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Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the summer of 2020 wasn’t smooth sailing for anyone.That was particularly true for the captains and crew of the Nautical Nature.For 25 years, the 45-foot enclosed pontoon boat trolled the waters of Lake Arthur, taking 37 passengers at a time on floating tours of Moraine State Park.
Social distancing mandates, though, sank what would have been Nautical Nature’s final season before it even got started, leaving the venerable craft tied to its moorings.Now, the boat has been replaced by a new, larger version — christened last week as Preston’s Pearl — and New Castle native Andy Piccuta is again looking forward to welcoming passengers aboard to go cruising at the end of this month.“We’re officially going to open things up Memorial Day weekend,” said Piccuta, one of the tour boat’s six alternating captains as well as a board member of the nonprofit Moraine Preservation Fund, which operates the craft as a fundraiser for the park.“We’re building a dock right now. We’re still trying to build infrastructure to handle the boat. Hopefully, things will be done by then and we’ll start giving tours again.”Public tours are available on weekends, and the boat may be chartered for private tours as well. That’s something Piccuta is excited about after being landlocked for all of 2020.“It’s just a fun thing, especially carrying passengers who have never been on a boat,” he said. “You get a lot of different excitement about it.”
Ironically, the Nautical Nature may have missed out on ending its career by ferrying more passengers than ever around the lake. After initially closing state parks at the onset of the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources began allowing folks back in by early June with limited capacity.The result was the folks stuck in their homes flocked to the parks in droves, with state park attendance increasing from 37 million in 2019 to more than 45.3 million in 2020.“We started out and were ready to go,” Piccuta said, “then we put a COVID plan together and we had some plastic put together, then we just had to shut it down. From a fundraising standpoint, it hurt. We do have a budget and we try to provide. We do operate The Owlet, which is a gift store in the park. That gives us some revenue, and we watched our money, so heading into the new year, we should be fine.“We just need people to come and ride the boat.”The boat’s name — Preston’s Pearl — was chosen in an open contest. It honors Dr. Frank Preston, a Butler County conservationist who first envisioned the 51-year-old park and whose 300 acres were added to land acquired by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy (which he helped create) to form it.With a length of 51 feet, and an upper observation deck that the Nautical Nature lacked, it is able to carry 50 passengers at a time, as opposed to its predecessor’s 37. It actually arrived on Lake Arthur in October to allow for testing and training in preparation of the 2021 season“It’s quite a bit bigger,” Piccuta said, “and there’s a lot more things we can do. We do offer dinner cruises, so it gives you more room for that. There’s a refrigerator on it, and it’s got all the bells and whistles.“It’s all electronically updated as well, so it’s going to make for a more positive experience.”[email protected]
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