stephen J. lyons

Facing criticism from the Environmental Protection Agency, Lake Michigan’s 60-year-old S.S. Badger — the last remaining coal-burning steamship in America — is fighting for its survival.

High above, in the pilothouse of the venerable 60-year-old S.S. Badger, Gregorian chant competes with the departing car ferry’s whistle for air space. Captain Dean “Hurricane” Hobbs, who exudes a Buddha-like presence in spirit and countenance, is in charge of both the vessel and the choice of music. Calmness is the order of the day in the spacious, generously windowed captain’s perch. From here, the fifth-largest lake on the planet is a waveless gleam reflecting a cloudless sky, and Hobbs is in an expansive mood as he holds forth on the personalities of the Great Lakes.

Captain Dean Hobbs (left) and wheelsman Don Short.
stephen J. lyons
“Lake Michigan is a friendly lake,” he begins. “Plenty of ports of refuge. Lake Superior is more of an ocean lake. Lake Erie is a politician: It changes immediately with the wind. And when you consider that we have more presidents from Ohio than any other state, I think that’s fitting.”

Wheelsman Don Short steers the massive 410-by-59-foot, coal-burning vessel out of Manitowoc, Wis., for its four-hour, 62-mile trip across Lake Michigan to Ludington, Mich. Hobbs’ good friend and foil, second mate Allan Chrenka, assists. On board the Badger are 120 passengers and their vehicles, 40 to 50 crew members and several massive wind-turbine-tower parts attached to semitrailers. In total, the ship is carrying more than 300 tons — a fraction of its maximum carrying capacity of 5,000 tons, 600 passengers and 180 vehicles. Cruising speed is 13.5 knots, and the deepest part of the lake the Badger will cross is 550 feet. Passengers riding on the Badger today will feel less turbulence than when riding on a freeway, although a crossing was canceled just last week because of 24-foot waves in the middle of the lake. And many of those same passengers will be surprised, and perhaps a bit anxious, when they venture out on the open-air deck about halfway through the voyage and realize they are sailing, for the moment, on a vast inland sea. Any vestige of a shoreline has vanished.

Demand for the aforementioned turbine parts (some of which are manufactured in Wisconsin) and a shorter, cheaper passage to their destination are the reasons the Badger’s season has been extended a few weeks. More than 300 turbine loads have been shipped across the lake this year, and, according to the Lake Michigan Carferry Service Inc., which owns the Badger, the vessel hauled more than 1,000 commercial vehicles during its 2012 May-to-October season, sparing Chicago more than 80 million pounds of truck traffic on its busy highways during that time. The irony is obvious: Green energy is keeping a vessel propelled by coal-burning energy alive.