‘It doesn’t get less spectacular’: First female Maid of the Mist captain relishes her journey

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Kaitlynn McHenry looked ahead through the wheelhouse window. Right before she steered the electric Maid of the Mist boat close to the base of the gigantic Horseshoe Falls, she grinned at her fellow boatman, Jim Egloff.

“It’s pushy today, Jim,” she said, as the boat bobbed in the tumultuous waters in the Niagara River.

Through the wheelhouse, one could hear the loud cheer of wonder and amazement from the two-tiered decks. McHenry smiled; the ever-so familiar sound from the sea of blue ponchos onboard played like music to her ears.

“There are people who have been waiting their entire lives to come here. Every time they show up, they’re emotional because this is something they’ve dreamed about doing. And that’s absolutely the best part of the job: watching these people up there in total awe, being able to take it all in,” she said.

McHenry is the first and only female captain in the Maid of the Mist’s 139 consecutive years of touring below Niagara Falls.

Boats were, however, never on McHenry’s radar when she was a pharmacy student at the University at Buffalo.

“It was a total accident. I did not grow up around boats,” she said.

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A summer job as a deckhand on a tour boat run by a family friend out of Fairport set her sail in a different direction. She kept returning to the job, and eventually decided to “just keep playing on boats,” she said.

The Rochester native quickly mastered the nautical ropes of line handling and getting the vessel through lock chambers, as well as other important facets that helped inform her expertise. As soon as she received her captain’s license nearly 15 years ago, her mentor trained her to become a boat handler, from handling vessels to changing oil in the engines and more.

McHenry remembers her first-ever solo journey as a captain to be windy and “nerve-wracking.”

“I was a little nervous the first time, but I was really excited because I had been working towards it for a long time,” she said. “It was my time to shine, and it was a really great trip.”

McHenry had first been on the Maid of the Mist as a passenger in her 20s. She does not remember as much about the natural wonder during that trip as she does about the boat. She was fascinated by what the boat captain was doing and how different it was from the boats she was used to handling in Fairport. She recounted watching the captain dock and manipulate one of the old diesel boats.

“I don’t know if I saw the falls because I was so fascinated with the actual boat part of it,” she said.

In 2019, McHenry was working as a structure operator for the New York State Canal Corp., responsible for locks, lift bridges and the dam system on the canal, when she received an unexpected recommendation from the local Coast Guard inspector to interview for a job on the Maid of the Mist. Flattered, McHenry participated in the interview without any intention of taking the job, since it was quite an “intimidating” challenge, she said.

“If it was up to me, I would have never applied for it. But I met with some of the upper management and sat and talked for quite some time and I drove home and was like, ‘I guess I’m moving to Buffalo,’ “ she said with a laugh.

McHenry was one of the seven captains from all over the country with a variety of maritime backgrounds who came to be trained.

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In 2020, on Memorial Day weekend, she captained her maiden Maid of the Mist voyage with passengers, and remembers it to be an “overwhelmingly, exhilarating day.” The hordes of tourists surprised her.

“I’d never seen just a constant flow of people like this before, and I didn’t know ponchos made sound,” she recalled, reflecting on how she ran back and forth between the deck and the wheelhouse. “It was kind of a whirlwind day.”

McHenry has been on hundreds of trips since, including a fascinating one on April 8 during the solar eclipse moment of totality. After discussions on how to handle the boat and factors such as reduced visibility and darkness, McHenry’s eclipse journey was one for the books. During totality, it got quite dark as the birds took off from the shoreline and circled overhead the boat that had stopped near the American Falls during the nearly four-minute period.

“It was really spectacular to watch. And just as quickly as it was there, it was gone,” she said.

The Maid of the Mist put its boats into the water a couple of weeks early on April 3, ahead of the eclipse, due to the mild winter. Usually, the boats start operation on April 15 and depart every 30 minutes from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

Helming the Maid of the Mist is a different experience with every trip, she said, due to the changing water current, as well as the wind. The constant challenge, however, adds to the thrill of it.

“We are never bored,” she said. “It doesn’t get less spectacular. What we get to do now is share it. That’s even better.”

Being a woman in a man’s world often comes with challenges, but McHenry is grateful for how smooth her journey has been due to support from peers and mentors.

“I was very lucky in my journey to the wheelhouse and in my journey as captain. I had amazing support and encouragement. And I was able to become a skilled captain because of that,” she said. “I really hope that in the future … what I experience on my way to the wheelhouse is the norm for women who want to work in this industry.”

McHenry dreams of a time when there will be an all-female crew. Having risen from the ranks of deckhand to captain, she hopes to mentor others in the maritime industry.

“I like the possibility that I could be one of those people who from my past I admire so much,” she said.

Published by The Buffalo News (Apr. 30, 2024)