Common Tread

Cruiser on a cruise: Lemmy's tips for taking a ferry

Oct 02, 2017
Earlier this year, I went to Milwaukee on a business junket. That trip interfered with a personal trip the sultry Mrs. Lem and I were slated to take — a ride with friends from northwestern Ohio down into West Virginia.

I realized if RevZilla could do without me for a day earlier in the week, I could simply ride to Milwaukee, Mrs. Lem could catch an aeroplane with her helmet and unmentionables, and we could ride over to meet up with the group and be on our merry way. The ferry is what made this plan feasible, by cutting down the miles I had to travel and letting me get a little work done while someone else did the driving.

Ferry sign
"Oh, I thought this was a public boat launch. Sorry." Photo by Lemmy.
The plan seemed like it would fly, so I did something I have done a few times at this point that might be very strange to some of you: I bought five tickets to take the Lake Express, a high-speed ferry across Lake Michigan. (Two for me, two for the Street Glide, and one for Mrs. Lem.)

There are all sorts of ferries, really. I suppose the first ferry in time was the one across the River Styx. There’s the Toronto Airport Ferry, which is a 400-foot crossing, and at the opposite end of the spectrum is the route from Newfoundland to Nova Scotia, which is a 16-hour passage. In my case, I needed to blast across Lake Michigan. So I’m gonna tell you how my trip went, offering some tips along the way that might help you if you ever decide to roll your own two-wheeled death machine onto a ship.

Ferry map
What are all those men digging? Oh. Maybe I'll take the ferry. Google Maps image.

As you can see from the map, not only would I take a more direct route and get a break from riding, but the time savings was significant because I could avoid Chicagoland traffic, which narrowly missed Dante’s cut as the 10th circle of hell. I rolled all day from Pennsylvania and bedded down in Muskegon, Michigan, the last stop before my final destination. I woke up in the morning, had a nice breakfast, and headed over to the ferry.

Loaded bike
The line really is not bad. It beats the heck out of the airport. Photo by Lemmy.

Tip One: Make a reservation

If you want to take a ferry, it makes a lot of sense to buy tickets beforehand so you secure a spot and know when to show up! The ferry I took is seasonal, and many others are, too. One ticket in the cheap seats and a spot for the bike one way ran $140.50. Not cheap, but hey, time is money.

After this, the guy popped the hood and snooped around in there, too. Photo by Lemmy.

Tip Two: Clean out your saddlebags

The first thing you should know about this particular ferry is the nice boat people do a little snoopin’. I’ve never taken another ferry — just this one — but I think this may be common. Some fellas with mirrors mounted to sticks came to the cars and poked around underneath them, which led me to believe they were looking for bombs.

They seemed to want folks to declare possession of a firearm, too. I don’t know if that meant they’d take it or lock it up or refuse passage, but if you normally wear a Texas jock strap, you might want to call ahead and figure out how that works.

My bike didn’t get more than a glance over, but I’m not sure how the sniffin’ around procedure works. If you got any glaucoma meds in your tool roll, you might want to toss them before you hit the dock.

Tip Three: Know how to tie down your bike

Up to 46 cars could park on the particular ferry I took. Their drivers pull onto the ship, jump out of their cars, and call it a day. That same ship can also accommodate up to a dozen motorcycles. (You’ll often see more in the nice weather. Financially, I believe the price/capacity ratio is more profitable for motorcycles, so car parking areas frequently get converted to multiple motorcycle spots.)

If you know how to load your bike onto a trailer, you’re in luck. You’ll pull your bike right onto the ferry, but unlike the automobile drivers, you will be expected to secure your bike.

Space is at a premium. It pays to help someone near you who needs it. Photo by Lemmy.

Old (but functional) ratchet and cam-buckle straps are provided, and you could probably talk someone into helping you tie down your bike, but for the most part, riders are expected to secure their bike in case of rough waters. And who wants to trust their bike to someone else who may not have a clue, either? You can bring your own tie-downs if you like.

Also, if you want anything with you above deck, now is the time to grab it; you won’t be permitted to visit your bike again, which brings me to my next tip.

Tip Four: Bring a hair tie and a jacket

The Great Lakes have a characteristic many other bodies of water share: They’re windy! Bring your jacket with you and grab a hair elastic. Them luscious locks of mine were in my face the entire time I was on the deck of the ship.

I love being on the water and I also love being outside, so I hung out on the deck quite a bit. I met some nice folks and got a hefty dose of sunshine and cool air — that was very welcome on an otherwise warm summer day. The Lake Express, the ferry I was on, can really boogie. She weighed 320 metric tons, but was powered by four MTU diesel engines, supplying over 3,000 horsepower — each. Service speed is anywhere from 29-34 knots (33-39 mph), and top velocity is 37 knots. (42.5 mph)

That speed is like riding your motorcycle down a country road. You will notice the wind.

Bikes and the wake
There is a joke here about the Harley-Davidson-Evinrude relationship, but I can't tease it out. Photo by Lemmy.

I shot some photos and talked to a few people, then I headed inside to get some work done. The inside is laid out like a very spacious plane, or a really cramped theater, depending on how you want to look at things. There are small-ish bathrooms, non-ticketed seats, and a small snack bar. You cannot bring in outside food or drink. The snack bar was disappointing. For a two-hour ferry ride, they ought to put a real nice galley in that place; they’d make a fortune! So, if you’re taking that particular ferry, grub up before you hit the dock.

The cabin
It's not as cramped as a plane. (For clarification, those are children, not youthful adults sitting in throne-like chairs.) Photo by Lemmy.

This particular ferry had a “premier” ticket, which had nice little meeting tables, wi-fi, and free soft drinks. (Soft drinks? That’s not how first-class works.) I skipped that and got a seat in steerage. (Kidding. It’s called “classic cabin.” It was for the workin’ stiffs.)

Hmm, look at that.
Well, you don't really see that every day. Photo by Lemmy.

Against my better judgment, I may have closed my eyes a little just to take a brief nap. When I woke up, we had arrived in Wisconsin. I walked down to the vehicle deck, freed my steed, and away I went.

I finished up my work event, met up with my beautiful bride, packed up the bike and we left for the ferry back to Michigan so we could head east. We may have partied a little too hard the night before, and we may have hit the snooze button more than is prudent, which brings me to my final tip: Get to the ferry when they tell you to.

Tip Five: Chicago traffic is the perfect place to ponder the importance of punctuality

Tip five needs no further explanation.