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A new river, a new boat

Mail Tribune

There are limits to what a jetboat company can do in a small town and on a wild and scenic river.

So given regulatory, environmental and logistical constraints, Hellgate Jetboat Excursions has grown about as much as it can on the Rogue River.

But in the past five years, the Grants Pass firm has expanded its holdings and extended its reach by launching Willamette Jetboat Excursions in Portland.

Canadian-born Robert Hamlyn, 55, first operated an excursion service on the Rogue in 1986, then bought and merged competing firms in 1988.

Running 75,000 visitors annually down the river and back, the jetboat service was near its allowable capacity. As Hamlyn began exploring expansion options he met Grants Pass High graduate Andy Moos, now 35, who lives in West Linn.

"Andy expressed an interest in operating a boat and we worked out an arrangement for him to be a partner," Hamlyn says. "I had looked at one or two other rivers previously, but none that I thought would work and be successful. I thought Portland's population base would allow us to be successful."

The partners took two boats that used to run on the Rogue and set up shop on the eastern bank of the Willamette River, at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

As the sign arching over Sixth Street in Grants Pass proclaims, it's the climate that makes for good jet boating. The same can't be said for Portland, where there's a need for a different type of boat with a space-age touch.

The bullet-shaped Peregrine Falcon cuts a much different profile than the rest of Hellgate's fleet, with pneumatic doors that provide boarding access.

The 56-passenger boat, complete with three Hamilton pumps powered by Chevy 454 V8s, was built in Hellgate's shop at 1420 S.E. M St. from December to February. Its Kevlar top, which can absorb torque that aluminum couldn't withstand with the bow and stern twisting in different directions, was imported from Ontario, Canada, and attached last week.

"It was delayed because of a strike; we couldn't get a wide-load permit to go the 20 miles to the (U.S.) border," Moos says.

The Peregrine Falcon took a dip in the Rogue on Tuesday, undergoing a battery of U.S. Coast Guard safety tests, was towed up Interstate 5 to its Portland berth Wednesday and put into passenger service Thursday.

"Portland has a considerably different type of river than we have here," Hamlyn says. "It's scenic in a lot of different ways and has a lot of commercial aspects to look at."

Upstream, herons, peregrines and water fowl dot the route to 40-foot Willamette Falls, and to the north are fascinating views of shipyards and bridge spans. But the excursions stop short of the Columbia River.

"The river conditions are a lot rougher on the Columbia," Moos says. "Because of the wind, it can get real choppy."

Whereas on the Rogue and Willamette, passengers can see both banks clearly, the Columbia's width would force a tour boat to cross back and forth so sites could be clearly viewed.

Moos, who earned a degree in business and journalism at Oregon State, culled the Oregon Historical Society archives and interviewed folks who live and work along the river as he prepared a script for his pilots.

When the excursions began in 1997, they drew 5,000 riders May through October. Despite the attacks of Sept. 11 and subsequent uncertainty, Willamette Jetboats counted 22,000 passengers in 2001.

The Portland operation employs nine pilots and a staff of 20 during the peak season. That's about a third of the size that mans the Grant Pass excursions and its OK Corral brunch and dinner stop from May through September.

"We're not maxed, maxed-out, but we're pretty close," admits Hamlyn. "There's room to grow in May and June, but that's a difficult time to grow because of the weather."

The company began as Hellgate Excursions in 1961 when Grant Garcia offered 35-mile round-trips in a flat-bottomed, 32-passenger wooden boat that could operate in 6 to 8 inches of water because of its water jet propulsion.

Hellgate's greatest expansion took place under Gary and Julie Woolsey, who bought the business in 1974. They built seven boats between 1977 and 1987, introducing a 48-passenger aluminum boat in 1977. The other boats ranged from 16 to 82 passengers.

They moved the departure point from Riverside Inn to Riverside Park and began brunch and dinner stops 14 miles downstream. 1980, OK Corral was established as an eating destination. The Woolseys added a five-hour, 75-mile trip to Grave Creek with a lunch stop at Galice in a 16-passenger boat.

When the operation crossed the river in 1985, a new venture was launched - eccentric Riverside Inn owner Gentry McKinney and another partner initiated Rogue Whitewater Excursions. A year later, Hamlyn stepped in to manage the flagging operation, changing the name to Rogue Jetboat Excursions. In 1988, Hamlyn bought and merged the Rogue and Hellgate outfits.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

A new river, a new boat