A Day in the Life of a Shepler’s Ferry Boat Captain – Part I 8/6/2010

Writing a blog is not for the shy person.  To get a story and pictures, you have to be willing to call or write or email or visit a manager or owner and say boldly, “I’d like to do a blog about your business and take photographs.  What day would work for you?” 
Last year it was a lot harder.  No one knew who “Bree” was, and few had ever heard of “Bree’s Blog”.  The usual reactions I got were “What’s a blog?”, “How do I know you won’t say something bad about my business?”, and the ever popular, “You mean you want to advertise my business, and it won’t cost anything? What’s the catch?” 
This year – so much easier!  One of the posts I’ve been wanting to write is “A Day in the Life of a Ferry Boat Captain”.  Because Shepler’s Ferry is such an online presence, I simply posted a comment to their Facebook page, asking about doing that story.  In the blink of an eye, I had a response from Misty Martinchek, the young lady behind Shepler’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.  We chatted privately online a few times, and I soon had a meeting set up to ride in the pilot house with Captain Chris Shepler, a grandson of the company’s founder.  Before I get to all the fun we had on the Straits of Mackinac, here’s a little background history of the Shepler Ferry Line. 
In 1945 Captain William H. Shepler returned to Mackinac (his birthplace) and realized the potential of the area, specifically transporting people back and forth to Mackinac Island.  His dream was to provide a fast, efficient, and modern type of service that he felt was half the Mackinac experience.  He started small by opening a snack bar for people waiting for the ferry and soon discovered a need for a charter service for island guests.  Captain Bill’s instinct was to do it right and do it with class.  His charter service flourished, and when the opportunity came to buy out a competitor, he was able to add a second boat. 
With the end of World War II, the passenger traffic to the island increased, and it became evident that a larger boat was needed – with an enclosed cabin for heavy weather.  In the winter of 1950, he built a 30-ft. cabin cruiser with twin gas engines for speed and safety.  This small yacht carried 24 passengers.
In 1954 the Mackinac Bridge was under construction, and the demand for sightseeing trips to the bridge construction site necessitated the construction of a second high speed cruiser.  A few years later, Shepler was fortunate to be able to purchase a piece of beach frontage on the island where a small dock was soon constructed.  A larger vessel was required to give all-weather capabilities, but when in 1966 the Mein Kapitan arrived at the Sheper dock ready to carry 120 passengers, the vessel’s weight, design and horsepower could not provide the desired speed.  In 1969 The Welcome was built with the desired speed and capacity, and the vessel is still in use.  The Welcome was the start of a new concept in high speed, modern passenger transportation not only in the Straits area, but for the Great Lakes.
In May of 1988, Capt. William H. Shepler died and his son William R. (Bill Jr.) took over the helm of the company with the help of his four children Chris, Patty, Kathy, and Billy.  Throughout the years, Shepler’s has undergone several major renovations of the docks and facilities in Mackinac City, St. Ignace, and on Mackinac Island.  They also have added a successful freight service.
The Shepler dock on Mackinac Island is on the west end of Main Street.  There is a large covered area to wait that really helps in rainy weather.  There are also lockers available if you arrive on the island for a day trip and begin to wonder why you brought that heavy purse or several layering pieces.  Sometimes when you leave the mainland early, it will be 62 degrees, and you think, “I’d better take a jacket or two!”  Then you get here and by noon it’s 72, and you don’t want to carry around all that stuff all day.  Just stow it in a locker!
I was meeting Captain Chris in St. Ignace, so I rode across on The Felicity, taking a few photographs as we traveled.  No matter how often I leave the island, even if only for a quick trip, I always get that “butterflies in my tummy” feeling that I’m leaving home.  Living here as long as we do now in the summer, that has eased a bit – much better than when we only stayed for a couple of weeks on vacation.  Then the “butterflies” were more like “herds of elephants.” 

The Shepler Ferry Line has five boats in the water: The Welcome, The Felicity, The Hope, The Capt. Shepler, and the one in this photo, The Wyandot - which we followed out of the Mackinac Island harbor. Except for the Capt. Shepler, all the boats are named after ships that sailed in the Straits during the late 17th century.


Traveling from the island to St. Ignace instead of Mackinaw City gives you a whole different view of the island. These are condos about halfway between town and British Landing.

As we approached St. Ignace, we passed the St. Ignace Light . . .

. . . and part of the business district.

When I talked with Misty about this story, I also asked about writing on The Hope, a Shepler ferry which had been cut in half during the winter, lengthened by adding a center section, and then put back together.  Hopefully, I’ll get back to The Hope before the season is over, but Misty and I both decided the “Captain’s Day” story was a good one to write at the height of the tourist season.
Captain Chris was waiting for me in his office at the Shepler dock in St. Ignace, and we chatted for a few minutes before boarding The Felicity for the trip back to the island.  During the summer, the ferries are running every 30 minutes, so they are only at the dock for 10 minutes between runs. 
Chris Shepler attended Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio for three years, playing basketball and football for the Division III School.  He then spent several years traveling and sailing professionally in such places as Spain and France.  With plans to complete his degree in Geography and Marine Affairs, Chris was accepted into the University of Rhode Island, but before he could begin his last year of college, he was invited to race in the 1987 America’s Cup in Australia and won a spot on the Heart of America team.  Chris calls it “the experience of a lifetime”.  Twenty years ago, Chris returned to St. Ignace to become part of the family business and now serves as Vice President of the company.  He makes 2 or 3 trips a day to the island and back, spending most of his time now in marketing, administration, and giving back to the community.  I could see instantly why Misty calls him the “face of Shepler’s”.  Chris is open and friendly and has a smile that’s a mile wide.  He puts you at ease within five seconds of meeting him.
My thinking was I would settle into the little nook to the side and back of the Captain’s seat and take pics and ask questions.  Chris had other ideas.  
“Have a seat in my chair,” he said, and I looked at him a little funny thinking, “Ok, I’ll sit in the big chair and ask my questions.”  Chris had other ideas. 
He backed the ferry away from the dock, turned into open water and said to me, “Ok, you drive.” 
Huh?  Here’s this huge steering wheel in front of me, the Straits of Mackinac out the front window, other ferries all around, and I’m supposed to drive?  Well, all righty then!

The view from the pilot house.

 With Chris talking non-stop about all the things I needed to think about between the mainland and the island – winds, water conditions, other ferries, avoiding freighters (yikes!), avoiding lighthouses (double yikes!), we made it safely across the Straits and  into the “no wake zone” of Mackinac Island.  I put my feet on the floor (that Captain’s seat is tall) and prepared to move out of the way so he could dock the boat.  Chris had other ideas.
“Oh no,” he said, “You’re docking the boat.”
OK – I’m stopping here to explain that I don’t “captain” our pontoon boat at home on the lake in Georgia, and the reason is I don’t want to dock it or put it in the boathouse.  Why?  Because if I don’t do it right, I could take out a couple of boards on the dock, crinkle up the fronts of the pontoons, and – worse of all – have to listen to Ted yelling “Stop! Stop! Stop!” in my dreams for the next year.
So while driving the ferry didn’t stress me out much (lots of room out there to get away from things I might hit), docking was a whole other ballgame.  I just looked at Chris and said, “You’ve got to be kidding!”  Chris (big laugh) said, “You can do this, Brenda.  I’ll be talking you through the whole thing.”
And so I docked The Felicity on Mackinac Island (please be aware that throughout the ride over and docking, all I was doing was steering – Chris had his hand firmly on the throttle – controlling how fast or slow we were moving).  I’m also sure he could have stopped that ferry on a dime if he thought I was about the change the architecture of the dock.
Before I left the island that morning I called Jill to see if she could ride with me and take pictures of what I thought would be me sitting in the Captain’s seat for a photo op, but she had another commitment.  After we had docked back on the island, and I didn’t have a single photo to prove I had done it, I frantically called Jill again.   Chris said I could drive the ferry back to St. Ignace and dock it over there, and Jill, bless her heart, had rushed through her other commitment and was approaching the ferry as I was calling her cell.  She boarded The Felicity, and Chris said, “Ok, take her out.”  Yes sir, Captain!
With Chris once again giving instructions, I maneuvered the ferry away from the dock, between the Round Island Passage Light and the breakwater, and back into open water.  This time, with Jill aboard (she should get hazard pay because she was hanging outside the window of the pilot house in the wind to take photos from all different angles), I could prove I was really doing this!
Stay tuned on Monday for Part II of “A Day in the Life of a Shepler’s Ferry Boat Captain”.  There will be lots more pics and the story of Chris’ “most dangerous day on the Straits” (not counting the day I drove), what it’s like to ride with celebrities, and what Shepler’s does to give back to the community.   Have a great weekend, and God bless.

15 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Shepler’s Ferry Boat Captain – Part I 8/6/2010

  1. Shepler’s is my favorite ferry.
    It’s always great fun to see the people who have never been on the ferry before. They go up top and act like the ferry is going to go sooo slowly. But when the captain hits the gas and the ferry rockets off, it’s a stitch to see them grab their hair, clothes, and packages before everything is airborne. Great story Brenda. Can’t wait for part 2.

  2. What fun! We drive across the bridge into St. Ignace when we come up and then always take Shepler’s ferries across. You did a wonderful job telling us of your adventure as Cap’n Bree! Happy Friday!!

  3. Oh what fun!! Shepler’s seem like such wonderful, friendly people, I can’t wait to board their ferry. Great story Brenda, can’t wait till Monday! Have a wonderful weekend. 🙂

  4. Wow! That must have been a blast! I wish I could have been down on the dock when you came in…I would have loved to have seen you behind the wheel in the pilot house! Can’t wait to read the rest of the story!

    • If I had known I was going to be the “driver”, I’d have stopped off at the Grand and let you know! It was SO FUN!

  5. Oh Brenda, so are so like me especially the ‘Super Slueth’ side of you. As sailors I’m intrigued with the Tall Ships that are coming through the straits now. Late last nite 2 of them came through the Soo Locks – Niagara and the Denis Sullivan. Too dark to take pics last night so away I went this morning. Just happened to see a crewmember come off the Niagara and with my trusty camera in hand I started talking with him. I noticed he had some mail to get off. After conversing a bit, he asked where the nearest post office was. I said I’d be happy to mail them for him. To make a long story short I drove him to the post office where we had a great chat. Turns out he is head of the crew. Now mind you I NEVER give rides to strangers, but like you….the Super Slueth in me gave in. BTW, the Niagara will be leaving Saulte St. Marie this aft. and heading your way. The Denis Sullivan is leaving Monday morning heading your way. Yes, Super Slueth met a crew member from there also, 🙂

  6. Seriously!! You drove a ferry boat!! That is soooooo cool!!! You totally have th most coolest stories to tell! Your wonderful and thanks for the awesome blog!!

  7. Lovely story! I’m new to your Blog Captain Bree! Enjoy all your stories. We were at Mackinac Island last weekend and hope to visit again this fall….I’m looking forward to you upcoming stories.

  8. This is a great story! I am 46 and have been coming to mackinac since I was a wee tot. I loved it as a kid, loved it as a punky teen and now my adult children and I have made the trek every year since they were young children. There is something magical about the Island for me and I am so glad that my daughters love it as much as I do. At the risk of being censored I learned 10 years ago that I was ‘conceived’ on the island by my honeymooning parents( I know,..tmi!..sorry). I really enjoyed your article and look forward to the next one. The kids and I are heading up there this Sunday for our annual weeks stay. It never gets old for me and I cant wait!

  9. The pics areall great but that last one is a charmer. I left you a note yesterday, but I don/t see it here-probably didn’t hit submit or something.

    I waid, can’t you call your orthopedic guy and tell him that surely if you captained a ferry, you could sit on a Fresian horse?

  10. What a great story Bree, on Part 1, and what a great Captain, Chris is for letting you take the helm. I will be receiving my captains license this week (I hope) and what I wouldn’t give to have that experience you did. Looking for a J.O.B.

    Tom Schmidt

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