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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.