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Crossing Lake Michigan aboard Badger

Jul 26, 2007
From Ocean Navigator #96 March/April 1999

From Ocean Navigator #96 March/April 1999

She looks the image of a typical Great Lakes passenger ferrybluff bowed, low and bulky. But SS Badger is nowadays anything but typical. She is the last-surviving purely commercial reciprocating steam-powered ferry operating in America.

She gets 7,000 horsepower out of a pair of four-cylinder Skinner Unaflow engines and she gets her fuel from trucks that roll on board and dump roughly 70 tons of coal down chutes each day of her five-month-long season on Lake Michigan. No less unusual, her senior captain, Bruce Masse, has worked his entire 45-year career on reciprocating steam-powered vessels, starting as a dishwasher on Badger in 1955.

From mid-May to Mid-October Badger steams across the narrowest section of Lake Michigan, about halfway up its length. In peak season she makes four trips a day, each crossing being about 60 miles, between her home port of Ludington, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis.

Anyone who spends time on her upper deck, gazing out at the vastness and mystery of this inland lake, hundreds of miles long and hundreds of feet deep, can't help but muse, we suspect, about certain navigational questions. Typically these might involve matters of speed, piloting, and positioning, but there are other queries that come to mind just as readily. Following are just a few of them.

A. They saypeople on the lakes, that isthat Badger cruises at a speed of 17 mph. What speed would that be in knots?

B. Captain Masse reports that there are 300 feet between the forward and aft wheelhouses, the latter being small and just for maneuvering. Suppose he were to walk between them at a pace of four mph while the vessel was at cruising speed, how many nautical miles would the vessel travel while he walked?

Badger is a full-sized ship, measuring 410 feet in total with a beam of about 60 feet. She was built in 1952 at a cost of about $5 million. She is, along with one other sistership (now retired and used for parts), the largest Great Lakes car ferry ever built. In a typical summer she carries something like 120,000 passengers and roughly 30,000 vehicles back and forth across the lake. At least 10,000 times in her career, Badger has crossed the lake headed east back towards Ludington. On the approach to her home port, she passes just a few miles south of Big Sable Point, which boasts a 110-foot-high lighthouse.

C. Given that the wheelhouse height of eye is 45 feet, and assuming that the lighthouse is of unlimited luminosity, at what distance (in nautical miles) would Capt. Masse first sight Big Sable Point light on a clear night?

D. On a clear night at the end of August, when Badger makes her final night run of the summer season from Manitowoc to Ludington, she'd be in the middle of Lake Michigan at about 0200. What well-known constellation of stars would the captain see just coming over the horizon directly ahead of the ship?

E. What is the name and declination of the middle star of that constellation?

Will the Badger continue operations long enough for all of us to get a chance to ride her? Most certainly, according to her owners. "Badger will be back next year and for many years thereafter," said the president of the company. "Her engines should last forever and there's really no stopping us."

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