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A Unique Perspective from a Pittsburgh River Cruise Operator

What is it like to work on the 3 rivers cruise in Pittsburgh? For me, it is many different things. The Gateway Clipper Fleet is my family business. Started in 1958 by my great- grandfather, John Connelly, the Gateway Clipper has been a part of my life since the day I was born. My father, Terry Wirginis, is the current President and Owner and both my sister and I are Vice-Presidents.  

For me, working on the rivers isn’t just another job. It is the opportunity to carry on a legacy that began over 60 years ago. I never planned on following in the footsteps of my great-grandfather or father.  However, as I got older, I realized what a unique opportunity it was to work at the Gateway Clipper. The fleet boat is a “Pittsburgh Tradition”. You can never imagine the number of times I am told by complete strangers how they love our fleet of riverboats and how they truly make Pittsburgh – PITTSBURGH! People of all ages tell me about their first cruise on the three rivers in Pittsburgh. Whether it be on the iconic cruise Good Ship Lollipop, a school prom or event, or even their own wedding! The magic and memories that the Gateway Clipper fleet events have spread throughout Western Pennsylvania are amazing. I would have been a fool if I did not want to be a part of such an integral part of our city. It is truly an honor for myself and my family to work on the Three Rivers. 

As I have told you, the Gateway Clipper is family-owned and operated, however, “family” has a special meaning to us at the Clipper. It’s not just my immediate family that I am referring to — it is all the long-term employees that we are blessed to have with us on this fabulous ride. Many of our employees have been with us for 20+ years! And just like the legacy of the business that has been passed to myself and my siblings, many of our employees are the sons and daughters of current and former employees. We are truly a family not by blood, but by choice. We all work as a TEAM! No one is above ANY job at the Clipper. We are all multi-taskers — trained so that when we need someone to jump in and work, say as waitstaff or a deckhand, that’s what we do. We spend A LOT of time together. We find ourselves invested in each other and not just on a professional level, but on a personal level too. 

I began working at the Gateway Clipper as an actual employee in 2010 while I was still in high school. My first job was as a dockhand. The dockhand is the “jack of all trades” at the Gateway Clipper. The dockhands do a lot of maintenance and work hard to make sure that the dock is a beautiful place to relax. Throughout college, I continued to work at the fleet. I was a marketing intern, a reservation sales agent, and a ticket office sales agent.  I have learned valuable lessons and skills in each of these positions as I moved away and started a career in another industry for a few years. I came back to the company in 2019 and then worked my way up to bartending and then became a cruise director. In 2020, I transferred from the food & beverage department over to our marine department. I started out as a deckhand and learned all I could from our seasoned professionals. Through many long hours and hard work, I became the First Mate of the Three Rivers Queen. I still hold that position along with my VP duties. For me, being on the rivers and with our passengers is invaluable. Plus, enjoying the sun in the summer is an added bonus!

 I love being outdoors and seeing the vast scenery along the Three Rivers of Pittsburgh – the Allegheny, Ohio, and the Monongahela Rivers – is definitely one of the best things about working at the Gateway Clipper. We sail the three rivers and I can definitely say that the scenery along the banks of the rivers of Pittsburgh is always changing. One day you could see a young family fishing on the Mon, the next day you see thousands of people gathering at PNC Park or Heinz Field to watch our Pittsburgh Pirates or Pittsburgh Steelers, and then other days you can see not a soul, just numerous types of wildlife that live in and around the Three Rivers.    

The Three Rivers in Pittsburgh are beautiful. Watching the sun set down the Ohio River never gets old. Coming up Ohio towards the point of Pittsburgh is truly a sight to be seen. My phone is filled with pictures of both. Even though I am blessed to see these sights daily, it is something I cherish. Every once in a while we do private events out of town that require an overnight journey down the Ohio, or up the Monongahela or Allegheny. These are some of my favorite times to be working as a deckhand. Away from the city lights, cruising the river in the pitch black. Spending time with the captain, navigating the darkness using radar and old paper maps. No sounds except the rumble of our diesel engines propelling us through the night. At some point, the sun begins to rise and pops onto the horizon. I love to watch a light fog rise off the water; as long as it does not get too thick – now that is a different story. 

You must be on your toes in all the positions at the Gateway Clipper Fleet. The safety and security of our passengers is our number one priority. With changing weather conditions, or never knowing when you might encounter an unpredictable passenger, you always must keep your eyes wide open and be prepared for any situation. We do extensive training to make sure all the employees know how to deal with many hazards and situations such as a rogue storm, a fire, a passenger overboard, or medical emergencies that require certification in CPR and First Aid.  Honestly, things happen on a boat as they do on land. The difference is we are on the water and we have to make sure that we can get our passengers to the “Land” safely and out of harm’s way. While they may be scary, getting through a tough situation is exhilarating. Coming out on the other side and knowing our training pays off is a wonderful feeling.  

Life as a Gateway Clipper Fleet Crew Member is so rewarding! While not every day is all sunshine, we get through the bad days or cruises as a team. But the one thing that makes every day wonderful at the Clipper is the smiles on the faces of our passengers. Whether is it a small child meeting their favorite Superhero aboard a Kids Themed Cruise; a newlywed couple stepping off the boat from the wedding of their dreams, or a visitor to our city that just enjoyed our Three Rivers Sightseeing Cruise and Tour, nothing beats seeing a happy passenger. Creating a lasting memory is my favorite thing about working on the Three Rivers and hosting Gateway Clipper fleet events 

As I said earlier, it never ceases to amaze me among all the people that remember their boat ride from many years ago. I can’t help but think about my great-grandfather and the vision he had over 60 years ago to bring the experience of cruising the Three Rivers to everyone — young and old. The fact that a Gateway Clipper Fleet Cruise is a lasting memory is our greatest accomplishment. Our greatest asset is our employees, past, present, and future. The chance to make a difference and be part of that lasting memory is priceless.  

I love working on the rivers and I love who I work with. I am thankful for them as well as this opportunity. If you want to catch a glimpse of what it is like to work on the Three Rivers, come on down for a boat ride! I, along with all of my colleagues, would love to see you.

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