By Nick Nolan
For residents on three islands within Chippewa County, there are few services more vital than the ferry services which provide access to the mainland. October 2022 brought plenty of reason to celebrate for the small community of Neebish Island. For the first time in generations, these islanders were treated with a new ferry boat.
The new Neebish Islander III replaces a nearly 80-year-old ferry which had offered transportation to the island since 1995. Prior to operating as the Neebish Islander II, the former ferry served as the original Sugar Islander. This aging ferry wasn’t constructed to operate in the narrow, often icy, passage between Barbeau and Neebish Island. The new Neebish Islander III was built with the area in mind.
“The previous 1944 vessel far outlived its service life and was getting very costly to maintain,” said Eastern Upper Peninsula Transportation Authority (EUPTA) Director Pete Paramski. “With an aging vessel the list of repairs was becoming long and tedious. The work was becoming more and more intensive.”
EUPTA oversees ferry services to Sugar, Drummond and Neebish islands. Once it became cost effective to invest in a new means of transportation for Neebish Islanders and funding was secured, the decision to acquire a new ferry was easy. The Michigan Department of Transportation funded the $5.5 million project with a small contribution from EUPTA.
“The Neebish Islander III was built in Manitowoc, Wisc. by Burger Boat Company. They’re a very reputable company and build high-end yachts,” said Paramski, noting a passenger ferry was something the company could easily construct. “We saw a lot of their work and were very impressed. We submitted a proposal and got a very nice boat out of it.”
The new 92-foot-long ferry has a more streamlined design compared to its predecessor that puts functionality at the forefront. The Burger Boat Company states that, “the ferry was designed to operate in the harsh winter environment and through the solid ice conditions it will encounter on its route.”
“The Neebish Islander II had a superstructure that was lower than we liked. We couldn’t take logging and cement trucks across efficiently due to an under-clearance problem,” said Paramski. “With the new boat, we decided to get rid of the super structure and go with an offset pilothouse.”
Due to the change in design, the Neebish Islander III can haul more vehicles than the previous boat. EUPTA estimates that it can move 15 regular passenger vehicles, 150 passengers and up to 80,000 tons in a single trip across the St. Marys River. A vital part of the new design is that it can provide quicker and more urgent access to the island for emergency services during the winter. Paramski said the ferry’s operators will still take caution while running with brash ice, but the Neebish Islander III is much more capable than the retired Neebish Islander II.
While the previous Neebish Islander II had ties to the Sugar Island ferry line, the new Neebish Islander III ironically has ties to the Drummond Island ferry line. Paramski noted that Mark Pudlo, the naval engineer behind the design and head of Seacraft Design, previously worked with the firm that partnered with EUPTA to design the Drummond Islander IV.
The $5.5 million project started in November 2021 and the Neebish Islander III was delivered on Oct. 30, 2022. The Neebish Islander III will continue to operate on the same schedule as the prior ferry ran. To stay up to date on passages, visit EUPTA.net.