A Day in the Life of a Shepler’s Ferry Boat Captain – Part II 8/10/2010

On Mackinac Island, passengers flowed off and on The Felicity as folks arrived late for day trips or early to check into rooms.  Waiting in the departure line were those who had just checked out of their rooms, eaten lunch, and were headed back to the mainland.

Large crowds getting off, small crowd getting on. No one ever wants to leave the island.

With Jill aboard The Felicity to document the trip back to St. Ignace, Captain Chris talked me through moving the ferry away from Shepler’s Mackinac Island dock.  There is no way I can tell you how exciting it was to feel that big boat respond to my touch on the wheel.  Chris’ instructions were fast, clear, and easy enough for me to follow, even with my heart about to beat out of my chest.  All I could think about was not messing up and taking out the bike rental shop next to Shepler’s.  The pilot house of The Felicity is on the top deck, and a couple riding up there figured out pretty quickly that the regular “captain” wasn’t at the helm.  Thank goodness they were ok with that and kept shouting encouragement and applauding everytime I’d do something right.  I’m grinning ear to ear just thinking about it!

Having Jill on board made everything just that much more fun! Chris showed her where she could stand at the very front side of the boat to take photos through the pilot house windows, but it scared me to death to see her out there once we got going. But Jill is fearless, and she took some great pics!

OK - I backed the ferry away from the dock and listened closely to Chris' saying "turn the wheel to the left a little", "to the right a little", "aim for the wake of that ferry", and "if you grip the wheel any tighter you're going to break it".

So I loosened my grip on the wheel, and Chris immediately said, "Hold on to the wheel! Don't let it go like that!" (I'm totally kidding about those last two comments - Chris was so nice and patient I think I could have easily docked a freighter with his instructions.)

Chris has just asked me to follow another ferry out past the breakwater, then turn between the breakwater and the Round Island Passage Light. You can see that he still has his hand on the throttle.

Traveling to St. Ignace gives you an up-close look at the Grand Hotel from the water.

Now I could breathe a little easier - we were away from the island, the breakwater and the lighthouses. All I had to worry about were other ferries, freighters, sailboats, and private watercraft. Whew! 15 minutes to chat.

One of the first things I had noticed on the trip to the island was how much rougher the ride is in the pilot house than in the ferry’s cabin.  Since the water was relatively calm, I asked Chris if my driving was the cause.  He got a big laugh out of that and explained that the center of gravity on the ferry was about the middle of the passenger section.  Where we were in relation to that center  (in the front and up top) would naturally create a bumpier ride.

I had jotted down in my notebook (the one I never got to glance at even once after Chris changed my “plan for the day”) to ask Chris about celebrity riders.  Because we live on the island during the summer, I know we get our share of famous visitors.  Chris explained “stars” always show up unannounced.  Like other vacationers, these folks just want to “get away”, and they want to stay as unnoticed as possible.  A few of the Shepler “celebs” who Chris could remember off the top of his head were Lady Bird Johnson, Bob Seager, Newt Gingrich, Kris Draper (professional hockey player for the Red Wings), Don Shula, Larry Ellison (America’s Cup winner and CEO of Oracle), Shane Battier (professional basketball player), Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs, and Kid Rock. 

I wondered about the daily schedules for the ferry boat captains, and Chris said that each of their contracts is a little different.  Some may work four 10-hour days, some six 8-hour days, and others six 12-hour days.  The ferries are regulated by the Coast Guard, and the regulations state that no captain can work more than a 12-hour day.  Shepler’s tries to work the schedules around the captain’s needs also – some work other jobs in the winter and must leave earlier, others can stay for a longer season. 

Another concept I love is that Shepler’s considers their workers not “employees”, but cast members.  The Shepler idea is to “produce” a whole island experience – from the time you pull your vehicle into their parking lot until you return to the parking lot after your trip to the island.  “Getting there” is truly part of the production, and when you are greeted by friendly, smiling, well-groomed young people who are polite and obviously enjoying their summer jobs, your trip begins in a very positive way.  New cast members commit to a three-day orientation entitled “Shepler’s Traditions”, and customer service is stressed as priority number one.

Captain Billy Shepler trains a new group of cast members in safety procedures during last Spring's orientation.

All of the Shepler boats are dry docked in the winter, and when spring arrives the boats go back in the water when the ice has melted enough to make safe operation possible.  Early spring tours book up early, and even before the first vacationers begin to arrive, Shepler’s is busy ferrying across convention and school groups.  Once the season is in full swing, Shepler’s offers not only regular passenger service to Mackinac Island, but also 3-hour lighthouse cruises which take sightseers either east or west for up-close looks at lights in the Straits of Mackinac.  All of the lighthouse tours are narrated by members of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, and Shepler’s is the only ferry line offering the tours. 

Besides the five passenger ferries, there is one other boat  in the Shepler fleet – The Sacre Bleu – their freight-hauling ferry.  Purchased 14 years ago, the 65-footer carried freight to Mackinac, Beaver, Bois Blanc, and Sugar Islands for a year.  The boat’s limited capacity (a lot of freight goes to these islands in huge semi-trailers) caused Shepler’s to pull the boat out for a winter of reworking.  Another 30′ were added to the Sacre Bleu, and now Chris says she is their “freight-hauling monster”, leaving the dock between 6-6:30 every morning with anything from refrigerated trailers of frozen food, to heavy equipment, to horses.  All of the boats are checked out by a mechanic at the end of each day’s run to ensure the safety of the passengers and to minimize any schedule delays.

With the family business going back 65 years, it’s not surprising to learn that Shepler’s is dedicated to giving back to their community.  As the country struggles economically, Shepler’s continues to find ways to infuse their service-oriented work ethic into service projects within their home area.  Last year Shepler’s joined the  Adopt-a-Highway program with its cast members, and three times a year the Shepler’s team gives a day to collecting trash along a two-mile section of I-75, doing their part to keep Michigan clean.  Volunteerism is encouraged, and anyone giving three hours to one of southeastern Michigan’s Boys or Girls Clubs receives a free  ferry ticket to Mackinac Island.  Portions of the proceeds from the lighthouse tours goes back to the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association. 

Cleaning Day along Shepler's section of I-75, earlier this spring.

Then there’s the fireworks show.  Last year the city of St. Ignace proposed a weekly Saturday night fireworks display to help draw tourists to town for the weekend.  Chris attended the first planning meeting and soon found himself Chairman of that committee.  Each Saturday night of the summer, Chris and his crew load The Sacre Bleu with fireworks and take the boat out into the harbor where technicians launch a spectacular 15-minute fireworks show.  Shepler’s donates The Sacre Bleu, and Chris donates his time for this event.

As we approached St. Ignace, Chris instructed me to "aim for The Sacre Bleu", the long flat boat with the black bottom in the middle right side of this photo. I thought that was pretty funny - to be told to aim one boat toward another one. At home in Georgia, I'm usually being told just the opposite.

Approaching the St. Ignace harbor.


OK - it's here that Chris suffers from a lapse in sanity. He tells ME to take the throttle, giving little "suggestions" about how far to push one forward and pull the other one back. Meanwhile, he is on the radio telling someone on shore to evacuate the area.


Almost there!

I feel a lot better with Chris' hand back on the throttle. I think he does too.


Letting the wind push us up to the dock. We made it!

The last question I asked Chris was about the dangers of piloting the ferries back and forth across the Straits of Mackinac in bad weather.  The day he spoke of as “the worst” was a Friday last October – a day I remember well.  Jill and I were at the Grand to hear a speaker, and the weather was so bad we couldn’t get home.  So we bought a box lunch and went up to the Grand cupola to watch the events of the day play out.  We knew the ferries were having a hard go of it that day because we kept getting updates from downstairs.  Below, Chris talks about that day – in his own words:

Got to work at 12:30 p.m. after a meeting with our accountant, going over our 3rd quarter statement.  Winds were blowing 35-40 knots out of the East, with gusts to 50 knots.  Seas were building at 15 feet.  At the time I had no idea how the day would end.

I jumped on ‘The Wyandot’ for three trips starting at 2 p.m.  Our competitors had stopped running for the day, and we ended up doing so as well.  The seas on my first trip were 6-8 feet in the Mackinac Island Harbor and a solid 15 on the big lake.

My last trip was the 5:45 p.m. departure to the Island.  At that time the seas were 20 feet on the big lake and a solid 8-10 in the Mackinac Island Harbor.  I was not driving that trip as I wanted to be in the cabin and make sure our guests were okay (had 150 passengers down below in the cabin).  Half-way to the Island we had cracked two windows in the cabin and took on a little water, due to the spray from the waves and the rain.  We cancelled our last trip to the Island, which was supposed to be at 6:30 p.m. – no way was I going back out there, especially in the dark with passengers on board.  It is one thing to be out there with no one on board – totally different when you are responsible for the safety of your guests on board your vessel.  It was so dark you could not see the waves coming.  The wind and seas were on a constant build from noon until I left for home.  The worst part was not the actual crossing, but the loading and unloading process.  Remember, the seas in the Mackinac Island Harbor were 8-10 feet.  What that means is the boat will move with those waves, and trying to unload 150 passengers – one by one – is a very tedious process that takes every part of your crew’s attention.

The sea and wind conditions stayed solid until 2 o’clock in the morning.

The amazing thing was, the seas, winds and current were all out of the east – HARD.  When the crew got into work the next morning at 7:00 a.m., the seas, winds and current had turned 180 degrees, and they were now out of the southwest at 40 knots, seas 12-14 and current at 8 knots.”

Least you forget – Mother Nature is always in charge.”

A month or so ago The Grand Hotel named the Shepler Ferry Line as their “go to” ferry, endorsing Shepler’s to all their past, present and future customers.  When I congratulated Chris, he said simply “It’s a great compliment  to our company to have The Grand put their faith in us to serve their needs.  We’ll will do everything we can to make sure we honor that endorsement.”

I can’t begin to express my gratitude to Shepler’s Ferry Line and Chris Shepler for allowing me on board The Felicity for this story.  Not only did you provide me with my most exciting adventure of the two years I’ve been doing this, but you’ve also gained a huge fan.  Here’s hoping the rest of the 2010 season is busy and prosperous, and here’s hoping the Shepler Tradition continues for many, many years to come. 




17 thoughts on “A Day in the Life of a Shepler’s Ferry Boat Captain – Part II 8/10/2010

  1. How exciting for you to be able to drive the ferry. It was also great to hear how Shepler’s gives back to the community. I knew about their crews picking up litter along I 75 from their Facebook page. About that day last Oct and the weather. Glad I wasn’t on that trip. The meds for my motion sickness would have been of help.

  2. Wow, that was a scary story by Chris. I’m so glad they were able to get everyone back to the city safely. Brenda, You do such a good job with your blog. I enjoy it so much. Thanks.

  3. Thank you, Jill, for picking up the camera so Brenda could concentrate on driving the boat!! And telling the story! What a treat!

  4. What a remarkable story. It must have been so exciting for you. Thank you so much. Pictures were beautiful. Love ya!

  5. Yes! What a great story!. What an exciting day that must have been for you and what great memories you will have about this adventure. Thanks Jill for being there to take the pictures.

  6. Congrats to you Pilot Brenda. Today we are heading to the island. Maybe we’ll see you with your Captain’s Hat on in the Pilot house. 🙂

    Chris’ story about that bad weather day in October made me think of when we had our sailboat. We would always stay for 2 weeks in the marina during the July 4th time. One year when sailing back to Mackinaw City, it was a beautiful sunny day, then when we hit about the middle of our trip, it turned to out to be a very different weather day. What should have been 1 1/2 hr. sail for us turned out be 7-8 hrs. Our kids have lots of stories from that day.

  7. Let’s see Brenda . . . what could you try next? Bartending at the Pink Pony during Yacht races?
    Driving passengers back and forth from the boat docks to the Grand in the beautiful Grand Hotel Carriage? We are eagerly awaiting your next big adventure.

    • LOL Joanne! I have actually thought about a trip on the Grand Omnibus – but not as the driver! No way I want to handle horses on the Island – BUT, I’d sure like to sit up there with the driver! Hmmm – who can I call?

  8. Looks like the Shepler folks did a remarkable job of clearing the pier for your approach. Did ja get a captain hat? Did ja get your 100 ton master’s license yet? Did ja catch any fish on your outing? You appear to have done an outstanding job of piloting. Good look in your new career. Where’s Ted?

  9. Excellent recap. It speaks well of your blog that Shepler’s would give you such nice treatment. They sound like quite a company. Also, I am impressed by your journalistic skills of gathering so many facts and presenting them accurately.

  10. How fun!!! Awesome pictures Jill!! And Bree, you look like a natural driving the ferry! Thanks so much for the great blog!!!

  11. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Day in the Life of a Shepler’s Ferry Boat Captain – Part II 8/10/2010 « Bree's Mackinac Island Blog -- Topsy.com

  12. How totally wondrous – like Alice in Wonderland –only in a much better place! – what a creator you are.

    So don’t you think your orthopedic would let you sit on a Fresian if you told him you captained a ferry boat and docked it??????

  13. I love this post and all your other posts. I just happen to come across your blog (a new thing I am just getting into) and I love it! My husband and I were married in 2005 and honeymooned in the Mackinac area. We both grew up in the “thumb” of Michigan but I had never been to Mackinac (my husband had many times). I fell in love and we are hoping to make it up in late September with our 1 year old son for a few days. Money and time won’t allow us to stay on the island but someday I would love to rent a house for a few weeks and get the whole island experience. For now I will live vicariously through your blog…..did I say how much I love it?!?! 🙂

    Thanks so much for this.

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