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Mild December stretches ferry season on Erie

01/05/2016, 1:05am EST
Mild December stretches ferry season

The Miller Boat Line that runs to South Bass Island is continuing to ferry food, building materials, and passengers because of the mild weather. THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER

CATAWBA ISLAND, Ohio — When the calendar read Jan. 5 in the past two years, the ferry docks here were empty and ice had either shut off the main lifeline between the village of Put-in-Bay and the rest of the world, or its stranglehold on the lake was rapidly developing.

Not so this time around, since it is definitely winter but someone forgot to tell Lake Erie about it. Open water and the absence of ice means the Miller Boat Line is continuing to ferry food, building materials, and passengers a few miles across the lake to South Bass Island and back.

“We’re chugging right along,” said Billy Market, who operates the Miller Line with his brother, Scott, and sister, Julene. “It’s been good for the islanders to get back and forth over the holidays, and it’s been a big factor in all of the construction going on right now. The run of milder weather has enabled them to get a lot of materials over to the island.”

Market said by this time last year, the ferry fleet was mothballed in the Put-in-Bay harbor, and at this time two years ago, there was ice nearly a foot thick around some of the islands.

As fickle as she can be, the big lake might bring the curtain down on the ferry season soon if a sustained cold snap begins to ice her edges, but the water temperature was 38 degrees on Monday and the big boats were still churning across the open water between Catawba Point and the Lime Kiln Dock on the southwestern tip of South Bass Island.

Market said the extended season of ferry runs has helped the three major construction projects on the island continue to progress. There is a large expansion under way at one of the downtown hotels, and two condominium developments taking place.

“We will typically see one major construction project going on, but this winter there are three of them and the mild December weather has enabled us to get a lot of essential materials over there,” he said. “In a lot of past winters, we would not have been able to do that.”

Market said that one day last week there were four semi-tractor trailer rigs lined up at the ferry ramp in the morning, ready to transport their cargo across the water to the island.

“Usually, a lot of this construction goes on in the spring and everyone is in kind of a panic mode, but the more we can haul this fall, the less panic there should be in the spring,” he said.

“Spring will still be very busy — it always is — but these runs into the winter months should help lessen the spring rush.”

Market said many of the subcontractors working on the major projects on the island will commute back and forth on the ferry, while some of the construction workers will ride over to the island to start the week, work four 10 or 12-hour days, and then return home.

Besides feeding the construction work, the winter ferry runs also keep the shelves stocked at the island stores. Once the ferry service shuts down for the season, food supplies must be flown in, which adds significant cost to everything the 400-500 full-time residents of the 1,600 acre island need.

“When we can keep running, it definitely helps out with the costs of groceries,” Market said.

“The logistics of it are much easier, since you can bring a truck load over on the boat, but everything has to be hand-loaded onto a plane. But once the lake freezes over, that’s the only option.”

The Miller Boat Line also ferries propane to the island, while fuel for the gasoline pumps comes via a separate small tanker boat.

The mail arrives by airplane, while Miller transports the package service from UPS and other couriers.

The Miller Line made more than 5,700 ferry runs in 2015, transporting nearly 78,000 passengers and close to 12,000 vehicles. From the middle of May to the middle of September, there were 28 ferry trips a day on weekends, and 26 daily throughout the week. There was a single ferry run on Christmas Day, and one on New Year’s Day.

“We are very fortunate we have not had to deal with a lot of ice on the lines, the deck, and the docks so far. We are sort of the lifeline of the island, so we need to run as long as we can,” Market said.

“If it stays like this, it isn’t so bad, but once it does turn cold, I hope it stays cold. The best thing for us is once the weather changes, it needs to stay that way for about two months.”

Market said the ferry crews are looking forward to time off, since their season started on April 8. The final run of the 2014 season came on Jan. 2, 2015. The previous season, the ferry was shut down for a full four months.

Ferry runs to nearby Kelleys Island from the dock at Marblehead by the Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line Service are scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., with return trips from the island 30 minutes later.

The ferry service is closed Tuesday and Thursday, while on weekends five daily runs are scheduled, weather permitting.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.

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