As he maneuvered his passenger-packed, double-decker boat toward the wall of falling water rising 170 feet before him, Senior Capt. Malcolm Bunting's words on shore a few minutes earlier became crystal clear, especially as the enveloping spray made the view from the wheelhouse anything but.
"It goes against all your common sense and seamanship," Bunting had said before getting behind the wheel of the Maid of the Mist tour boat, ready to nose it through swirling whitewater to within 300 feet of Niagara Falls. "I can remember my first trip, thinking, `What am I doing coming up this close?'"
But Wednesday's trip was 36 years removed from that maiden voyage, coming on Bunting's final day on the job as a captain. At age 63, he's retiring, ready to spend his days on solid ground, riding his motorcycle, taking in the sights up top after spending 8- to 12-hour days at the bottom of the Niagara Gorge.
"It's been quite a run," he said after his first 20-minute trip of the day. Maid of the Mist captains typically make 22 daily half-mile runs to the base of the Horseshoe Falls and back, servicing a never-ending line of rain-gear-clad tourists snaking on shore. Four boats launch at 15-minute intervals, two from the Canadian shore, two from U.S. docks.
On board the newest boat of the fleet _ an honor earned with seniority _ Bunting's nearly 600 passengers are squealing and soaking on the open decks as the captain, in a crisp blue uniform with brass buttons, stays collected and dry inside the small carpeted wheelhouse.
His "office" is equipped with modern amenities, including a microwave, coffee pot and sink. It's also got a modern steel steering lever, but that Bunting shuns, preferring to take the helm behind a waist-high wooden wheel which he rocks from side to side with a steady hand.
"We've had Princess Diana, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, a lot of actors, actresses, Joan Rivers, Vincent Price, Roddy McDowell," Bunting, 63, recalled among his most famous clientele.
Soap fans may remember Bunting behind the wheel when a helicopter lowered Anthony Geary onto the upper deck during an episode of "General Hospital." He also had spots in the movies "Superman 2" and "Search and Destroy." Former President Jimmy Carter, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and the premiers of China and Japan are among a long list of government dignitaries who've been on board.
"But I think the biggest thing is just everyday people, families and little kids, and everybody saying how great a time they had," said the low-key Bunting, who labored on tug boats and a research vessel before answering a newspaper ad to become a first mate at the Maid of the Mist. He advanced to captain 14 years later.
With 36 years on the job, Bunting may be the longest-serving captain in the Maid's 165-year history. The first boats were wooden steamships. The diesel-powered steel vessels in use today came along in the 1950s. But technological advances only go so far in the swirling waters below Niagara Falls.
"You have to watch the current very closely, stay in the fast water, keep clear of the back eddies and watch the rocks," he said. "It takes a good five years to really get comfortable handling the boat in that area.
"There's no automatic pilot here," Bunting said. "It's strictly seat-of-the-pants navigation."
Once he reaches the basin below the falls, the captain pushes the engines just enough to hold against the seven- to eight-knot current, giving the illusion that the boat is moving forward when it's standing still. On this nearly windless day, the thick spray and mist hang at the river's surface, hampering views out the windshield.
Bunting's never run into serious trouble on a trip, he said, noting a few mechanical issues that were overcome by backup systems. The most startling moment came about 30 years ago when a telephone pole suddenly shot out of the water just off the bow.
"It looked like a missile launched off a submarine," Bunting said. "It was so close."
But most of his 110,000 or so trips have gone off without a hitch. He's never heard a complaint from the estimated 16 million passengers he's carried.
The streak continued in his final day.
"You stand there and you think, how do they keep the ship up there?" Jan Bartlett, who was among a group of 40 travelers from Lockport, Ill., said as she exited the boat. "The captain did a great job."