Crew Spotlight: Mike Fitzgerald, Captain

Captain Mike Fitzgerald began working at Belle of Louisville Riverboats as a deckhand 49 years ago, since working his way up through various positions including Mate, Pilot, Alternate Master Captain and even Executive Director before his (FIRST) retirement! Mike says that one of the most unique aspects of his job is piloting the Belle, which has the least amount of horsepower and general handling ability of any passenger vessel of her size, but makes her an exciting challenge to operate.

Continue reading to learn more about Mike and his long, impressive history working with Belle of Louisville Riverboats!

How long have you worked with Belle of Louisville Riverboats?

I have worked with Belle of Louisville Riverboats for 50 consecutive seasons, originally hired in August of 1974.  I have served in a variety of positions over the past 49 years. Progression has been from Deckhand to Head Deckhand, Mate, Pilot, Alternate Master (Captain), Master / Executive Director and retirement following the 2001 season. I returned part-time in April 2002 and full-time in 2009, primarily as Pilot / Carpenter.

What are some of the important responsibilities of your job?

Working with other crew members to ensure proper maintenance and upkeep of our three vessels. As a group, we take great pride in maintaining two of only eight National Historic Landmarks in Louisville. From minor repairs to paddlewheel maintenance and major restoration, we work together as a crew to accomplish these projects. My role is primarily assisting with planning and Carpentry work.

As one of the Pilots, I am responsible for navigation while underway.

My most important responsibility is to help train others and pass on knowledge that has been passed on to me.

In your opinion, what is the best aspect of your job?

The best aspect of my job is getting to interact with passengers; we know the Belle of Louisville is a step back in time. Reminiscent of a bygone era from which she has survived to this very day. Passengers are onboard for various reasons, however they all experience an original river steamer that’s been plying the Mississippi River System for over 108 years.

What does a typical workday look for you?

Workdays are far from typical. Days often vary from routine maintenance to, repurposing paddlewheel wood as souvenirs, assisting other departments, planning/developing spreadsheets for future projects, working in the wheel, helping troubleshoot, etc.

What is the most unique aspect of your job?

The most unique aspect of my job is piloting the Belle because she has the least amount of horsepower and general handling ability of any passenger vessel her size. Vessel handling is a learned skill, and I am fortunate to have been taught by officers with far greater experience and skill sets than my own. All licensed vessel officers pass on to others what has been passed on to them. This tradition exists and is shared throughout the industry.

What is your favorite memory of working with Belle of Louisville Riverboats?

There are so many it’s impossible to have just choose one favorite. However, one that comes to mind is race day 1975. We were dealing with high water and steady rainfall throughout the morning hours into early afternoon. Our deck crew of six, wearing trash bags as rain gear, worked feverously hauling a tremendous amount of gourmet foods, cases of spirits, fine linens, etc. onboard the Belle.  After departing the fourth street dock, we backed down stream and landed alongside the Steamer Delta Queen. She was bow to bow with the new unfinished Steamer Mississippi Queen for a christening ceremony. The Steamer Julia Belle Swain landed alongside us. Following the ceremony, hundreds boarded the Belle for a lavish party and celebration. A few hours later, we would win the Great Steamboat Race against our Delta Queen and Julia Belle Swain rivals.

One year later, this same crew met John Wayne, who was onboard for the Steamboat Race.

Why is Belle of Louisville Riverboats important to you?

Belle of Louisville Riverboats mission is to preserve two U.S. National Landmark vessels, Belle of Louisville, and the former U.S. Coast Guard Lifesaving Station Louisville – Mayor Andrew Broaddus. Their preservation is of great importance to me and those I serve with.

Is there anything you would like to add?

The Belle of Louisville has been a part of our community for over 60 years. Prior to that, she frequently visited Louisville under her previous names, Idlewild, and later, Avalon. She transcends generations and has become an important part of our community.

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