By Becky Maxedon
Lake Havasu City Pioneers and folks who have been in the area for a long time have fond memories of the iconic Dixie Belle.
The paddlewheel beauty has been undergoing a makeover for the past several years and is poised to return to Lake Havasu Monday.
Keith Fernung is the owner of the Dixie Belle and his labor of love is about to bring history back to the Bridgewater Channel.
The Dixie Belle was built in 1983 and was owned by the London Bridge Resort. The boat would travel the channel and soon became a well-known tourist attraction. When repairs seemed too much for the previous owner, Fernung decided to take over and keep the boat in Lake Havasu City. Fernung purchased the Dixie Belle in 2011.
“The boat no longer had Coast Guard certification because the hull would not pass inspection,” Furnung said. He added that there were many other parts of the vessel that were aging and in disrepair.
“It took me some time to find a company to move the boat,” he said. The Dixie Belle weighs 68 tons.
“I pulled it out of the water Oct. 7, 2011, to finally start the restoration process. I have never tackled a project near this big before, but the Dixie Belle has always been something in Havasu I loved as a child down in the English Village,” he said.
Fernung said there were many hardships and delays getting the boat repaired. “Every time we started a section, we would find new issues and then new issues, etc., etc.”
As work continued, the Coast Guard was involved with every aspect of the process. “We have to provide exact data on every material we use and have every item we upgrade, or change inspected plus drawn as schematics every step of the way,” he said.
The paddlewheel was close to being finished several years ago, but Fernung said there was no available dock to place her. “She sat for a few more years without being worked on while we tried to find a dock,” he said.
“A few years ago, I started working with Aaron Ashbaugh to help get the boat finished and he is the ship’s engineer. He has overseen and done most of the work to get her where she is today.”
To pass a modern inspection, the inner workings had to be updated. The Coast Guard requires that upgrades meet the current year’s code. “The last inspection was in the ‘80s and so many parts of the vessel had to be upgraded to modern safety standards,” Fernung said.
“We also replaced the entire hull, about 80 percent of the stringers, a big portion of the bulkhead and many, many other parts, all new fuel tank, freshwater tank and wastewater tank, using more modern materials,” he said.
Last year, the London Bridge Resort offered a place to dock the Dixie Belle and that began another process.
“We started the process with the Army Corps of Engineers, the city and engineers to design and build a dock that would pass inspections and be big enough to hold a vessel of her size.”
The dock is finished, and other tasks and projects are being completed to make it ready for the boat.
“Along the way, we have had help from several local volunteers – the Campbell family, Weatherman Air Conditioning, Armor Fence and Masonry, Slide Anchor, Wilson’s Welding, Sharqskinz, RiverScene Magazine, Nikos, Camel Towing, and many others,” Fernung said.
The hull has been certified and a large portion of the vessel as well as much of the vessel, but final certification must be completed on the water, according to Fernung.
Ashbaugh added that he would like to mention Jim Kelly and Dan and Connie Fitzhenry for “going above and beyond.”
“We have to do man overboard testing, stability tests and much more while operating the vessel out on the lake,” Fernung said. He said it could take about two months to complete Coast Guard certification after the launch. Passengers will not be allowed on board until final certification is granted.
Fernung set March 1 as the launch date.
The launch at Lake Havasu State Park (Windsor) took a little bit longer than planned. The whole process from loading the Belle onto the trailer to putting it in the water took about seven hours. There were a few technical issues that were dealt with before it took it’s first run in 10 years. After a few maneuvers on Lake Havasu, the Dixie Belle made its way to the her new dock near the London Bridge Resort.
Many came out to welcome her back to her rightful place as Queen of the Bridgewater Channel.
Memories flowed as the Dixie Belle was loaded on the trailer for transport to the launch ramp Monday.
Former Ship’s Captain Russ Couch drove the Dixie Belle for roughly four or five years from 2006 t0 2010 or 2011. “It’s great to see the Dixie Belle back in water,” he said this morning.
Captain Wally Lowe drove from 2004-2008. “I’m super excited about getting back on it,” Lowe said.
Debbie Salamin said she was on the Dixie Bell from 2008-2009. “I was on her when we took her out of the water for the last inspection. She didn’t pass. I’m really excited about her being back. It’s been 10 years,” she said.
Following Monday’s launch Fernung wanted to make sure Destination Havasu, the video and photo team and all the people who came out to welcome the Belle back were thanked for their support.
The Dixie Belle will offer a one-hour narrated tour around the island that will include the history of Lake Havasu City, the London Bridge, and the light house story. They will also offer sunset cruises, catered dinner cruises and she will be available to rent for weddings, Christmas parties, anniversaries, birthday parties and other events.
Visit the Facebook page at Dixie Belle Lake Havasu City AZ for more information.