MUSKEGON, MI — In its 20th season, the Lake Express is expected to have a banner year.
Designed to bypass Chicago area traffic, the high-speed catamaran car ferry that connects Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Muskegon, Michigan, has officially left the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in its wake, officials say.
“Been through a lot with COVID and the other things going on but what we saw starting last year, and continuing this year, is a real appetite for travel,” said Aaron Schultz, senior vice president for the Lake Express. “We’re having what we think will be our best year ever.”
The 192-foot ferry has a top speed of 34 knots, about 39 miles per hour, carrying up to 250 passengers. The high-speed car and passenger ferry boasts the fastest ferry service on Lake Michigan, crossing the around 80 miles in about 2.5 hours. Drive time from Muskegon to Milwaukee is about 4.5 hours.
“We’re meant to go fast,” Schultz said.
“We’ve got full car decks, people coming from all over,” Schultz said. “About 50 different countries have come through, all 50 states, and everyday we’re seeing people from dozens of states – even into the fall months here, we’re going strong.”
Built in Alabama in 2003, it was the first American-made ship of its kind. The Lake Express began relinking Milwaukee and Muskegon via cross-lake ferry in the spring of 2004, resuming the route left behind by the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper, which was discontinued in 1970.
The Lake Express is currently the only car ferry crossing Lake Michigan after the historic S.S. Badger, connecting Ludington, Michigan, to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, – a four hour journey – ended the 2023 sailing season early after damage to its ramp system in July.
“We saw a significant boost of travelers in the days after the Badger dock failure as we worked hard to assist passengers stranded by the cancellations,” Schultz responded to MLive/Muskegon Chronicle in an email.
“We were already experiencing increased traveler volumes in spring and summer prior to the SS Badger closure and continue to see added ridership as former Badger customers continue to choose the Lake Express to avoid the long drive around Lake Michigan and Chicago traffic hassles and congestion.”
The Lake Express crosses Lake Michigan four times daily during the spring (May 5 – June 29) and fall (August 21 – October 22), starting with a 6 a.m. CST departure from Milwaukee and a 9:30 a.m. EST arrival in Muskegon. The schedule has Muskegon departures at 10:15 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. while Milwaukee departures are 6 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Departure and arrival times for spring, summer and fall are on the ferry’s website.
Depending on weather, early Muskegon-bound travelers are able to witness stunning sunrises over the lake or sunsets for the evening westbound Milwaukee-bound passengers. For adventurous travelers, seats are available on the sun deck, giving passengers an open and windy view of Lake Michigan. There are also outdoor seats in the more protected upper stern (rear of the ship).
Some days, the Great Lake is so calm it can be difficult to make out the horizon as the still water and sky appear to merge. Conditions on Lake Michigan can also get dangerous in a hurry, but cancellations are “extremely rare,” Schultz said.
Captain John Rogers, one of four rotating captains, says the Lake Express is well equipped for Lake Michigan, “above and beyond” U.S. Coast Guard regulations.
“We have the top of the line radars and electronic navigation systems,” Rogers said. “We have a double-redundant monitoring system for all of our machinery – multiple compasses, multiple GPSs, multiple modes of communication.”
In August, the Lake Express helped in the rescue of seven people after a 27-foot boat sank beneath the surface of Muskegon Lake. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, the crew spotted the boat as it was going down. The ferry raised an alarm, alerted authorities, and while waiting for help to arrive helped people out of the water along with fishermen.
“We did our job quite well that day and had some good help as well from a local fisherman who responded very quickly,” said Schultz.
Schultz said the Lake Express staff is proud to be both serving and showcasing the Muskegon and Milwaukee communities.
“Obviously, we’re big fans of Muskegon, we’ve been going there for 20 years,” he said. “We go for business trips and say ‘I want to move there sometime.’ Summer is terrific, the beaches, Muskegon State Park, certainly the downtown, the breweries, the farmers market, I could spend the rest of the day listing those things.”
The same is true for Milwaukee.
“Going to Milwaukee, you have all the things you have in a lot of big cities – art galleries, interesting neighborhoods, food and festivals – but in a more user-friendly manner,” he said. “We like hosting people from Michigan, who maybe come from the smaller towns and we like leaving Milwaukee to slow down. I think both sides benefit.”
The last crossings of the year are scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 22.
Two different types of passenger cabins are available: Classic and Premier. Classic Cabin fares for and adult is $108.50 for a one-way ticket or $187 for roundtrip tickets, while the Premier Cabin costs $130 or $233.00 roundtrip. For the complete listing of the variousrates and details about the cabins, click here.
“We’re going quick but you’re not in a rush,” Schultz said. “There’s a lot of room to move around. People will take a nap, people will play some games.”
Complimentary pet kennels for cats and dogs are available on a first-come, first-served basis and must be indicated during the reservation process. Passengers traveling with a vehicle are instructed to keep all luggage inside the vehicle except items they may need while on board.
Automobiles are charged $118 one-way or $224 roundtrip. Motorcycles are charged $66 one-way or $132 roundtrip. More details can be found here.
The common configuration is 44 vehicles and 12 motorcycles, but depending on space, the staff tries to fit a few more. Every inch counts. For large motorcycle events, the car ferry can book to carry up to 125 motorcycles.
The ferry’s Muskegon terminal is located at 1918 Lake Drive, and the Milwaukee terminal is at 2330 S. Lincoln Memorial Drive. Both terminals provide fast and easy connections to area attractions and major interstates. Passengers can begin checking-in an hour and-a-half before each scheduled departure and are encouraged to arrive at least 45 minutes prior.
The boarding process closes 15 minutes prior to each scheduled departure. One government-issued valid form of photo identification is required at the time of check-in and ticketing.
MLive was on the ship Monday, Sept. 25 to document the trip from Muskegon to Milwaukee and back. Check out some of our favorite photos below or view the entire gallery here of 80 images.
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