City Paper is not for tourists
If there’s one sound you don’t want to hear on a party boat it’s a thud. Followed by another thud. And a third in rhythmic succession. Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina” is pulsing from DJ Blue Magic’s soundsystem aboard a Boomerang Boat Tours sunset cruise on a recent Friday, but the thuds are even more powerful than the bass. It turns out that one of the passengers is merely doing the worm on the top deck of the boat.
Moments before, the woman who executed the difficult dance move and her friends were toasting with $25 bottles of Champagne while they watched others take the spotlight in the impromptu dance circle linking all ages and races. Something about being off solid ground acts as a party starter, setting fire to inhibitions and bringing a diverse group of strangers together for two hours that feel like a prom with gin and tonics instead of hidden flasks.
“It’s like a sociology experiment,” says Nikki DuBois, who co-owns Boomerang Boat Tours with her husband, Dave. “The boat attracts every demographic.” All Boomerang cruises depart from the Georgetown waterfront. Unless you’ve shelled out for a private charter for your law firm’s summer associates, your float on the Potomac will feature a wide variety of people. Think birthday parties, college reunions, date nights for older couples trying to get their grooves back, and solo customers shooting video for their YouTube channels with a blur of monuments in the background.
After seven seasons of sailing, DuBois can confidently say her passengers are by and large local. “When we opened, I thought it was going to be tourist-based,” she says. “We put flyers in all of the hotels and focused on things that would attract outsiders.” Then she kept seeing the same faces and changed course to target Washingtonians looking for a work happy hour, birthday celebration, or unconventional bachelorette party. DuBois estimates that marriage proposals happen five or six times a year.
Cruise tickets cost between $20 and $45, depending on the time of day, and despite the captive audience, cocktails are priced to sell on the sunset cruise. The most popular drink is the Pirate’s Punch—a sugary smack of spiced rum, coconut rum, pineapple juice, and cranberry juice for $9. Rail liquor drinks are $7. Beers are $5. There’s also a $20 “shotski” that allows four passengers to simultaneously shoot Fireball Cinnamon Whisky from a wood plank.
But DuBois doesn’t like calling her business a booze cruise—a misnomer frequently applied to her business. “It’s not open bar,” she says. “It’s not like you’re in Cancun. You can come on and sip on a beer or a glass of wine. If you want to do shots, you can do that too, but not everyone is throwing up or going overboard.”
She’s taken steps in recent years to cut down on anything that could pose an alcohol-related risk, even though it cuts into her business’ bottom line. They pay to have security aboard all cruises for ID checks and crowd control. If a passenger proves unruly, the boat returns to the dock. They turn down college parties. And the cruises are now two hours instead of three.
“When they get to the point where they shouldn’t be consuming anymore, they’re getting off anyway,” says sales director Kelly Johansen. “Who needs a three-hour tour? Gilligan ruined that for all of us.”
No one turned green or jumped ship on the Friday night City Paper boarded Boomerang’s party yacht, but DuBois admits they had a jumper about four years ago. It was a total buzz kill. “When someone jumps overboard, you have to call 9-1-1 and go through the man overboard drill,” she says. “To jump off a commercial vessel is considered illegal, so people think it’s fun but it’s not funny.”
According to DuBois, the passenger swam to shore and climbed the Lincoln Memorial steps, then ran off. “They started a tab at the bar so we had their credit card,” she says. She believes the Coast Guard got involved and tracked the person down using Facebook. Incidents like this are rare. The biggest hazards aboard a Boomerang cruise are the bar running out of ice or the internet cutting out and impacting credit card payments.
Boomerang Boat Tours originated as a tour bus company that operated from 2006 to 2014. DuBois came up with the idea while she was a high school teacher in Maryland. “I was burnt out and thinking of a career change,” she says. Her desk overlooked the school bus line. “So, I thought, ‘We should buy a school bus and paint it and gut it and put surround-sound in and it’ll be Nikki’s tour bus company.’” Her husband encouraged her, and eventually quit his job and joined his wife in 2008. The family business gradually grew to include six busses and a limo.
Come 2010, the couple sought to expand. “I thought about launching busses in other cities, but then we realized that our river was underutilized,” she says. The couple has lived in Georgetown for 16 years. While there were sightseeing boats, water taxis, and upscale dinner cruises like The Odyssey, there wasn’t a dedicated party boat company. They launched with the 74-person “Party Boat” in 2012, but the Coast Guard suggested they diversify to avoid being sidelined if their single boat broke down.
“I joked with them and said, ‘Well if we do a second boat, it would be a pirate ship,’” DuBois recounts. She didn’t think it was possible due to the height restrictions—there are a series of low-slung bridges leading out of Georgetown. The Coast Guard connected the DuBoises with an individual who could build them a custom pirate ship. It launched a year later in 2013, and enabled the company to offer something for kids. “We do treasure-hunt cruises in the morning and afternoon, then that boat turns into 21-and-up at night,” she says. It draws the most costumed passengers, who board as pirates, parrots, and sharks.
The DuBoises shut the bus business down in 2014, freeing up fresh capital and time to add their third and final boat, the 125-person “Party Yacht,” to the line-up in 2015. The first party boat is now used for private charters. Johansen says she books about 5 to 10 per week at $800 an hour. Her favorite promo to push is a private afternoon charter aboard the pirate ship that’s $400 an hour. If you rope in 84 friends for two hours, it comes to less than $10 per person.
Johansen first connected with DuBois when she won tickets for a party bus tour 10 years ago this October. “Nikki was my host,” she says. “After the first stop, I was hooked. I was like, ‘Where do I sign up to work?’” She remains that enthusiastic a decade later. “Everybody that comes on board has such great energy. It’s so easy to feed off of them. Even if you’ve been on the board for a long time, every two hours we get a fresh batch of faces.”
On the cruise City Paper booked, DuBois and Johansen were both behind the bar with a third mate named Ashley Kern. All hands on deck, so to speak. They were joined by a pair of deckhands who are trained in safety; Captain Ben Brummell, who dutifully steered the party yacht past the Kennedy Center and back again, a security guard, and DJ Blue Magic.
“Top 40 is safe and then I try to feel the crowd out,” DJ Blue Magic says. “You try to appease people, especially the birthday people.” He had a lot of requests that night and kept up. The DJ with piercing blue eyes checks his ego at the door and plays just about anything. “Older crowds on this boat enjoy the ‘Electric Slide,’” he says. “Whatever keeps the party going. If it’s ‘Do The Polka,’ I’ll play that if that’s what’s popping.”
The pirate ship requires a different set of staff. DuBois says she brings in pirate actors from George Washington University’s theatre department. “They’ll talk in pirate accents,” DuBois says. “We give them a skit, go over face-painting, and there’s pirate vocabulary. We give them the training and then watch them take it and run with it.”
The skits aren’t always smooth. “We have a little enemy boat that comes and attacks us,” DuBois explains. “We have water cannons and the bad guys have the keys to the treasure chest that we’re trying to get back.” A character named Evil Edgar hides under the Memorial Bridge unbeknownst to passengers and the general public. “During the whole ‘See Something, Say Something’ campaign that came out of the FBI due to terrorism, people were calling 9-1-1 because they were seeing this little boat lurking under a bridge and a dude with a sword and fake beard and bandana.”
They presumed he was there to blow up the bridge. “So 9-1-1 would contact the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard was like, ‘No it’s all good, it’s just Evil Edgar.’ They actually had to tell us that Evil Edgar had to dress less scary. No more fake beard, he’s got to put the sword down.”
In our nation’s capital, even operating a party boat is a matter of national security.
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