Who would have guessed that a boat ride could be much faster than driving?
Milwaukee-based Lake Express LLC’s state-of-the-art, 192-foot aluminum catamaran will begin service between Wisconsin’s largest city and Muskegon, Mich., on June 1. Powered by four V-16 Detroit Diesel engines, the jet-propelled vessel is capable of cruising at 40 miles per hour.
The yet-to-be-named boat will travel 80 miles across Lake Michigan in two hours and 20 minutes with a full load of 253 passengers and 46 vehicles. That makes sailing an attractive alternative to driving through perpetually clogged Chicago traffic, according to Port of Milwaukee Director Kenneth Szallai.
“In all the market research we’ve done, the absolute number one reason people come up with for a passenger ferry is to avoid traffic in Chicago,” he said. “It’s a very direct way to reconnect with Lake Michigan, and it opens up Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin as a tourist destination for people from western Michigan.”
Szallai expects the cross-lake route to be a long-term success.
“We’re in the process of accepting bids for a new terminal and ramp,” he reported. “We’re getting overwhelmingly positive feedback from the public.”
Austal, an Australian firm that has built a number of high-speed ferries, is assembling the $18.9-million ship in Mobile, Ala. Hornblower Marine Service will operate and maintain the boat for Lake Express. Randy Naker of Hornblower described some of the ship’s features.
“This vessel is very high tech,” Naker said. “The engines are monitored by computers, so we only need a small crew. You can monitor the fire alarms, panels and passenger comforts by closed-circuit TV. Since it’s being built to U.S. Coast Guard regulations, there will be two licensed personnel the captain and the mate on duty.”
Because of its speed, all passengers will be required to remain in enclosed areas, but food and beverage service will be offered.
Milwaukee native Naker expects the revived ferry service (the last ferry based in that city ended in 1970) to attract local customers.
“I’m very familiar with the mess in Chicago,” he remarked. “It might take you six hours to drive from Milwaukee to Michigan through Chicago.”
Initial plans call for the 3,300-horsepower vessel to depart three times each day from Milwaukee and Muskegon, Mich. Al Doyle