Captain Russ Lee was born for a life on the water. As a tow boat and passenger ship captain, he has been navigating area waterways since 1977.
“I got into the boating business because of my family,” Captain Russ says. “My father was a ship’s chief engineer, and my uncle was a captain. Following them out on the water just seemed natural.”
Today, Captain Russ is the owner of Hendersonville’s RiverShip Cruises, which offers a wide variety of passenger cruises on Old Hickory Lake. Through his company, he helps thousands of people celebrate their special occasions each year out on the lake and on the Cumberland River.
“We have a good reputation in Hendersonville, and we provide a great service,” he says. “We give all of our customers a great experience on the water.”
Captain Russ is particularly proud of his ship, The Vagabum. Unlike most vessels in the area, it is a true ship, equally at home on the ocean as it is in freshwater rivers and lakes.
“The Vagabum is a 65-foot, all-weather vessel constructed out of solid steel. She was designed to cross the Atlantic Ocean, making regular round-trip runs from Florida to the Bahamas.”
When operated by RiverShip Cruises personnel, the ship has a capacity of 12 guests. Each cruise has its own professional captain as well as a dedicated cruise director. However, the company also offers guests the option to charter The Vagabum on a “bareboat” basis, where they provide their own crew. In this situation, the vessel can accommodate up to 25 guests.
Captain Russ has owned RiverShip Cruises since 2017, after purchasing it from well-known local Dr. Burkett Nelson. Before the sale, Dr. Nelson had operated the cruise line out of Hendersonville for 11 years.
“I think that we actually saved RiverShip Cruises from leaving Hendersonville,” Captain Russ says.
“Dr. Nelson had moved The Vagabum down to Mississippi for some drydock repairs. While the ship was there, he decided to retire, and he wasn’t sure that he was going to bring it back to Hendersonville. I was able to buy the business from him, and I made sure to keep it in our city.”
Since taking over the business, Captain Russ and his team have greatly expanded the company’s cruise and event offerings.
“Today, we are open to all types of events,” he says. “We specialize in bachelor/bachelorette parties, wedding/anniversary celebrations, birthday parties and corporate getaways. The Vagabum makes a great little venue for any special occasion on the water.”
Dinner cruises are particularly popular, and the company offers its patrons far more flexibility than its competitors.
“We have our own catering team now with a custom menu offering everything from appetizers to full-course dining,” he says. “We also permit our guests to use external caterers or to bring and prepare their own food. We have a lot of summertime customers who like to bring their own burgers and steaks and cook them over our ship’s built-in grill.”
While RiverShip Cruises does not serve alcohol, customers are free to bring their own beer, wine or liquor. Before each cruise, The Vagabum is fully stocked with drink mixes and barware to accommodate customer needs.
This year, RiverShip Cruises added a special 15-passenger chauffeured bus to transport guests to and from The Vagabum. While the primary purpose of the bus is to shuttle cruise passengers, it is also available for group charter excursions, e.g., tours of Nashville.
While the warm months of summer are peak cruise periods, The Vagabum is capable of operating year-round.
“We normally offer most of our cruises from April through mid-December,” Captain Russ says. “We try to reserve the late December through March time period for ship maintenance. However, we do host some special events during the downtime, including Christmas parties and Valentine’s sweetheart cruises.”
Booking a cruise on The Vagabum is as simple as calling RiverShip Cruises. However, during the warm summer months, availability becomes tight as more customers schedule their special occasions.
“This time of year, we are booking some dates as far out as five months or more,” Captain Russ says. “All of our cruises are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis. Customers who book early are able to get our best rates, which currently range from $500 and up.”
Although Captain Russ stays busy with The Vagabum, he has future plans of bringing an even larger vessel to Hendersonville.
“We get a lot of requests to handle parties for 100 persons or more,” he says. “Dock space for such a ship is very limited in our area. However, whenever the right dock becomes available, I will bring in a new boat.”
At RiverShip Cruises, Captain Russ and his team are committed to providing their customers with the best boating experience available on Old Hickory Lake.
“We go beyond expectations in delivering the best possible customer service,” he says. “Our professional crews are dedicated to providing each of our guests with a VIP experience they will always remember.”
Creekwood Marina, C Dock
259 Sanders Ferry Road, Hendersonville
From bachelorette parties to moonlit dinner cruises, RiverShip Cruises offers the perfect venue for experiencing the sights and sounds of Old Hickory Lake.