All Aboard!

All Aboard!

Showboat sets sail for 25th anniversary season


The Showboat Branson Belle turns 25 this year, but if you ask Capt. James Plybon, he’ll tell you that’s the perfect age, not too young and certainly not too old. Capt. Plybon, who has been skippering the Belle for 10 years, says she’s a diva who would be unamused at a conversation about her age.

“Boats are typically known as ‘she.’ It’s always been that way,” explains Plybon, who is senior captain and operations manager for “the largest boat ever built for a landlocked lake.” “You treat a ship like you would a lady: You’re always kind and take care of her, and she’ll take care of you.”

Christened on April 13, 1995, the Belle is 278 feet long — almost the size of a football field — 78 feet wide and weighs 2.5 million pounds — although Plybon jokes that he never says that part in front of her either. He says most people don’t realize that she is a true sternwheeler, propelled through the water by two huge rear paddlewheels, each with its own motor weighing 7,500 pounds.

Maintaining a boat of that size — capable of carrying 700 passengers per cruise plus the crew — is not easy, and it’s a challenge Plybon takes very seriously. He considers himself personally responsible for every guest who sets foot on board and adds that “you can’t work for me if you don’t share the same philosophy.” With that in mind, every cruise starts with multiple counts of the passengers — including service dogs — and an assessment of their needs in case of emergency. “All of our marine crew are trained First Responders and firefighters,” Plybon adds, and all of the deck hands must know how to dock the Belle in case of emergency.

Every week, staff members use ultrasound to measure the thickness of the hull from inside, looking for weak spots. And every winter, during the two months the Belle doesn’t sail, divers videotape every underwater inch of the boat so it can be assessed. The tanks are serviced, and the motors are tested. Subject to Coast Guard oversight, “maintenance is meticulous,” Plybon says.

Plus, it all has to happen in the water. There is no place to put the Belle into dry dock. She hasn’t left Table Rock Lake since she was launched — which is another story Plybon delights in telling. The first two decks of the ship were built on land, and then workers slid it into the water on rails greased with environmentally friendly banana paste. She hit a speed of 14 mph on the way in, he says, laughing, which is faster than she’ll ever go again. Cruising speed is 6-11 mph.

Plybon says he doesn’t want passengers to worry about any of the technicalities; that’s his job as operations manager. But he does still get to regularly take the captain’s wheel — a solid maple wheel restored from the 1928 C.C. Slider — and yes, he still loves doing it.

“It’s fun to show the new, young guys that I can do something besides sit at my desk,” he says with his ever-ready laugh. “And I’m still pretty good at it. It’s not my first rodeo.”

Plybon also loves to meet the guests and does so as often as possible.

“My No. 1 priority is to make sure the ship is running smoothly,” he says. “But the guests are the reason we’re here.”



Showboat Branson Belle

25th Anniversary Season

WHEN — Starts with a 4 p.m. cruise March 13

WHERE — 4800 Missouri 165 in Branson

COST — $31-$83


Categories: 'Tis the Season