun.

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And it's a good thing for Muskegon.

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Let's do it.

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first thing we did was,

uh, come up with a plan.

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With a plan to rename the boat.

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And we, uh, had a contest on the radio

and there were many great entries.

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Two that we really liked that

stood out were the Aquarama II.

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Someone understood the history

and remembered the old Aquarama.

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It was actually part of the Muskegon

skyline for years and years, as it sat

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in the Mart Dock for decades, really.

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And another entry that we liked was

the, uh, Marine Star, which was the

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former name of the old Aquarama.

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We thought, hey, you know what?

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Let's award two grand prizes.

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And we'll name two winners.

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And we'll combine the name Aquarama and

Marine Star and call it the Aquastar.

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And that's how the name came to be.

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:now we've been sailing since:

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But to start out, we had a gala

event at the Mart Dock with

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Miss Michigan, Emily Sioma.

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And, if you remember her, she, and, we,

uh, christened the boat with my brother

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Max's daughters, uh, Maria and Caroline,

and my daughter Jane, and Miss Michigan.

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And when they smacked that bottle

across the bow, the Aquastar was born.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Nice.

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Now to, to take a step back here.

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When, when this, when this

lady owned it, retired at the

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age of 80, which cracks me up.

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83.

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Okay.

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All right.

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Who's counting?

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? Uh, . Um, so she's got this boat.

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And you're talking about like we is

spreading that the boat's gonna leave

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and it seems like the general area

just wasn't none too happy about that.

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What kind of a like impression

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Patrick McKee: I've heard it

described, uh, this boat as

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one of the gems of Muskegon.

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And it's, I think it is.

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I think if you come out on, and you

want to have a nice relaxing time, or

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you want to rent it for an event, a

wedding, or a corporate event, or a

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party, it gets a lot of people together.

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And there's nothing like that boat, water

atmosphere, you know, you get the music

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happening and whatever, whatever mood

you want, if you want mellow reggae, or

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you want it rockin on the dance floor.

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You know, We'll read the

mood and we can do it all.

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And, mostly people just like to

relax and go out and have a drink

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at our bar and watch the sunset.

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And, uh, it's an enjoyable thing and,

We're, we're, it's kind of a fun business.

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We, we enjoy it.

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And the crew seems to have a good time.

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Of course, safety first.

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And that's the most concerning thing.

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We have a well trained crew and

experienced and knowledgeable captains.

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so it's, uh, if, if, if anyone wants

to come out for a cruise you can see

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our, our schedule at aquastarcruises.

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com And, uh, we, um, offer cruises that

are themed, that are very popular are

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Polynesian Adventure Cruise where we have

the Pacific Island dancers performing

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their, their uh, traditional hulas.

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And of course everyone gets

a lay as they come on board.

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And we have a limbo contest and

give away some prizes for trivia.

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And then we've got oh, we've got a Parrot

Head Cruise with Two Dudes and Flip Flops.

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Now that's very popular.

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They get the crowd into it.

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And we offer beer specials

on Land Shark Beer.

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We, we try to get in the spirit of

it and, and that is always a benefit

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to help the Alzheimer's Association.

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Um, The Two Dudes and Flip Flops,

that's one of their pet projects.

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And, um, we back them with five

dollars from each ticket going to the

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Alzheimer's Association after that cruise.

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And I also offer up several

raffles with proceeds going towards

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Alzheimer's Association for that.

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Um, We've got of course our 4th of

July cruise where you get the best

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seat in the house for the 4th of

July fireworks over Muskegon Lake.

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That one, um, that sells

out quickly every year.

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And, uh, some of the other ones we

have, we do a lot of benefit cruises,

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which we're happy to do for the Wounded

Warriors Project, for the Humane Society,

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for Age Well Services, the YMCA, uh,

the Civic Theater, the Muskegon Civic

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Theater, with our cabaret crews.

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Many themed cruises.

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We even have a whale watching cruise that

we had last year that was very popular.

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Now, we're not guaranteeing

you're going to see whales.

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But um, you know, you might win

a t shirt that says you were

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on the whale watching cruise.

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Cliff DuVernois (2):

Nice For our audience.

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We're going to take a quick break and

thank our sponsors when we come back.

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Patrick's going to share a little

bit more about the Aquastar and

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we'll also talk about what you

can expect when you come here.

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We'll see you after the break.

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Hello everyone and welcome back to

Total Michigan, where we interview

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ordinary Michiganders doing some

pretty extraordinary things.

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I'm your host Cliff at Duvernois.

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Today we're talking with Patrick McKee

of the President Aquastar Cruises.

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And before the break, we were talking

about the 83 year old lady who came

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around and said, You can buy my boat.

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And Patrick and his

brother said, Yes we will.

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And, uh, Patrick, what I would

like to do is So you've bought

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the Aquastar, which that in and

of itself is absolutely amazing.

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But you bought the Aquastar.

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Talk to us about kind of like that, that

transition process of bringing something

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that's purely dedicated to, to cruises.

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It's now something that you and

your brother are focusing a lot

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of time, a lot of energy, and

obviously a lot of money into.

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But talk to us about what was that

like to bring the Aquastar around?

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Patrick McKee: Well we

had a lot of fun with it.

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As I mentioned we had

a contest to rename it.

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And then we had to Reinvent, uh, the

vessel itself, uh, with its color scheme

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that mimics the old Aquarama, largest

vessel on the, uh, passenger vessel on

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the Great Lakes from the 50s and 60s.

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So that's, that's where we

get our color scheme from.

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And of course every year

there's great maintenance.

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We're here today.

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We've got a lot of guys

working on the boat.

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We're getting new paint this year,

um, as, as we touch up every year.

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But we're completely Absolutely.

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completely painting the entire boat

this year, so it'll be fresh for

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the season, which begins May 23rd.

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And that's a Thursday cruise.

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And one thing I wanted to mention is, we

partner with several breweries throughout

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the, uh, West Michigan area, including

Pigeon Hill, Oddsides Ales, Grand Armory.

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And, um, we feature their beer for

a night with, uh, giveaways and

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experts, uh, for, from, from the

brewery to answer any questions.

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And, um, so the fans of those breweries

are always on those, uh, cruises.

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And you can see when they are on

our, on our website, aquastarcruises.

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com.

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Yeah.

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Uh, and so there's always a lot of

sprucing up to do preseason training.

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We have, we have some new crew members.

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Um, We have some members who crew

members who've been with us for 30 years.

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And you met one of them

today, Captain Ellen.

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She's been with the boat since

it's Port City Princess days.

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And, um, we, so, so we've

got an experienced crew.

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But we are always hiring new kids.

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And, um, we like to, uh, the

deckhands, uh, bring them along.

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And, uh, most of them are, are interested

in, uh, a life at sea, you might say.

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So we, uh, are often a stepping stone

for, for, for kids who end up, uh,

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someday on a Great Lakes freighter.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Right.

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And when you're, when you're talking

about, like, the, the, uh, the, the Port

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Princess, the Aquastar, did a lot of the

events that were happening in the Port

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Princess transfer over to the Aquastar.

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Did you guys just completely

redo it and say, you know what?

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We're gonna wipe the slate clean.

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We're gonna start all over.

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Patrick McKee: Well, one of our most

popular events and the most popular

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event is our Polynesian Adventure Cruise.

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And that has been happening with the

same group of Pacific Island dancers

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out of Grand Rapids, a dance, dance

group that's a Polynesian dance group.

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That's, that goes back to the, uh

to the Port City Princess Days,

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and that's one that we continued.

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Uh, The rest of the, the rest

of the themed cruises are,

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uh, are, are relatively new.

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Um, Some of them we've just come

up with in the last few years.

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Uh, so, um, we're always adding new ones.

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Um, One, one fun one we do is, uh,

we call it the Cops and Kids Cruise.

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And we get, Members of the police force,

Muskegon Heights, Muskegon County, and

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Muskegon proper, together with what we'll

call at risk kids in the neighborhoods.

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And we'll find these kids through

clergy, and teachers, and counselors.

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And of course it's all free.

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And we have pizza for

everyone, and a dance off.

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And it's a way, with a DJ, it's a way

for, um, kids, local kids to have their,

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uh, have an encounter with, with a police

officer in a fun, relaxed atmosphere

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and to be introduced to policemen and

see, and police women and see that

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they're, you know, the regular people

and people you, that are approachable.

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That's, that's been very successful.

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We do that in August.

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Uh, so, So some of these, uh, ideas for

cruises, uh, come from crew members.

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Uh, Ellen, who you met earlier today.

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The whale watching cruise was her idea,

and, uh, you know, of course that's

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a bit tongue in cheek, but, uh, we'll

have, we'll have a Pirates Kids Cruise.

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We, we don't do it every year, but we'll

probably mix that in this year, again,

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that, that's, that's fun for the kids.

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So, uh, our, uh, Well, let's see.

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We've got a mariachi band

that happens in September.

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That's great.

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And we have a lot of local bands

that people have their own following.

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And I'll tell you, it can be very spirited

on the boat or it can be laid back,

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depending on, you gotta check the schedule

to see which band's playing that night.

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And we have a fun Halloween

cruise to end it up.

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And that's always on the second week of

October for the last cruise of the season.

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And that's one of our

most popular cruises.

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It can be a little cold

out there in October, but

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everyone's got their costume on.

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And we have a band.

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And of course we have the whole main deck

that's completely enclosed and comfortable

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with booth seating and high top tables.

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That's where the restrooms are.

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And there's a bar there, down

there as well, on the main deck.

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So, um, You know, you have a

day in October, you can still

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go out on a cruise, big windows,

and enjoy the water from there.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): And now so you talked

about how the typically the season stops

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about the second weekish of October.

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What do you open your doors?

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Patrick McKee: The week before

Memorial Day, uh, this year

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it's Thursday, May 23rd.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): And now, when

you're talking about, because you're

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talking about like all these themes.

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But you just do regular

cruises too, right?

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If a family just wanted to come

and watch the sunset over the

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water or something else like

that, you have also those as well.

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Patrick McKee: That's right.

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Most of, most of our, uh, uh,

cruises, uh, are regular, regular

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cruises, often with live music, um.

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And so we have those.

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And the themed cruises are,

you know, maybe one of the

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cruises every week or two.

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It's kind of spread

out through the season.

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Hey, one that I wanted to mention that's

coming up right off the bat on Memorial

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Day weekend is the Blessing of the Boats.

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Now that, that's one that I wouldn't

want anyone to miss because it's

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one of the most spectacular cruises.

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We, um, the blessing of the boats,

we'll have Father Rob Cook on board

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to bless each boat out after we,

uh, depart from the, uh, the dock.

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We proceed through the

channel in a parade of boats.

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And there are hundreds of

boats surrounding the Aquastar.

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And it's, it's quite a sight to see

following us right out the channel.

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And then they have the ceremonial

washing of the lighthouse where a water

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cannon blasts the lighthouse each year

to wash it off for the, for the season.

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And that's the sheriff's

fire book gets out there.

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So we view that.

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And, uh, I gotta say that's,

that's quite a spectacle.

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And then after that, all the pleasure

boats file past the Aquastar for their

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blessing of safety and protection

throughout the boating season.

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Also, we're offering a lunch on that

cruise as well, included in your price.

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That, that is Sunday of,

Sunday prior to Memorial Day.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): It also seems like

to and you mentioned this before is the

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fourth of July is a big event as well.

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Patrick McKee: Fourth of

July sells out every year.

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I get your tickets early.

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We've already sold many.

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And, um, if you want the best view

in Muskegon for the fireworks, well,

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they're, they're right over, we, we, we

have the city as a backdrop and we're

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out, out in the lake, out in the lake.

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And, uh, again, um, it's a,

it's an all American holiday.

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We, we feature, uh, appetizers

and food available, um, included

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in the, uh, price of the ticket.

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And, uh, everybody gets into the spirit

with their red, white, and blue attire.

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And have some great music and a little

John Philip Sousa in there maybe too.

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And then we watch the fireworks.

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We stay out a bit late because

fireworks are late in the evening and

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That's that's a very popular cruise

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Right.

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Now Patrick if somebody is listening to

this and they want to check out more about

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Aquastar, get some tickets, check out the

events that you were mentioning earlier,

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what's the best way for them to do that?

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Patrick McKee: Sure.

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The best way is to go to the

website and AquastarCruises.

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com And then you can check the

calendar there if you have a

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specific date you're interested in.

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Click on that and you'll see

what's happening that day.

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We're constantly adding more cruises.

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The calendar is 99 percent filled out.

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But we're going to add two or

three more specialty cruises.

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Add to the fun.

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And, uh, of course, we have a website.

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available for corporate events.

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It's a great way to get your

company out there and have

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some team building happening.

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And um, we have many weddings on

board and um, they always come

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back for their anniversary and

have fond memories of the Aquastar.

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So there's a, there's a multitude

of, of events, uh, birthdays and, and

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anniversaries that you can attend.

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People can rent the whole boat.

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But yes, we do do public cruises as well.

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And, uh, by the way, veterans, no charge.

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Veterans, police, and fire, no charge.

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Uh, All of our regular cruises.

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Now, we offer a small charge.

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We do have a small charge for some

of the specialty cruises where

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we offer beer included or food.

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But, um, for 90 percent of our cruises,

veterans, police, and fire, no charge.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): Awesome.

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Patrick.

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Thank you, so much for

talking with us today.

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Really appreciate it.

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Learned a lot today,

so thank you for that.

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Patrick McKee: Thank you, Clifford.

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Really appreciate you

having us on Total Michigan.

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Cliff DuVernois (2): for our audience, you

can always roll on over to TotalMichigan.

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com, click on Patrick's interview, and

get the links that he mentioned above.

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We'll see you next time when we

talk to another Michigander doing

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some pretty extraordinary things.

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We'll see you then.