Before railroads, cars and planes, America traveled by our waterways. Sandra Henne wants us to remember our marine heritage, and for 32 years she has kept that bygone era alive through Hudson River Cruises.
Henne began the business with her sister, brother-in-law and her husband (the latter had a captain’s license) and a wooden boat measuring 25 feet in length and capable of carrying 81 passengers. They had no business plan; it was a gamble.
“We hoped people would come down for a sunset cruise,” Henne recalled. A self-proclaimed “river rat,” she had grown up under the Mid-Hudson Bridge in Highland, where her father would fish for shad. “We were always on the water.”
The team was up against some stiff challenges in starting the business: In 1980, the Rondout was not the lively destination it is now. Many storefronts were boarded up. Other blocks of 19th-century buildings had been torn down, the victim of a destructive government program known as urban renewal.
For the first few weeks of their new venture, Henne said, “we operated without a dock.” But their boat rides struck a chord with people, either because they remembered the old days when elegant steamships and ferries filled the Rondout, or because traveling by boat was a novelty. Either way, Hudson River Cruises was a hit.
“The dinner cruises took off right away,” Henne said. Passengers would disembark and a motor coach would take them up to the Stockade District to stroll around the Senate House and the Old Dutch Church.
By the end of the 1980 season, Henne and her husband were operating six nights a week. A docent from the nearby Hudson River Maritime Center would regale the group with history talks, conjuring images of the romance—and dangers—of bygone days. Crew members would point out robber baron estates on the shore, historic lighthouses and small villages seemingly frozen in time. Boat trips included a meal for passengers, provided by a local caterer.
“The food was always excellent and we always had plenty of it,” she said.
The boats would sail lazily out of Kingston to either Hyde Park or West Point, the latter being a seven-hour round-trip with a one-hour layover on the grounds of the military academy or a visit to Storm King and Bear Mountain Bridge.
The wooden boat was replaced by a double-deck steel boat dubbed the Rip Van Winkle. The couple added music cruises in the evening, and without market research, their instincts again proved successful.
“When I think back, I must have been out of my mind,” Henne said. “I had a lot of energy, is all I could think of.”
Once the pioneer in the area, Hudson River Cruises became so successful that other cruise ventures began popping up. Now there are six other businesses. But they operate respectfully, Henne said.
“Everybody takes their own little piece of the river.”
The tragic events of 9/11 changed the business; Homeland Security curtailed long-distance cruises. Gone are the days of seven-hour trips up and down the Hudson. But Henne and her crew continue to offer the same caliber of hospitality as they did at the start, thereby drawing faithful repeat customers.
“I see regulars who come back and bring their kids,” Henne said. “Then I meet the grandchildren of early passengers and I think, How can that be?”
Every couple of years, Henne introduces a new program to keep the Hudson River Cruises schedule fresh. Among the innovations are the popular murder mystery cruises, as well as journeys to local wineries known as “Sip and Sail.” New bands are booked for the musical cruises.
A great deal of the success of Hudson River Cruises, Henne said, is the camaraderie between crew members. People work together in harmony to create a mood onboard that draws people back time and time again.
“Every day on the boat we greet each other in the morning and we make sure to say goodnight in the evening. Everyone at Hudson River Cruises is family.”
Hudson River Cruises
5 Field Court, Kingston, NY
845-340-4700 | hudsonrivercruises.com