New $4M ferry aims to bring more comfort on trip to Mackinac Island

John L. Russell
Special to The Detroit News
The hull structure of the 84-foot William Richard takes form at the Moran Iron Works in Onaway, Michigan.

Onaway — Inside a massive building, a huge sheet hangs from the rafters. Its purpose is to cut down on the banging and hissing noises below.

It's here where a stainless steel skeleton of a large ship takes shape. A small crew hammers and welds it together, as the smell of burnt metal permeates the space.

Large doors to the structure are partially open on a recent warm autumn afternoon, allowing fresh air to clear the odors.

"It's noisy in here," said welder Jason Taylor, 40, who is hammering steel prior to welding the pieces.

The ship soon will be rotated upright and steel plates forming the hulls will be welded into place here at Moran Iron Works, just west of the Presque Isle County village of Onaway.

The idea behind the workers crafting such a vessel is so Mackinac Island visitors can reach the island faster and more comfortably when Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry places the new $4 million boat into service in the spring.

Mike Middaugh, 34, of Onaway welds a stainless steel hull section for the 84-foot Shepler's ferry boat, the William Richard.

It's the second vessel for Shepler’s by Moran Iron Works. The work is important to both companies, say the owners, as jobs are created to handle the construction and operation.

“The work will have a meaningful impact to the economy of northeastern Michigan,” said CEO Tom Moran, where unemployment rises in the fall when tourists go home. “Fifteen families will benefit from this project through the spring.”

Most of the crew built the Miss Margy three years prior and know what they are doing.  The Miss Margy was the sixth ferry to be added to the fleet, sailing in 2016.

“There is a particular skill set in building a ferry this size,” said Moran, 59. “We are employing virtually the same crew to build this ship as those that built the Miss Margy three years ago. We have the same project manager, the same welders that we used before on the other vessel.”

Jason Willis, 45, project manager at the Moran Iron Works in Onaway, Mich., views a computer image of the 84-foot Shepler's ferry, the William Richard.

Project engineer Jason Willis, 45, of Cheboygan has been working on the vessel’s blueprints daily overseeing the project.

“We will use about 60,00 pounds of stainless steel in this ship, and the new drive system should be a little easier to install," he said. "It’s less intricate without propellers, and the engines should be plug-and-play with the jet drives.”

The Miss Margy, the newest vessel in the Shepler Mackinac Island Ferry fleet, leaves the Mackinaw City dock on Sept. 21.

Construction of the entire vessel is inspected every two weeks by the U.S. Coast Guard, according to Willis, and will continue throughout the construction of the ship.

The new ferry will be named the William Richard after the family patriarch, CEO Bill Shepler. 

“He was really pleased when we asked him if we could honor him by naming the vessel after him,“ said son Chris Shepler, 57, president of the ferry company.

The new vessel will be 84 feet in length and will carry 210 passengers in air-conditioned comfort. Powered by four Yanmar Tier 3 engines, it will feature four water jets instead of propellers, a first for the company. The ship will have a top speed of 30 mph.

Chris Shepler, president of Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry, talks about the company's new ferry.

The ferry will be the seventh in the fleet, allowing departures every 15 minutes from docks in St. Ignace and Mackinaw City. It will primarily sail from St. Ignace.

Sea trials and completion of the ship will be in the spring, with delivery to service by June.

Mackinac Island was named by TripAdvisor as the most popular summer destination in the country in 2018, and travel demand to the island of fudge has been relentless, warranting such a fleet addition, Shepler said.

“Our business is still growing by double digits. We had over 600,000 passengers in 2019, and the need for a new, fast ferry became obvious," he said.

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.