Talk about being in Baltimore's wheelhouse.
The newest sightseeing vessel in the Inner Harbor sports a certain shade of regal purple, and its bow is emblazoned with a name near and dear to the local fan base: Raven.
But that's not all. Docked on tour boat row with the traditional white dinner cruise boats and saucy yellow speedboats near the Maryland Science Center, Raven stands out not only for its unusual hue but also for its design. The new steel-hulled vessel was inspired by the steamships of the early 1900s, right down to its rounded wheelhouse.
"It's a leap," Debbie Gosselin, president of the Annapolis-based tour boat company that owns Raven, said of the ship's lines. "But you don't mistake this boat for any other."
Since its maiden voyage June 5, Raven has taken about 2,500 passengers out for history-based excursions. Last month, it was a floating platform for Sailabration visitors watching the tall ships and Blue Angels. But nothing is official until Wednesday evening, when Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake stands on the bow and christens it with a bottle of bubbly.
Raven grew out of a 2008 request for proposals from the Baltimore Development Corp. for a tour boat company willing to build a vessel incorporating the city's waterfront heritage and history, said Irene Van Sant, project analyst director at the BDC.
The city's economic development arm was looking for a replacement for Clipper City Tall Ship, which ceased operations after owner John Kircher filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and racked up $1.3 million in debt in 2007. The city's maritime master plan calls for adding and updating Inner Harbor water-themed attractions as needed.
Gosselin's company, Watermark, responded with a design that harked back to an era when steamboats cruised the harbor, the Chesapeake Bay and the Patapsco River. The BDC and Watermark, which owns 13 vessels including Raven, signed a renewable five-year lease in 2009 — a year when the recession acted as a drag on many business ventures.
"We were very impressed with what [Watermark] did in Annapolis," Van Sant said. "They aren't just giving a ride; they are telling the story of our heritage."
While waiting out the recession, Gosselin got permission from Baltimore to bring Annapolitan II up to the Inner Harbor finger piers. Meanwhile, she worked with Scarano Boat Building Inc. of Albany, N.Y., on the steamship design for Raven.
Work began on the vessel in 2010.
"We learned a lot about the Baltimore market during that time. … We learned we'd have to work a lot harder for business," Gosselin said. "This is a great harbor, but we have some work to do to convince people that this is a great harbor and a great place for a boat ride."
At 99 feet long and two stories tall, Raven holds its own in a harbor full of powerboats and sloops. It has room for 149 passengers. The climate-controlled main deck has a bar and media wall with a flat-screen TV suitable for business presentations or watching a football game. The upper deck is covered, but an 18-by-12-foot panel in the roof can be opened for sunning or stargazing.
Gosselin won't give an exact price for the new vessel, saying only that it cost "seven figures." Industry analysts who studied photos of Raven put the price at between $2 million and $3 million.
The vessel was originally to be called Lion of Baltimore. But when Gosselin opted to paint the hull purple — so the boat would "stand out in the harbor," she said — the name changed, too.
The Ravens say they have no problem sharing the name, and Watermark is now a sponsor of the football team.
The hourlong National Anthem Tour includes interpreters in period dress explaining the events that led up to the War of 1812 and the bombardment of Fort McHenry. A 45-minute tour covers the city's maritime history and downtown redevelopment. A 5 p.m. Friday cruise goes out under the Key Bridge and back, while the twilight Saturday cruise lets passengers take in the city lights. Prices range from $17 to $25 for adults and $6 to $12 for children ages 3 to 11. Private charters can be arranged.
Watermark was founded in 1972 by Ed Hartman, Gosselin's father — who, she said, "didn't invest in the stock market; he invested in the maritime business."
Hartman, an attorney, bought the 65-foot Harbor Queen, a riverboat-style vessel, and added a second boat in 1973.
Gosselin, 58, bought the business from her father in 1999 and purchased a company that offers walking tours of Annapolis in 2008. She owns four Annapolis water taxis and six yachts that can be chartered for private parties or weddings. Watermark now has 18 full-time employees — including one of Gosselin's two daughters — and 160 seasonal workers.
Van Sant said the BDC wasn't worried about oversaturation of the Inner Harbor cruise market.
"I don't want to tell you there's no overlap," she said. "They're all competing for tourist dollars, like any store in the Inner Harbor. [Watermark] offers a unique experience to visitors. It's a wonderful addition to the waterfront."
Gosselin said she's not concerned about the competition, either.
"The Spirit cruises are for the dinner crowd. The Seadogs are up tempo. We offer something different," she said. "If we all market this as a place to go for boat rides, we'll all do well. It's the tide that raises us all."
Talk about being in Baltimore's wheelhouse.