2018-02-10 / News

Safety and Efficiency Are Top Goals for Star Line Operations

By Jacob A. Ball

Members of Star Line’s winter crew on the main dock on Mackinac Island Tuesday, January 9, (from left) Captain Justin Davenport, Captain Kyle Wallis, Captain Mike North, and dockmaster Robert Ball. Members of Star Line’s winter crew on the main dock on Mackinac Island Tuesday, January 9, (from left) Captain Justin Davenport, Captain Kyle Wallis, Captain Mike North, and dockmaster Robert Ball. Star Line has implemented an aggressive preventive maintenance program that should increase the reliability of their vessels. By replacing parts before they are required, the ferry company hopes to avoid the larger repairs that disrupted service last year. CEO Jerry Fetty says keeping the boats safe and available is his top priority, and employees have taken many steps since the purchase of Arnold Transit Company to ensure new standards are maintained.

The operation of winter ferry service is challenging and not without complaints from passengers, so the company has implemented a text-messaging service, refurbished waiting areas, and made other improvements to parking lots and docks, intended to alleviate passenger stress and improve efficiency. Three boats will receive new or refurbished engines this winter, and Mr. Fetty expects to have every needed boat ready for summer ferry service.

He discussed these developments and operations with the city Transportation Committee Wednesday, January 24.

Star Line’s acquisition of Arnold Transit was intended to be completed in June 2016, however, Mr. Fetty said he did not have access to the boats or equipment until months later, on the morning of their first winter run of 2016. Given these circumstances, there were few changes made to the boats or operations last winter.

“I honestly have to say that I am extremely proud of our crew,” Mr. Fetty said of last winter’s service. “We had one day to take it over, and we didn’t miss a trip.”

The difficulties of winter service are mostly related to the harsh conditions. Many tasks, for instance, loading and unloading carts, take more effort in winter than in summer.

“The quantity of the freight is always less, but with the snow and ice, it makes putting freight on carts take longer,” he said.

Star Line allows its employees more freedom in their uniform during the winter to ensure that they can stay warm while out on the docks, and performing their responsibilities is more difficult owing to the many layers they wear. While loading and other tasks take place, passengers are encouraged to use the refurbished waiting areas at the terminals.

Committee members complimented the improvements to the waiting area, but some passengers have complained that they cannot board the boat while freight is being moved, as they had when Arnold ran the service. Mr. Fetty explained that it is safer not to have passengers moving about while freight is being unloaded and loaded.

The maintenance on “classic” steel-hulled ferries has focused primarily on improving the safety and mechanical aspects of the boats. Star Line will continue refurbishing them in seasons to come, Mr. Fetty said. To ensure that all required maintenance is performed before the end of this winter, Star Line has developed a day-by-day schedule of tasks. The schedule allows time between maintenance and operation to accommodate any additional repairs. This work also includes aesthetic improvements to the boat, including repainting the boats in Star Line’s red and blue color scheme over Arnold Line’s red and green scheme, but this is not a priority for the company.

“There’s a lot of green paint to cover, but I am more concerned with ensuring the safety of the [classic] boats first,” he said.

Star Line’s winter ferry, Huron, underwent unexpected repairs this year after the vessel was decertified by the Coast Guard just before the start of winter service in October. With most boatyards filled following the end of boating season on the Great Lakes, Star Line scrambled to find a marine mechanic qualified to perform the repairs. Eventually, the boat was taken to Burger Boat Works in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, but it would not return until the final days of winter service in January. During its time out of service, the boat received considerable hull repairs and mechanical maintenance, including replacement of the entire cooling system. The boat will return to Wisconsin this summer for additional hull work along the water line. The interior will be treated with sealant to prevent rust formation. Mr. Fetty said use of rock salt had caused rusting on the stairs and deck of the Huron, and a marine epoxy coating will be applied to the boat to counteract this process. Rock salt is no longer used on the boats, and sandblasting should keep rust from forming in the future.

The absence of the Huron inconvenienced the passengers, as no other boat steel-hulled ferry was equipped with heating at the time. The open two-deck ferry Ottawa was recruited for service and the company partitioned a sheltered seating area at the stern of the lower deck, then mounted two temporary heating units on the ceiling to bring some comfort to the passengers.

Committee member Andrew McGreevy noted heaters were not able to heat the cabin and observed there is a difference between a heated cabin and a cabin with heating in it.

The Ottawa worked most of the winter schedule, but as the lake ice grew in thickness and expanse, it, too, succumbed to its own mechanical issues and was replaced in the final weeks by the summer ferry Chippewa, which had no heat. With the Huron still out of service, the company had few options.

Mr. Fetty said Star Line is not permitted to install heating without permission from the Coast Guard, but that he “certainly wants to make the ride as comfortable as possible for our passengers.”

The Huron, meanwhile, was back from the repair shop but awaiting Coast Guard inspection as the ice closed in. It did eventually make several runs, but dropped out of service in the final days, giving way again to the Chippewa.

Dennis Bradley suggested that the Huron would benefit from heating on the lower deck. He said that some passengers cannot climb upstairs to the heated cabins, and must make the trip on the lower deck. Mr. Fetty said he will include the suggestion in Star Line’s long term planning. Any permanent additions to the boat will need to be designed by a marine architect and receive approval from a Coast Guard inspector. He suggested that a small bank of seating at the rear of the lower deck could be enclosed to provide space for those who cannot sit upstairs, however, this cannot interfere with access to the emergency steering at the stern. Improvements have also been made for the heating system on the upper deck of the Huron, because previous repairs had damaged their efficiency. Mr. Fetty says the Huron’s cabins are now able to maintain heat at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

The winter maintenance schedule includes repairs to the summer aluminum-hulled fleet, designed to resolve issues that disrupted the 2016 schedule. They include rebuilding one of the main drive motors and one jet motor in the Radisson, two new engines in the Joliet, and a new engine in the Marquette. Several of the boats were temporarily sidelined for engine problems last summer, and Mr. Fetty says this can be expected, so the plan is to accommodate such breakdowns by having workable boats standing by. But even that may not always work.

He compared their scheduling to an airline, and the expectations that passengers have about air travel. He said that when operating a commercial transportation service, there should be an expectation that schedules will sometimes change. This is part of the reasoning for passengers arriving early for flights, but convincing people to apply this same rationale to ferry service has been less successful. He encourages passengers to select an earlier trip, and not wait until the last possible run before they need to arrive to their destination.

Changes are expected to the upcoming schedule from Star Line to alleviate some of the complaints from last summer, but final decisions have not been reached. He said the turnaround times for each ferry will increase from 30-minute intervals to 45- minute intervals, which should help the boats remain on schedule throughout the day. This will not reduce the number of daily trips, because Star Line plans to run an additional boat from Mackinaw City. In addition, Mr. Fetty said Star Line tries to always have a reserve boat available on each side of the Straits. This ensures that service can continue in the event of a mechanical problem, or the ferry can be called into service on a particularly busy day. Star Line also hopes to test out self-service kiosks at one of their docks in the summer, but not until late summer.

Communication about the departure times during the winter has been improved with the introduction of an automated textmessaging service. The service informs the public about changes and cancellations, and has been well received by the communities on the Island and the mainland. The committee inquired if this system could be employed in the summertime to announce schedule changes, but Mr. Fetty said it probably would not work, given the frequency of daily trips in the summer. In the winter, Star Line has fewer than 40 scheduled St. Ignace runs a week, while in summer this number grows to almost 100 trips every day from both sides of the Straits.

Star Line has installed tracking systems on all its vessels, which can be used to determine when a boat will arrive. This information does not, however, include where the ferry is headed. He said this information needs to be announced to waiting passengers by the dock crews, and he agreed with the committee that his staff needs to do better at communicating, in general. The best way to communicate information about the summer schedule, according to Mr. Fetty, would be digital signage on the docks that could be updated instantly. Local zoning would most likely prohibit such a system, he noted.

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