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Futuristic high-speed catamaran ferry plies uncharted waters in lake travel
Sunday, December 14, 2003

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin, US) By Dan Egan

A fast catamaran, being built in Alabama, will allow Milwaukeeans to cross the lake, bypassing Chicago

Lake Express LLC's futuristic $18.9 million ferry is more than half finished and on schedule for a shakedown cruise early this spring. The high-speed catamaran is being built just outside downtown Mobile, Ala. The starboard side of the hull and car deck framing are shown before the pilot house was installed.

Now it is deafening. It is the bang and the screech of metal being carved, bent and welded into the shape of a 192-foot-long, jet-powered aluminum catamaran that will whisk passengers and their cars at nearly 40 mph between Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich., beginning in June.

Inside a sky-scraping structure just outside downtown Mobile, Ala., Milwaukee-based Lake Express LLC's futuristic $18.9 million car ferry is already more than half finished and on schedule for a shakedown cruise early this spring. Lake Express is primarily owned by Lubar & Co., a Milwaukee investment firm.

"It's not just a plan. It's a reality," says Port of Milwaukee director Kenneth J. Szallai, who has worked for more than a decade to bring ferry service back to the city.

The yet-to-be-named ship will roar up the Atlantic Coast and through the St. Lawrence Seaway in May. Daily passenger service for the 2 hour, 20 minute trip from a new terminal on Milwaukee's south side to the east shore of Lake Michigan is on schedule to begin in June.

The Great Lakes own their share of nautical history, from the shore-hugging voyageurs in their birchbark canoes to the schooners that plied the deep waters in the 19th century to the 1,000-foot iron-ore freighters of today.

But the Great Lakes have never seen anything like this decidedly 21st century vessel. Neither has the rest of the country.

No propeller, no wheel

This ship doesn't have a propeller; it has four water jets, each powered by a V-16 diesel engine, which are not manned but are monitored by the ship's skeleton crew via electronic sensors and closed-circuit television.

And this ship doesn't have a captain at the wheel. It has a captain at the joystick.

"It's almost like the Starship Enterprise," Randy Naker, the man hired to oversee the ship construction for its owners, says of the wheelhouse without a wheel.

The ship is being built by Austal USA, a joint operation with Australian-based Austal, a pioneer in the jet ferry business. Similar ferries already operate in places such as Hong Kong, Greece, Ireland and Australia. And while there are fast ferries serving the two U.S. coasts, none is as big as this, and none has the capacity to carry vehicles. The ferry will be able to transport 46 automobiles, along with 253 passengers.

A similar ferry is being built in Australia and will run this summer between Toronto and Rochester, N.Y. Another East Coast shipbuilder expects to launch a similar high-speed car ferry in Alaska this spring.

More are likely to find their way into American waters. "This is definitely the future," project construction manager Wayne Smallwood says of the oversize catamarans that can cruise at automobile speeds.

The SS Badger, Lake Michigan's lumbering coal-fired steamer, has reliably shuttled freight, cars and passengers between Manitowoc and Ludington for the past 50 years.

The Badger briefly stopped service in 1990 because of a drop in the cargo business. But a Michigan investor in love with the ferries that have been part of the two states' coastline culture since the 1800s resuscitated the operation the next year by pumping about $3.5 million into it and refocusing on fun instead of freight.

Officials with Lake Michigan Carferry, which owns and operates the Badger, grumbled this spring that the Lake Express, backed by $14.5 million in federal loan guarantees, was receiving unfair government favor.

But the Badger has received some government assistance of its own, and now that a launch date for the competition is imminent, they acknowledge that their 410-foot vessel may be headed for some uncharted competition. The Badger can accommodate 620 passengers and 180 vehicles. The Badger takes about 4 hours to cross the lake at a speed of about 18 mph. Milwaukee's new ferry will travel more than twice as fast.

"I don't think we know at this time whether it represents real competition," says Don Clingan, the Badger's vice president of marketing. "If they are going to bring new or different customers to the market, nobody knows at this point."

Neither ship is cheap.

Peak season round-trip rates on the Badger last year were $78 per adult passenger and $98 for a vehicle. Lake Express' David Lubar says rates for the new ferry haven't yet been set, but that they will be in the "ballpark" of what the Badger operators charge. He insists he isn't out to kill the Badger.

"The business plan is not at all based upon competing with them," Lubar says. "Our business plan is based upon providing a fast, safe means of crossing Lake Michigan - and avoiding the frustrating hassles of driving through the congestion of the Chicago metropolitan area."

Time is money

The last regular ferry service between Milwaukee and Muskegon ended in 1970 with the retirement of the Milwaukee Clipper, which took nearly six hours to cover the approximately 80 miles between the two ports. Lubar says there is a good reason ferry service hasn't returned since then.

"The reason this didn't happen eight or 10 years ago was that the technology wasn't available for a vessel to cross the lake as fast as our boat is able to," Lubar says. "Certain people will pay a certain amount to cross the lake. The longer it takes, the smaller the market."

Unlike the Badger, the Lake Express ferry is not necessarily trying to capitalize on customers' fascination with the big lake or their nostalgia for a nautical link between two distant coasts.

This is about raw commerce.

"Ferry business is fast business. People want to get from A to B," says Austal USA vice president William Pfister, a retired Navy captain.

The Badger may "set sail." The Lake Express departs.

Pfister says the goal is to make the trip as painless as possible. Customers will sit in reclining airline-style seats, and most will experience the lake only through the windows of the passenger deck.

Unlike the Badger, there is no open space on the bow or sides of the ship for the passengers to step outside and gaze at the horizon.

The only area Lake Express passengers can step outside is a deck at the rear of the ship, and with good reason. Standing outside on the Lake Express bow, says Szallai, "would be like sitting on the hood of your car, going 40 mph."

Inside the climate-controlled cabin, however, passengers sipping beers or noshing on sandwiches may not even know they are under way. The ship has a computerized stabilizing system that allows it to operate in most of the conditions the lake can throw at it, and it can maintain top speeds in waves as high as 6 feet.

"It's like sitting in an airplane - you don't know you're going 500 mph unless you stick your hand out the window," Pfister says. "When the ferry is going 40 mph, you can't tell."

Lubar says his biggest rival will be the choked freeway system in Chicago, which must be navigated - or survived - by most southeastern Wisconsin residents driving to the East Coast.

He likes to think of his service as an expressway - the closest thing we'll get to a bridge across Lake Michigan.

Australian innovation

Wisconsin has its own shipyards, but Lubar says those operations didn't have experience in building these large high-speed vessels. Few American corporations do.

The Australians are leaders in the business that is built upon building ships as lightweight as possible.

Weight, explains Austal USA naval architect Frank Ryan, is the enemy. Weight keeps boats from going fast.

That is why this vessel is constructed almost entirely of aluminum, a featherweight material compared with traditional steel. Almost everything on board is constructed out of it, from the hulls to the parking deck to the faux mahogany and marble-laminated cabinetry and window frames.

The shell of the boat is a remarkably thin slice of aluminum skin, strips of which undulate under the pressure of an index finger when they are laid between sawhorses just several feet apart.

Each hull has six watertight compartments that ensure flotation is maintained in the event the ship strikes something dangerous, Ryan says, and it will not operate during the lake's icy season.

"It is (built to) all the Coast Guard regulations, and then some," he says.

The heavily automated operation will require an onboard staff of only eight, compared with the 50 to 60 officers and crew who staff the Badger for its typical voyage.

Technicians are called in if there are engine troubles.

"Years ago, when you had a problem with a diesel engine, you called the guys with the greasy coveralls and the tool bag," Naker says. "Nowadays, here comes the guy with a laptop and a shirt and tie."

Lots of people are keeping a close eye on how well this fast-ferry concept floats.

Austal USA says the U.S. Navy has been sniffing around the shipyard and may soon order a catamaran of its own.

Pfister says the ships are the wave of the future, and predicts it won't be long until a slower operation such as the Badger is left in their wake.

"Once you put high speed in a place where there was low speed, the other folks will go to high speed," Pfister says, "unless there is an overriding factor."

And the Badger operators hope that is the customer who loves the lake more than speed.


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