The future of Winnipeg's riverboats is in doubt after the captain and owner of the M.S. Paddlewheel Queen and M.S. Paddlewheel Princess took his final cruise after 44 years at the helm.

Steven Hawchuk took his last cruise at the wheel of the 45-metre-long Paddlewheel Queen on Sunday. The Princess was docked earlier and both boats are now awaiting a buyer to step up.

It hasn't been easy running the businesses, when the city's waterways flood every year, Hawchuk said, but he still thinks there's a future for the riverboats.

Steven Hawchuk

Capt. Steven Hawchuk said it's time for someone younger to take over his riverboat business. (paddlewheelcruises.com)

High water levels on the Assiniboine and Red rivers in May and June of this year meant the Paddlewheel Queen couldn't get through the locks at Lockport, Man., so it was stuck at a dock in Selkirk, Man., during those months.

Hawchuck said he lost one-third of his summer tour business — or about $200,000 — as a result.

"With the high floodwaters every year and you know, the boats are getting older and they need some work done to them, I decided just [to retire]," he said.

The Paddlewheel Queen first set sail in 1965, built by Ray Senft, who was inspired after seeing Mississippi-style riverboats during a vacation in Mexico.

It was so popular that he built the Princess in 1966 to meet the demand, which continued to grow and prompted another city businessman, Dan Ritchie, to bring another cruise ship, the M.S. River Rouge, onto the river system in 1967.

While the popularity of the riverboats has waned, Hawchuk — who has owne the Paddlewheel boats since 1969 — said it is still a viable business.

Lately, the Paddlewheel Queen and the River Rouge, which continues to operate, had been taking Blue Bomber fans to games via the rivers rather than the congested roadways.

Hawchuk said there is still much life left in the riverboat business, but it's time for someone else to take the wheel.

"It has to be somebody younger that wants to take over it, you know, that likes boats and wants a challenge. It's still a very, it's a viable operation, with a lot of potential," he said.

Hawchuk has some people interested in buying the boats, but nothing has been finalized.

Some of the VIP guests over the years on the Paddlewheel Queen and Princess include:

  • Musician Burton Cummings 
  • Musical-comedy duo Maclean and Maclean 
  • ​KFC founder Colonel Sanders
  • Singer Frankie Valli
  • Environmental activist David Suzuki
  • Princess Ann
  • Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
  • Author and Academy Award-nominated actor Chief Dan George