The Winona Tour Boat just finished its first season taking visitors up and down the Mississippi River from Levee Park. The Daily News talked with Capt. Aaron Repinski about growing up on the Mississippi, he and his partners’ decision to start a tour boat company in town, and some of the unexpected experiences the river provides.
How was your season?
The season went very well. We actually got a lot of tourism, more so than expected. We were able to work with a number of businesses in town and do a number of events with them. We had weddings, family reunions, birthday parties, class reunions and different group get-togethers.
It was neat. We had literally newborn babies to 90-something-year-olds on the boat. Our oldest rider was 98 years old, I think. We had people from all over the world, too, which is very neat. We had a lot of people come from Rochester, who were visiting Mayo for the hospital.
So we were able to get a number of international tourists to come to town. And surprising, a lot of people came to Winona just to ride the boat, which was neat. Then we were able to direct them to places in town to eat and so on.
Have you seen that sort of traffic in the past?
Well, this is our first season. I’ve been associated with tour boats in the past, but I did not expect us to see as much tourism as we did. So we’re real happy with that, and we expect next year to be even better. There was a lot of traffic from the Rochester and Owatonna area, which kind of surprised me a bit. But then again, Rochester doesn’t have the Mississippi River.
Why’d you start the tour company?
It’s me and two other guys, Pat Bushman and Jerry Gabrick, and we’re the three owners of the boat. We felt that Winona had a need for it. There was a tour boat years ago, and we thought if we could bring another tour boat to Winona, not only would it be advantageous for tourism, but I would get a master captain’s license. It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to operate a tour boat in town.
Are you from around Winona?
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Born and raised in Winona. I grew up on the river, and I’m an avid water person. As a matter of fact, my son’s name is River.
What should people expect if they come to you for a boat tour?
People really like the fact that not only is it educational, but we also make it entertaining for folks. Very often we let kids steer the boat, and I talk about the navigation system, answer questions related to the Coast Guard. I also talk about the history of Winona and how the Mississippi River affected Winona.
People also really like the ability to see the abundant wildlife. This year we had the opportunities to see fox, deer, turtles, snakes, fish, eagles, blue heron, ducks, geese, beaver, just about every wildlife was represented at some point.
Another thing people really like the opportunity to see the wildlife up close. We also take people into the backwaters. We got them out of the main channel and into the backwaters for an up-close-and-personal look.
Have you heard from area residents who are surprised, because they’ve never seen some of that?
Yeah. One of the biggest compliments I got was — as the captain I do majority of the speaking on the boat — I had a lot of locals say, You know, I’m from Winona and I was born and raised on the Mississippi River and you told me a lot of things I never knew. That was one of the biggest compliments we got as the crew on the boat.
Another compliment we got was a lot of people from the Winona area who came out on the boat for any kind of event and then came back on the boat with their family. They enjoyed it so much they brought family or friends out for another boat ride.
You mentioned wanting to be a tour boat captain for a long time.
I grew up on the Mississippi River in this area, and watching the tow boats go by. And as a kid I was always dreaming of getting to drive a large boat. And I actually did have the opportunity to drive and push sand, with some of the smaller tows. But I personally found that you’re really just a captain in the pilot house all by yourself. I like the interaction I have with the guests on the boat and not only the opportunity to teach them a little about the Mississippi River but also to entertain them a bit, make it fun for them.