By Jill Tham

The mystique of white water is alluring and magnificent to most. The ability to get up close and personal with the force of the rapids is no simple feat. “You can’t swim in there,” says Gary Hierlihy, Captain and General Manager of Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. “There is no better way to experience the dynamic of what the Niagara River has to offer than with Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours.”

With a firm background and education in recreation, leisure and finance, Hierlihy spent many years white water rafting on the Ottawa River with Whirlpool Jet Boat’s sister company, Wilderness Tours. Wilderness Tours originated in 1970 and expanded to include jet boating in Montreal. With years of experience under their belt, Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours was established in 1992 and jet boating on the Niagara River became a reality.

Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours caters to a wide variety of individuals with varying levels of adventure. Whether you are an established thrill seeker or shy and reserved, Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours has something for everyone. “We see all types of individuals from tour groups to families. We have seven ‘Wet Jet boats’ and one ‘Jet Dome’ for those who have heard about our experience, but aren’t prepared to get wet,” says Hierlihy.

“The crew and guides were very professional and made sure everyone on board had a good time: even my wife who wasn’t exactly thrilled when two to four gallons of water came splashing into her face,” says Anthony Tham, long time Niagara resident who recently took a tour. “Although she wouldn’t let me sit in “Tsunami row”, I had a once in a lifetime experience,” he adds. “We then had lunch at a quaint restaurant and spent the rest of the day shopping on the main strip. It is the one thing you need to try if you are in the Niagara Region,” says Tham.

One can’t Google Whirlpool Jet Boats or read a review about their tours without hearing about the infamous “Hamilton Turn” a term that is synonymous with Whirlpool Jet Boats. What makes that turn so unique is that the flat bottom jet boat design allows the vessel to perform this task, giving their clients an unimaginable experience. “Just seeing the expressions on people’s faces when the boat is moving at full speed and then all of a sudden pulls off a 360 degree turn – It’s pretty neat,” says Hierlihy.

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“One challenge as a captain is that no two trips are ever the same: especially in white water application,” says Hierlihy. “The water is changing by the minute.” Using training protocols that have been learned from many years of white-water experience, Hierlihy makes sure his team is prepared for any and all contingencies including weather conditions, wave dynamics and fluctuations in water levels. His staff undergoes continual training in Swift Water Rescue and safe operational procedures. “We are heavily regulated by Transport Canada and US Coast Guard; we are like the aviation industry, but on water.”

There is no other vessel powerful enough to safely venture past the hydroelectric power generators and through the rapids of the mighty Niagara River. “Hiking in the gorge is spectacular, however from time to time hikers fall and are injured. We always extend ourselves to assist with these types of gorge evacuations,” states Hierlihy. Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours plays a vital role in the community with the local Police and Fire Departments by lending their jet boats and staff to transport injured victims from the embankment to safety.

Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours is committed to “running green” with engine systems that meet the California Emissions Standards and has gone the extra mile with extra precautions such as wake studies to ensure their program is environmentally friendly. In the off season, a great deal of time and resources are spent refurbishing the boats for the following year. “From the engine systems, structural integrity of the vessels, jet drives, electrical and sound systems, no small detail is overlooked,” states Hierlihy. “Our goal is to have them running like new again for each start up.”

Although Hierlihy takes his job seriously, he has many opportunities to have a good time and find humour in the day to day events that often come from being a Captain and General Manager of a unique experience like Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours. “Two summers ago we had a gentleman in the first row lose his toupee,” says Hierlihy. “We played the video a few times and got a good chuckle out of that one.” The list of celebrities that Whirlpool Jet Boats has brought to Niagara-on-the-Lake is growing with each season. “We have had Dalton McGinty, Regis Philbin, Harry Connick Jr., the Duggars from 19 kids and Counting, Guy Fieri, Aerosmith, Foreigner and a host of NHL players,” says Hierlihy. “The weddings are my favourite,” he adds.

Hierlily and the owner of Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours recognize that the Niagara River has much more to offer than high speeds and thrilling rides. So what’s next for the company? “We recently purchased Mississippi-style vessel designed for sunset cruises, corporate functions and Sunday brunch,” states Hierlihy. True to Whirlpool Jet Boat’s reputation for safety and efficiency, this new way to experience the Niagara River is expected to be ready for July 2014, after an extensive refurbishing of the entire vessel.

Hierlihy is proud to show Niagara residents and tourists the beauty that is the Niagara Gorge and Escarpment through a ride on one of his boats. “There are fast boats and there are jet boats, but it is totally different when on a jet boat in white water,” says Hierlihy. If you are looking for a way to see the breathtaking Niagara River and don’t mind getting a little wet, then Whirlpool Jet Boat Tours is the way to go.
For more information, check out whirlpooljet.com