Big Ships, Fun Ports Part 1

I have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to sail on the S.S. Badger since I first laid eyes on her back in 2003 during her 50th year anniversary celebration.

S.S. Badger coming into Manitowoc

When I recently got a heads-up on a special promotion (And I hope that no one minds that the title of the article was “lifted” from the actual promotion for the SS Badger…) being done through the Convention and Visitors Bureau in Manitowoc, I cleared my calendar and could think of little else. (For the uninitiated – and I can hardly believe that there are many who don’t know about the SS Badger – she is a beauty of a vessel, originally built in 1952 at a cost of $5 million to transport railroad cars and a limited number of passengers across Lake Michigan. More on that later…)

Start in Ludington, Michigan

The promo was aimed at getting Michiganders to head across the lake to “see what’s on the other side.” Being from Illinois, I wasn’t sure whether or nor it was ok for me to do the same thing. Just kidding – certainly it was ok! And it sounded like an adventure that I simply couldn’t pass up. So Heidi and I packed the car and headed for Ludington, Michigan (the Michigan port for the SS Badger).

Ludington Pier House - Ludington, MI

Circumstances required that we couldn’t leave until about 3:30 in the afternoon on Friday. For those of you that travel the Illinois tollways – especially on Fridays during rush hour – I can almost hear the groans from here. But I had no choice. The trip was calculated to be about 285 miles and I needed to take 294 to 80/94 around the bottom of the lake to get to Michigan.

Now, I have traveled that same route about a hundred times since the late 1960’s and I have seen that traffic grow from busy to simply insane. This became especially true at the time we all know as Spring Break. But what I had failed to realize was that 80/94 was in the process of another major reconstruction. Needless to say, when we reached the junction of 294 and 80/94, it was complete gridlock. We traveled the next 9 or so miles in about 45 minutes. Once we got through that, it was pretty easy going.

One note here that I may have been the last to discover: people in Michigan drive really fast. The posted speed limit was 70mph, and I was cruising at about 73mph. I was flashed with numerous bright lights and given several “hand signals” indicating that I needed to go faster… much faster. I obliged – and the time lost around the bottom of the Lake was quickly made up.

We arrived in Ludington at around 9:40 pm (8:40 Chicago time), so there wasn’t really any time at all to do much else than to find our accommodations, check in and hit the sack. We stayed at the Ludington Pier House, which was about one block from Lake Michigan; it was comfortable accommodations in a very convenient location!

A view of part of the Ludington Harbor...

The next morning came very early (since we had lost an hour for the time difference) but I was excited to take the trip across the lake and didn’t mind. We did have a bit of time to take a quick drive through Ludington.

From what little time we had, we both decided that another trip to Michigan was in order for the near future so that we could take some time to really check out this quaint lakeside town. From the material we read, Ludington has a rich history that is certainly worth exploring.

Our motel was only about five minutes from where the Badger would dock, so at about 8:00, we headed over (The SS Badger was set to sail at 9:00). As it turned out – even though it was a Saturday – there were only about 185 people scheduled for the crossing on that particular morning, so we had the boat almost to ourselves. This, by the by, was yet another sign that late May and Early June are great times for excursions.

Loading the Ship

Schools have not all adjourned for the summer and people have not yet begun to travel. So if you are planning a vacation or even a weekend excursion, give this time of year a good deal of consideration.

It is amazing to see just how many cars, trucks & RV's will fit!

We watched as one of the drivers working for the Badger drove our car into the cavernous hold of the Badger. For those of you who may be wondering about taking cars onto a boat for a trip across Lake Michigan… the SS Badger was originally designed to hold 42 railroad freight cars! So whether you have a car, a car with attached boat & trailer, a larger motor home/RV… or even a semi-trailer truck, the Badger can not only hold your vehicle, it can hold many others.

In fact, the Badger can ferry up to 180 automobiles, tour busses, RV’s, motorcycles and commercial trucks and 620 passengers across the lake – and does so on a pretty regular basis during peak months in the summer. I would have never have even guessed that there were 185 people on board for our trip. The boat is much bigger than I imagined: it is approximately 410 feet from bow to stern and is 7 stories tall. No wonder we never saw too many people!

Great views are available from the bow of the Badger!

On the bow of the Badger is a deck area that holds deck and lounge chairs for those who want to be out in the sun and fresh air. We were told that during the peak months of mid-summer, the bow is jammed with scantily clad bodies eager to soak up the summer sunshine!

Crossing Lake Michigan

On our particular trip, the water and the air above it was very cold. And once we were out in the middle of the lake, it was a bit too cold to be on the bow. However, the aft area was very nice and was equipped with chairs as well. But I am getting ahead of myself…  As we stood on the upper deck of the stern and watched additional cars, boats, motor cycles and RV’s being on-loaded, we were greeted by Director of Media Relations, Lynda Daugherty.

Lynda greeted us with a huge smile and spoke with us as if we had been friends for a long time. She is a tremendous asset to the SS Badger and it is easy to see that she really loves what she does. She promised to give us a grand tour as soon as the boat was under way. In the mean time she suggested that we partake of the breakfast buffet – which we did. Scrambled eggs, sausage, ham, bacon, biscuits and gravy, potatoes, juices, rolls… well – you get the idea. It was an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet and I could have spent the entire trip eating.

A glance from Heidi told me that I was finished (after I had seconds…)  As we were finishing breakfast, we were just clearing the breakwater that anchored the ancient North Breakwater Light. Visible for almost 20 miles out into Lake Michigan, it has been warning sailors of the shoreline since it was first lighted in 1871. (Did you know that there are over 120 lighthouses in Michigan – more than any other state?) There were also folks on the breakwater waving to us as we departed. I almost felt as if I were on a world cruise!

Lighthouse at the edge of the Luddington, Michigan harbor

Shortly after leaving the harbor, Lynda returned and asked if we were interested in a tour of the Badger. Our tour included a look at a few of the 42 available staterooms that passengers can pay a bit extra for if they would like a little extra privacy during the trip. These rooms are equipped with two beds, a lavatory, basin for washing and a view out the portal at the lake.

I have heard of a gentleman who, on his vacation, secures one of these staterooms for the two weeks of his vacation, which he spends entirely on the Badger! We also got to see the crew’s quarters (most of the crew not only work on board the Badger, they take all their meals and sleep aboard as well), the galley and got a tour of the several food/beverage areas available to passengers.

Stateroom aboard the SS Badger

Lots To Do Onboard the Ship

One of the amazing things is that the Badger offers so much to occupy your time during the crossing – and much of it is for the children (in all of us). There is a theater to watch free movies, a children’s playroom, a small museum, a small gift shop – I had to purchase some earrings for Heidi and a Badger cap for myself – too many places to purchase food, two areas to purchase cocktails (of course I did!) entertainment, face painting (I almost did…), Badger Bingo, many televisions on which to catch up on the news, and many places to just sit and watch the lake go by. Whew!

Like I said, there is a lot to do on board the SS Badger! We were the lucky ones on this particular trip – many of the places that we were privileged to go are not accessible to the “everyday” passenger on the SS Badger. We were allowed a rare look at the Pilot House (I was asked, by the way, to make sure to mention that this area is someplace that most people would never get to see – it is simply “off limits” and I felt really privileged to get the opportunity to be there!)

Special thanks to Captain Dean Hobbs, Wheelsman Don Short – he is the one who actually steers the boat, Lookout Dennis Laskey, AB, and 2nd mate Alan Chrenka, not just for the very smooth ride, but for taking time out from their duties to share some insights and information with us. The Badger is actually steered the “old fashioned” way – using a large wheel, just like on ships from days gone by. And it requires a man at the helm at all times, watching the compass and making course corrections as necessary.

A great place for both dining and entertainment!

One little side note here: I asked what were the worst conditions to which the Badger had been subjected – at least in terms of rough weather and water – and how the boat handled them. The answer came quickly. Wheelsman Don Short had been out in some 16 and 17-foot waves.

Second Mate Chrenka added with confidence that although he didn’t believe that any passengers would have enjoyed the ride, the Badger was a very solidly built vessel and could easily handle those conditions. I know that I would have preferred to stay ashore during those conditions, but it was very comforting to know that the Badger was originally built to sail in all twelve months of the year and could withstand anything that Lake Michigan would send her way.

There are, by the by, “sea bands” as well as Dramamine, available for those of you who may be a bit concerned about getting seasick. The day we sailed, the lake turned out to be just like glass, all the way across, and the ride was almost as if we were flying – it was as smooth as silk.

Amazed that a cell phone works out here...

We were also privileged to have been given a brief tour below decks. Lynda warned us that it would be hot and noisy – she did not embellish upon the truth. Unfortunately, federal law restricts access to the ship’s engine room… but it was very cool to find out that engines and boilers alike were designated a National Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1996!

It was very warm and very noisy below, especially in the boiler room! I assume that most of you aren’t really interested in the engine room, so I won’t take a lot of time to describe it.

But I will say that it was very neat to see the workings of two Skinner Unaflow, four-cylinder steam engines, (burning many tons of coal per trip in four of the last Foster-Wheeler Type D marine boilers ever built), churning out about 3500 horsepower apiece and turning 2, 15-foot tall propellers that weighed in at about 8 tons each! The gigantic coal-fired boilers that supplied all power to the Badger were fed automatically, but still required constant checking.

Coal waiting to be loaded on to the SS Badger in Manitowoc

Two things really impressed me here. All personnel that we met below were extremely courteous and eagerly answered all questions. Even more impressive to me was the fact that the engine room was almost as clean as the galley, and all tools were neatly organized and put away, easily located and ready at a moment’s notice.

Off-Loading in Manitowoc

It was more proof that every hand on this vessel was proud to be aboard and thoroughly enjoyed what they did. And by the way, there are 50-60 officers and crew on each trip, and they really know how to take care of the passengers.

Lynda took us topside again and left us to enjoy the rest of our ride, although she did rejoin us one final time to take us down to watch the vehicles as they were off-loaded. The trip across the lake took almost exactly – as advertised – 4 hours for the 60-mile trip.

About to dock in Manitowoc...

It was the fastest 4 hours I think I have ever experienced… certainly some of the most enjoyable. We were soon pulling in to the harbor at Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Docking was as smooth as a baby’s bottom, accomplished quickly and with all the dexterity of a surgeon – incredible for a 410 foot, 4244 gross ton vessel!

Nary a bump was felt as the Badger glided into port and awaited the next load of passengers. Today it would be a lakeshore cruise with 625 hungry folks awaiting a planned picnic… before the ferry trip back to Ludington with another load of vehicles and passengers. This would truly be a long hard day of work for all hands.

We bade farewell to Lynda and the crew of the SS Badger, picked up our car and headed in to Manitowoc for lunch. Thanks again – everyone – for a great ride and a marvelous day. Heidi and I are already looking forward to our next trip aboard the Badger.

R. Karl