'As important as opening day at Fenway Park'

CENTER HARBOR — The M/S Mount Washington's yearly "shakedown cruise" began as a technical necessity, a chance to prove to officials that the 230-foot vessel was worthy of another year of offering cruises on Lake Winnipesaukee. In 1988, according to captain Jim Morash, the company began inviting state and local politicians and officials, as well as other guests, aboard the several-hour-long voyage. Since then, the event has become a watershed moment of the season, such as the blooming of daffodils or the singing of peepers, a signal that winter is behind and soon to come is summer.
On a day like Monday, with warm sunshine and blue skies speckled with light clouds, cruisers were tempted to project themselves a month into the future, bypassing May, to welcome the summer tourism season.
"I'm from here," said Carla Horne, a member of the Meredith Selectboard. "This is my first day of summer."
The social and symbolic aspect of the invitation-only event has grown such that it has eclipsed the technical reason for its creation. The motorship began life in 1888 as the Chateaguay and was used on Vermont's Lake Champlain before being rechristened and launched in Lake Winnipesaukee in 1940, replacing the 1872 side-wheeler that burned in 1939. The modern M/S Mount Washington is now treated to a pre-inspection that tests for safety concern about a week prior to the cruise. The only thing left for state regulators to observe during the shakedown is how the ship handles under power. Instead, the first voyage of the year has become an opportunity for the Cruise NH company to bring together all of the people who play a role in the ship's operation.
"We're very fortunate to have fire, police, even town officials around the lake, who have always been there for us when we need them," said Morash. He's glad to know that fire and police chiefs are familiar with the vessel, should they ever need to respond to an on-board emergency. He also wants state legislators and municipal policy makers to be familiar with the ship when they make decisions that might affect the M/S Mount Washington's operation. "When things come up in the state, dealing with tourism, I want them to know how important it is, not only to us, but the Lakes Region," said Morash.
Like many other tourism-related business located at Weirs Beach, Cruise NH has learned to survive through leaner times lately. The M/S Mount Washington's first public cruise will be held on Mother's Day. Morash said the boat is scheduled to make more than 400 trips around Lake Winnipesaukee this summer, welcoming, he expects, between 70,000 and 80,000 guests. That's compared to 120,000 or more seen in years in the late 1980s.
Chris Secord, a part-owner of Cruise NH, said the company is looking for ways to entice more ticket sales. One new strategy is a partnership with local hotels, such as the Naswa Resort and the Inns at Mill Falls, as well as several local motels, which will be able to sell cruise tickets at their check-in desk. Once patrons are aboard, Secord said they shouldn't have to wait in lines for as long, while boarding or disembarking, or when ordering drinks at the bar, thanks to efforts the company has made in expediting those processes.
Even for Secord, though, the shakedown cruise is about more than a new season of ticket sales. "It's the kickoff of boating season in New Hampshire. This is exciting for everyone in the Lakes Region."
Steward Woodworth has been on several Mount Washington shakedown cruises. The owner of Bizer Maps, which produces charts for lakes Winnisquam and Winnipesaukee, he's no stranger to the waterbody. For him, the cruise is something of a social event, that's what keeps him coming back. "A little of it is to schmooze around, see people that I know on the lake. Catch the lay of the lake, see what's going on."
Ken Jones, Meredith fire chief, came to his first shakedown cruise a few years ago when he was new to town. Meredith includes several islands, and Jones said the unique vantage point of the Mount Washington's deck allowed him to familiarize himself with his territory in a non-emergency situation. "It helped me learn my own turf," he said.
This year's shakedown marked a decade of such cruises for Leo Glasheen, who volunteers as a Granite State Ambassador, consulting with visitors at places such as Manchester Airport about what they can do during their stay. About the ship, Glasheen said, "It is an icon for the Lakes Region, attracting tourism." Whenever someone is looking for a way to experience the Lakes Region, Glasheen said a ride aboard the Mount Washington is on the "must do" list, as it provides a revealing look at life on Winnipesaukee. "This is like the jewel of the Lakes Region, this particular lake. You get to experience the mass of water, how the shorelines are dotted with beautiful homes," and how the lake is enjoyed by swimmers, anglers and recreational boaters, he said.
Deb Pendergast attended her first shakedown in 2005, shortly after she was hired as deputy chief of the Laconia Fire Department. She hasn't missed one since. "It's kind of a rite of spring, a nice event that kicks off the boating season." The boating season has already begun for her department, she noted, since the city's fire boat has been put in and is ready to respond. "Of course, the fire department staff and the boat have a relationship, it's nice that we get to be invited to this event."
In the wheelhouse, fleet captain and 23-year Cruise NH employee Leo O'Connor used a pair of binoculars to scan the still waters ahead. At this time of year, shortly after the declaration of ice-out, the greatest hazard to boating is debris floating at or near the water's surface. The 230-foot boat could have its propellers damaged by something as slight as a piece of scrap lumber. "I've seen telephone poles out here, sections of dock, bobhouses that were left out," he said as a lost hockey stick passed on the starboard side.
For O'Connell, the shakedown cruise presents a day to celebrate all the work the crew performs during the off-season to keep the century-and-a-quarter old boat running as smooth and looking as fresh as possible. With all the fresh paint, dignitaries and a sense of springtime optimism, O'Connell said the shakedown cruise reminded him of another hallowed tradition. "The shakedown cruise for me is as important as Opening Day at Fenway Park. We look forward to it every year — we put our hearts and souls into this boat."


Leo O'Connell, fleet captain for Cruise NH, scans Lake Winnipesaukee for floating debris during the M/S Mount Washington's shakedown cruise, held on Monday. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)

About 250 people accepted an invitation to attend the M/S Mount Washington's shakedown cruise, held on Monday. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)

The M/S Mount Washington approaches the dock at Weirs Beach on Monday as part of the vessel's shakedown cruise. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)

Department of Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes teases M/S Mount Washington captain Jim Morash about the surprisingly reasonable registration fee for the vessel, which held its shakedown cruise on Monday. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)