An intrepid crew of four cruised in the footsteps of the Edmund Fitzgerald's final voyage last week. In a 27-foot pontoon boat fitted with twin 400 HP engines, Jim Wolf followed the wake of Lake Superior's biggest story.
Wolf, owner and CEO of Avalon & Tahoe Manufacturing, Inc. out of Alma, Michigan, has been testing his boats, and his captaining skills, throughout the nation since 2004 - the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Lake Michigan, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Last year, he successfully piloted from Clearwater, Florida, to Cuba.
Every trip brings a challenge, and a possible tweak to the boat design. Lake Superior didn't disappoint.
Going into the voyage, Wolf was wary of the lake they call Gitche Gumee. Waves are closer and shorter on a lake than on the ocean, he said, likening it to skiing down a mountain. Their safety gear was topped up with everything from dry suits, radios and flares to a life raft.
Duane Dinninger, operations manager and first mate, said he "wouldn't encourage trips like these" unless you've got the experience.
The second day of the trip, the pontoon boat spun a prop just before it reached Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. The crew was able to pull to the rocky shore to change it out while the weather was calm. Once they rounded the peninsula, Wolf said, Lake Superior put up a fight. Their speed dropped from 40 mph to about 15 mph.
"It took five times longer than I thought it would," Wolf said. "The waves were heading straight at us; the wind was blowing."
The trip started Thursday, Aug. 13, at Barker's Island Marina with breakfast and coffee. The crew pulled out once for a photo shoot, and a second time for real. They buzzed past the city's ore docks and made a speedy exit through the Superior Entry.
They docked as evening fireworks lit Grand Marais, Minnesota - part of an annual car show, not specifically for the cruisers - toured the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, snapped photos in the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore and held a rose ceremony on open water where the Fitzgerald went down.
All 29 aboard were lost when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a storm Nov. 10, 1975, 18 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan. The pontoon ferried a box of 29 roses, each tagged with the name of a crew member who died, from Superior to the Fitzgerald's final resting place.
"We ended up reading all the names," Wolf said, as they dropped the roses into the water.
These pontoon adventures are part marketing, part test drive, part chance to spend time with friends. Each has a theme.
"There's a story that goes with it that we're exploring," Wolf said. "When you sum it all up, we're explorers by water."
In a couple of months, Wolf's account of the Lake Superior trip will appear in boating magazines and the business' website, avalonpontoons.com, along with professional photographs and drone footage of the roughly 650-mile voyage.
"It was a great end-of-season boat ride," Wolf said.