The two boats from Duluth’s Vista Fleet were tampered with, unmoored and left unoccupied and adrift for hours early Thursday near the Aerial Lift Bridge.

The Vista Star and Vista Queen were able to be driven back to the dock and secured without apparent damage, avoiding what could have been a catastrophic loss for Justin Steinbach, owner of the popular tourist and event boats. Police are investigating the incident, including a review of surveillance video and photos.

“Only if somebody knew our operation would you know how to untie the boats the way they did,” said Steinbach, who couldn’t recall any obviously disgruntled workers or former workers.

Steinbach arrived at the scene a short time after being alerted by phone at about 6:20 a.m., using authorities and on-call crew members to reach the boats and drive them back to their berths behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center within 40 minutes.

A DECC worker was the first to spot and report the vessels adrift. Steinbach estimated the boats were unmoored and on the open water of Superior Bay for four hours or more.

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Steinbach was cooperating with the Duluth Police Department on what he said was a criminal investigation when the News Tribune arrived on a sunny morning to see police combing through the Vista Queen in the Minnesota Slip off Harbor Drive, just up from the William A. Irvin museum ship.

Steinbach said there is video from a surveillance camera positioned along Harbor Drive, showing a suspect working alone to free the Vista Queen.

Lt. Jeff Kazel of the Duluth police would only confirm that the case has been assigned and is currently under investigation.

“Somebody came between midnight and 2 a.m. and untied our boats,” Steinbach said, describing how the suspect accessed places on-deck in each boat and even turned the smaller Vista Queen around from shore using their hands - guiding it down the slip and out into the harbor.

“It takes us two people to unmoor at a minimum,” Steinbach said, describing how the person worked a series of exercises to shut down the shore power that runs generators, beer and food coolers and more - including pulling a thick electrical cord connected to power on land that would itself hold the boats to the deck under calm conditions.

The Vista Star appeared to have bounced along the seawall behind the Sports Garden, Steinbach said, but suffered no apparent visible damage. Steinbach said it doesn’t appear as if the two ships connected with one another at any point.

Steinbach described “the height of the drama” as being a U.S. Coast Guard vessel maneuvering itself between the Vista Queen and the freighter John D. Leitch as it arrived under the Aerial Lift Bridge at about 7 a.m.

“The Coast Guard was in radio contact with the ship,” Steinbach said.

The potential for running aground and even sinking the boats was a $1.5 million proposition, he said.

At its peak earlier this season, the Vista Fleet employed more than 50 people - lots of college students working for the summer, but also a well-heeled layer of experience, especially among its four captains who each have been with the fleet for a half-dozen years and more, Steinbach explained.

The Vista Star had been out the previous night and put away by 5 p.m., but the Vista Queen hadn’t been in use since a private party Tuesday, he said.

The Vista Star was back underway for a tour at about noon Thursday.

Even if the vessels were not damaged, Steinbach said he would have to fill out a marine casualty report with the Coast Guard - a necessity anytime a vessel runs aground, sinks, crashes or is tampered with in any way.