2009-04-30 / Front Page

Launching Biggest Ferries for Season Comes Down to a Matter of Inches

By Jonathan Eppley

Jim Brown, maintenance chief for Arnold Transit Company, uses hand signals to guide lift operator Rudy Hennekes Friday, April 24, to put a 75-ton aluminum catamaran in the water. It took a crew of five about two hours to prepare and lower the boat into the water.

Boat-lift operator Rudy Hennekes has little room for maneuvering and no room for error. He operates the boat-lift owned by Arnold Transit Company and only has a few inches of play on each side of the ferry company's three catamarans when putting them into the water each spring.


Over the past few weeks, the Arnold maintenance crew worked to tune the engines and get the three catamarans ready for a summer season of transporting people to Mackinac Island. A four-member crew used hand signals Friday, April 24, to direct Mr. Hennekes as he put the first of the ferries, the Straits Express, into the water from the Mill Slip, where they had spent the winter on land.

It took them about an hour to position the lift perfectly so the cables could squarely lift the boat, which was sitting on two one-anda half-ton steel beams. The crew guided Mr. Hennekes as he moved the 32-foot-wide lift, with an 85- ton capacity, around the 30-footwide boat.

Jim Brown checks the Straits Express catamaran hydro-jets after the boat is lowered into the water Friday, April 24. The 30-foot wide boat has less than a foot of room on each side of the dock.

"You have a couple of guys with you at all times; you can't do it by yourself," Mr. Hennekes said. "The boat is so wide, you can't see. When you come in on it, you actually have to be very, very careful. You want to make sure everything is right. It's not a fast movement; it's a slow movement. It's pretty well orchestrated."


Once everything was set, the lift picked up the boat only a few inches and carried it slowly toward the dock. Mr. Hennekes has to drive the boat straight onto the dock for the large boat to fit; he has only about six inches to work with between the wheels of the lift and the edge of the dock. What's more, the steel beams, which are about a foot wider than the boat, only allow three inches to work with on each side when lowering the 75-ton aluminum boat into the water.

Rudy Hennekes of Arnold Transit Company operates an 85-ton boat-lift to put the Straits Express catamaran into the water for the season Friday, April 24.

"When you maneuver it on the ramp, you have just a little bit of clearance on each one," he said. "There's an exact method of how you do that because of the weights involved and the stresses on the hull. You want to make sure that you lift it up square. It has to be a square pick-up, you cannot do it any other way or you'll distort something."


After each of the catamarans are put into the water, the maintenance crew will re-check the boat for leaks and mechanical problems before putting them into service for the season. The Mackinac Express ferry is expected to be in the water by Friday, May 1.

Mr. Hennekes operates the lift about 90% of the time, taking commercial and pleasure boats in and out of the water. Head of the Arnold maintenance crew, Jim Brown, operates the lift the remainder of the time. He said his crew will put most of the boats in the dry-dock area into the water over the next month, including tugboats, sailboats, commercial fishing boats, other pleasure boats, and one Star Line ferry.

"They're all different," Mr. Hennekes said. "You have to be real careful of how you pick them all up. You pretty much have to eyeball them and guess where to put the weight and where to lift it."

Log onto www.stignacenews .com to see a time-lapsed video of the Straits of Mackinac catamaran being put into the water. Click on the "Watch Videos" bar on the left-hand side. Videos and photo albums may be viewed here free of charge.

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