The Portland Spirit Turns 30 Years Old

The iconic vessel will celebrate three decades by floating the Willamette with a ’90s-themed cruise.

Portland Spirit (Michael Raines)

The first thing to know about taking a lunch cruise on the Portland Spirit is that the commemorative photo is not optional.

“It’s mandatory—joke’s on you,” said the staffer, as he snapped the photo required by U.S. Coast Guard regulations. (It’s not all official business—the souvenir photo was later available for purchase for $15.)

Once aboard the cruise last Friday, about two dozen passengers sat at window seats on the Willamette deck as a live pianist with impeccable posture played a crowd-pleasing and occasionally surprising set list. Is that “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden? The other passengers who had ponied up $67 for the two-hour ride were celebrating birthdays and college reunions and entertaining friends from out of town. One couple had won tickets through an Instagram contest for Travel Portland; another was on vacation from Florida.

The Portland Spirit has been sailing up and down the Willamette River entertaining tourists and locals alike since May 1994. She is showing her age in places—peeling paint here, drab flooring there—despite major renovations every few years.

But what she lacks in radiance she makes up for in nostalgia. Some people might remember taking a Cinnamon Bear cruise at Christmas time, or attending a floating corporate retreat. Others may recall boarding the Portland Spirit around 3 am after high school graduation, singing some Britney Spears karaoke then falling asleep on the shoulder of an ex-boyfriend as the sun rose. You know, hypothetically.

On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, the staff of the 150-foot yacht is hosting two $30 “Best of Portland Anniversary Cruises” on May 9 and 23. Nineties attire is encouraged. Local food and drink vendors will offer samples, including Blue Star and Voodoo doughnuts, Creo Chocolate, Rogue Ales & Spirits, and more.

Characters such as the Unipiper, Una the Mermaid, Korny the Chicken and the Portland Pickles mascot Dillon will be on board. But how will the unipiping work on a moving vessel?

“He absolutely cannot have fire on the boat,” says Mandy Morgan, the Portland Spirit’s director of sales and marketing who came up with the idea for the cruise. “I made that very clear with him.” (For those already worried—the leisurely 8-knot pace of the Spirit likely won’t throw the Unipiper off his unicycle.)

When Dan Yates and his uncle Wayne Kingsley bought the boat in 1995, Portland was the last major seaport in the country that did not have a dinner cruise—a nightlife tourism trend that swept the rest of the country in the mid-’80s. A U.S. Navy man from upstate New York, Yates is also known in town for his involvement in organizations such as the Central Eastside Industrial Council, the Broadway Rose Theatre Company and the Human Access Project, which advocates for swimming in the Willamette. In 2019, he made news for writing an earnest letter to Mayor Ted Wheeler suggesting he buy a 370-foot ship and convert it into a floating homeless shelter.

Back in the mid-’90s, it was considered revolutionary to prep, cook and plate fresh food on board for passengers, let alone offer four entrée choices. On the lunch cruise last week, diners chose from mushroom ravioli, Parmesan-crusted chicken, baked Columbia River steelhead and herb-marinated beef shoulder.

The fare hasn’t impressed Portland foodies, based on a borderline-vicious Reddit thread on the topic where diners compared it to conference food. But consumed while passing under the Tilikum Crossing Bridge, sunlight glinting off the Old Spaghetti Factory’s iconic purple roof up ahead, with a strawberry lemonade zinger ($13) in hand? There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Specialty events like the upcoming Best of Portland Anniversary Cruises are a bit of a financial gamble, according to Portland Spirit general manager Dennis Corwin. On one hand there is the somewhat improbable success of the family-friendly Cinnamon Bear Christmas cruise, given that it is based on a plush character from a 1937 radio program. (December is now the Spirit’s second-busiest month, after July.) But there have been flops, too, like the mid-2000s cabaret series that Corwin calls “artistically successful but financially horrible.”

Up next: booze cruises, though staff resists calling them that.

“We’ve had that term used.…We have largely taken a lot of those off the schedule because we don’t necessarily care for the clientele it attracts,” Corwin says diplomatically.

The Portland Spirit is rolling the dice anyway and debuting a new happy-hour cruise this summer: a 3:30–to–5 pm cruise for only $29. (The short duration and cash bar should, theoretically, keep the clientele behavior classy.) Related: The boat has never had a genuine “man overboard” situation, but at least one college kid has jumped to be funny. It’s actually illegal, and subject to a possible $25,000 fine, Corwin says.

Corwin joined the staff of the Portland Spirit at age 23 as a singing waiter. Three decades later, he is now part owner of the company and has leaned into the maritime field, as evidenced by his abundant use of nautical lingo. Aboard his workplace are heads, not restrooms. Ladders, not stairs. Galleys, not kitchens.

“I do love the theatrics of what we do,” Corwin says. “It’s not a standard restaurant. We are entertaining people.”

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