Under an embracing fall sunrise, the Vista Star and her smaller fleetmate the Vista Queen drifted in the Duluth harbor, appearing to be the image of blissful morning voyages on uncharacteristically calm waters.

Unfortunately, both commercial touring vessels had been illegally unmoored in the early hours of the morning Thursday and set adrift, a technical maneuver that usually takes at least two crew members to complete.

Both vessels were recovered undamaged, but the Queen came within 20 feet of colliding with a 1,000-foot Canadian shipping vessel. A fast-acting crew member was able to board her and guide her into the slip with a U.S. Coast Guard escort. “The boat was slowly drifting in the lake. Those ships don’t stop on a dime,” Duluth Deputy Police Chief Nick Lukovsky said,

Police were similarly swift in their Friday announcement of the arrest of a 47-year-old Excelsior man they identified from harbor surveillance video allegedly committing the acts. Lukovsky said charges would be filed soon against the man in custody.

The man’s name has not been released, but Lukovsky said they believe he single-handedly untied the 100-ton, 85-foot Vista Star, and the 60-ton, 65-foot Vista Queen about 2:47 a.m. In the case of the Queen, the man, wearing a cap and jacket, walked her out of the slip to avoid the possibility she would bump into other watercraft and cause millions of dollars in damages.

Vista Fleet owner Justin Steinbach was alerted to the trouble just after 6 a.m. Thursday in a phone call. The Duluth harbor manager told him that his two commercial touring vessels were floating unmanned in the harbor. The boats are the workhorses of Steinbach’s harbor cruise tourism business. The Star can accommodate 225 passengers. The Queen can carry 75.

“We raced down there,” Steinbach said, referring to himself and crew members.

By the time Steinbach arrived, one of his crew was already aboard the Queen and navigating her safely home. The Coast Guard helped Steinbach and other crew members board the Star and navigate her back to her moorings.

“The good news is that no one was injured and the boats weren’t damaged,” Steinbach said, adding that both vessels were immediately and thoroughly inspected for damage by the crew and Coast Guard.

What baffled Steinbach and his crew in the hours after the unmooring was how a single person had the technical and physical skill to free the vessels. The vandal also was savvy enough to disconnect the Star from its shore power source — another tricky maneuver. Steinbach talked to the Star Tribune before the police announcement of the arrest Friday. He did not return calls Friday afternoon.

Steinbach’s vessels went back to work Thursday afternoon and evening with tours and a private party.

Luckily for Steinbach and everyone else connected to the harbor, the morning waters were placid.

Steinbach said he could count on one hand the number of mornings as calm as Thursday was in the Duluth harbor. “Under any other weather conditions, we would have had more problems,” he said.


Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.

Twitter: @rochelleolson