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Chain ferry stays afloat on Fed waiver


By Scott Sullivan


Saugatuck’s 160-year-old chain ferry will keep cranking out river crossings after the U.S. House last week passed S. 140 of the 2018 Coast Guard Authorization Act including a provision exempting the ferry from having to be operated by a Coast Guard-licensed individual.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) authored the waiver action at the urging of Saugatuck city officials, whom, in the wake of longtime ferry operator Marilyn Starring’s retirement this summer, argued the requirement was over-burdensome.

Upton Nov. 1 urged the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee waive the Section 8902, Title 46 licensing requirement noting in the chain ferry’s case it is “regulatory overkill.”

“Originally used to transport horses across the Kalamazoo River,” Upton, a 31-year House member, wrote committee chair Bill Shuster and ranking member Peter DeFazio, “the Sauga-tuck Chain Ferry is now a top tourist attraction in southwest Michigan.

“Built in 1838, it is the only hand-cranked chain ferry left in the country. It takes about 200 cranks and approximately two minutes for the five-ton vessel to float the 100 yards across the river to the opposite shore, one mile from Saugatuck’s famous Oval Beach and 500 yards from the historic museum.

“The Chain Ferry is 25 feet long and can carry 26 passengers. Three pulleys keep it in line as it is being pulled across the river.

“The operator turns a crank on the inside and this pulls the ferry along the chain which lies on the bottom of the river. The ferry is open Memorial Day to Labor Day and the fare is just $1.

“While I understand,” Upton went on, “the need for the safety regulations overseen by the Coast Guard in many situations, these regulations impose an undue burden on the City of Saugatuck for the operation of the historic Saugatuck Chain Ferry.

“The requirements under Section 8902 include: License evaluation and issuance, completion of a physical, random drug testing and holding a Transportation Worker Identification Card, are all extremely costly and put great strain on the operation of the Chain Ferry.

“The safety of the passengers who ride the ferry is of utmost importance, but given the unique attributes of the vessel, no specialized machinery and measures currently in place, I consider this regulatory overkill.

“The ferry is on a chain, therefore the operator does not navigate the vessel, and due to the chain, it is permanently affixed to both banks of the river, making it unnecessary for navigation rules proficiency.

“In addition, the operators are trained and maintain CPR and First Aid certifications. There are also personal flotation devices onboard for everyone, including preservers for children and infants.

“As the Saugatuck Chain Ferry travels only 100 yards, and does so while connected to a chain permanently connected to shore the entire time, the risk to passengers is minimal and almost completely mitigated by safety procedures,” Upton’s letter said.

Saugatuck City Manager Kirk Harrier welcomed last week’s waiver news and thanked Upton for his efforts.

“The safety of our passengers who ride the ferry is of utmost importance to us,” said Harrier, “but given the unique attributes of the vessel, no specialized machinery, and the measures we have in place, we are confident that we can ensure their safety without undertaking the significant burdens inherent in operating with an individual licensed by the Coast Guard.

“We’re excited to start back up on Memorial Day,” he said.