Tuesday, June 23, 2020


Madonna name boards ready to go,
in basement workshop. 

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

The act of christening a vessel is an ancient tradition, intended to bring good luck, safe voyages, and blessings to those who sail on board.

Not necessary?  Maybe...but who would like to take the chance?

Then, too, there is the awkward choice to go against tradition by denying a vessel to be properly christened, blessed and named.

For centuries this ceremony preceded the launch, a time when the vessel first transferred from land to sea.

Traditions change with the times.  The laying of a keel was once of great shipbuilding importance, not so many years ago, particularly in wooden shipbuilding when the keel member became the basis of construction.  Today's vessels - especially those made of steel or aluminum - can be constructed upside down and  in modules.  There is no recognized singular moment when a full-length keel is accomplished.  Instead, recognition has been given to the first cuts of plates and frames as a noteworthy start to construction.

Monday, June 29th, there will be a christening of the new Washington Island Ferry Line vessel Madonna.  This public recognition of the vessel's completion, and its given name (in this case, it will have religious connotations for the Mother of Jesus...but not for the Paul McCartney song, Lady Madonna, or for the pop singer from Bay City, Michigan, Madonna Louise Ciccone.)

This new ferry's name derives from the schooner of the same name, built by an Irishman, Aylward, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1871.  Quite certainly he took the name in reference to the Holy Mother of Jesus. Not just any "My Lady" but the Lady.

One intended reference in the christening of our Madonna will be a tip of the hat to Ole Christiansen, Norwegian immigrant, and his schooner of the same name.  He bought the shooter from Aylward in 1894.  As a merchant vessel, Christiansen's schooner carried commercial products, lumber and potatoes mostly, between Detroit Harbor and other Lake Michigan ports.

In order to properly honor Ole Christiansen and the original Madonna, we asked his family if they could nominate a representative to perform the christening.  We received a "Yes" from Sarah Maines-Bandiera of British Columbia, in early March.

Certain hurdles needed to be overcome, including setting a date when the ferry might be finished and ready to christen.   After it would be launched, delivered and then moored in Detroit Harbor, it would await christening before placement into regular service.  That was tentatively planned for the end of May, or early June, so we hoped.

Then Covid-19 came along and it no longer seemed prudent to plan a public christening event, or to ask Sarah to travel a long distance for a short ceremony.  Pandemic travel rules created more hurdles.  We both agreed to reconsider, and instead we named Sarah as our Honorary Guest for the christening.  Then we began looking closer to home for another candidate who might perform the christening.  (The name of our stand-in will soon be publicly revealed.)

Sarah Maines-Bandiera, great granddaughter of Ole
Christiansen, graciously accepted our offer to christen
the new
 Madonna...until the pandemic made that an 
improbable plan. (photo by Sarah)
There is also the matter of finishing this vessel completely, to the required and agreed upon standards, fit for service and acceptable to the U. S. Coast Guard federal guidelines and owner expectations.

As the weeks passed by in spring, the estimated delivery date was pushed further back into June.  This later date wasn't of great concern to us, because we wanted the vessel to be right and not rushed or lacking in completeness.

Here we are on June 23, with a soft "maybe" for sea trials later this week.  Current status centers around a steering glitch: three steering options under two, completely separate, systems.  It is complicated, and not easily resolved.  The answer may require more parts (and expertise), with lead time in order to rectify.

One way or another, whether the ferry Madonna comes home this coming week or not, we will join Fincantieri Bay Shipbuilding workforce Monday in a combination ceremony.

There will be two parts to this event:  one will be to recognize the Bay Shipbuilding workforce for their achievement in turning out a great product, the ferry Madonna, that will sail in these local waters for the next half-century or more.  The second will be to christen this vessel, a formal, prescribed occasion in which we ask for God's blessings on this vessel, its crew, passengers and cargo in years to come.

Sprinkled throughout this blog and one to follow we'll post a number of photos recounting christening events for Washington Island Ferry Line vessels.

A synopsis of past WIFL christening events

The first ferry built and launched for WIFL, Arni and Carl Richter owners, was the Griffin, built at Krauss Kraft in Kewaunee, Wisconsin in 1946.  I've never come across a christening photo for this ferry, only pre-launch snapshots of owner Arni Richter standing on the shore with the Griffin in the background.  I believe Mary Richter had a hand in naming this ferry, as she was an avid follower of local history.

Then in 1950 the C. G. Richter, named for Carl Godfrey Richter, was built by the Sturgeon Bay Ship Building and Dry Dock yard. (This yard property was taken up 20 years by Bay Shipbuilding Corporation in 1970.)  Just prior to the C. G. Richter launch, cousins Carol Richter and Jeannie Leasum shared christening honors.

1950 christening of C. G. Richter prior to launch:
(top)  Maggie and Carl Richter; Carol Richter and 

Jeannie Leasum; Arni and Mary Richter; Margaret Leasum; 
Em andPaul Richter.  (unknown photographer / WIFL files)
Ten years later, in 1960, on nearly the same waterfrontage in Sturgeon Bay, Richter twins Adele and Estelle did the honors for the new ferry Voyageur.  A professional photographer (perhaps Herb Reynolds) captured the moment the champagne bottle smashed against the bow, prior to launch, a classic in WIFL "christening annals." As far as we know, only family members, and perhaps a few friends, were on hand for this occasion.  The Voyageur was launched following the christening that day.  It would be weeks before the ferry was finished, at homeport, and ready for operation.

Adele (L) and Estelle Richter performed the Voyageur
christening at the SBSB & DD yard prior to launch
in 1960.  (Herb Reynolds / WIFL archives)

In 1970 WIFL shifted from a private christening ceremony in the shipyard on launch day to a public ceremony held at the ferry dock in Detroit Harbor, Washington Island.  The occasion that brought about this change was the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the first Icelanders coming to Washington Island.  The new ferry's name, Eyrarbakki, would draw attention to this Island's many familial ties with Iceland.  Gertrude Andersen, then 94, was considered the first child born here of Icelandic immigrant parents, and she broke the bottle that day.
Gertrude Andersen swinging bottle against 
king post of Eyrarbakki in 1970.

Special invited guests had connections with the Icelandic consul in Chicago.  Well water from Eyrarbakki, Iceland was flown for the christening, rather than using champagne. It was a meaningful day for the Island, and it was also a great day for Arni and Mary Richter who sought to expand and improve Washington Island's tourism through marketing.  This Iceland tie was both genuine and unique. (This year's plans were dashed by the Covid-19 pandemic, but we remind readers of that christening occasion, just as we now highlight the 150th Anniversary Celebration in 2020.)

Estelle Richter took this launch photo of Hull #709 at
the Manitowoc Corp. Bay Shipbuilding yard in
1970.  This vessel was among the first to be
completed by the Bay Ship yard after the move
to Sturgeon Bay from Manitowoc.
The acceleration in tourism traffic would soon include fishing boats on trailers, motor homes, and larger vehicles in general - vans and pickup trucks - and the timing seemed right in 1979 to build a new ferry with increased dimensions over the Eyrarbakki of 1970.  Arni fondly looked at the photos of vessels sailed as ferries by Robert Noble across Sturgeon Bay, and he decided to name the new ferry for that first mechanically propelled ferry in Door County, Robert Noble.  Of course, there was also the unforgettable story of the struggle of Noble who tried to cross the Door at the onset of winter in 1863, and who lost his fingers and lower legs to frostbite.

The new Robert Noble was completed at Peterson Builders, Inc., ion June of 1979, and it heralded a  shift to a different builder, due in part to the building boom in large bulk carriers being constructed at the Manitowoc Bay Shipbuilding yard.  They had no more building room, and no need for a small ferry contract, whereas PBI was just winding down naval contracts and was open to general commercial work.

Harrison Noble, in his early 90s, spoke before
christening the ferry named for his uncle, Robert.
(photographer not known.  WIFL files)
The ferry came home to Detroit Harbor in early June for the christening.  After a bit of sleuthing, we located Robert's nephew, Harrison Noble, a retired County Agent in his early 90s, who lived in the Stevens Point area.  Harrison came to Washington Island, and he became the first male to christen one of our ferries, the new 90-foot Robert Noble.
Arni Richter, Ferry Line president, with
author on day of christening in 1979.

Light drizzle fell, but despite uncooperative weather that day, dozens of people turned out to witness the occasion.  A photo was taken of guests gathered that afternoon on the main deck, looking upward toward the speaker, and it provides a real challenge to the memory.  Naming as many people as possible in the crowd is a fun activity. (I'll add that photo when I find it!)

Mary and Arni Richter are between Mert Dedecker,
Mary's sister, and Bob Thompson of Tim Graul
Marine Design, naval architects for the
Washington.  (Arni Orman photo)
We'll take one more event before breaking the story into a second part.

Peterson Builders was awarded the contract for another new ferry, launched in 1989.  The Washington would be larger in deck and passenger capacity than any previous WIFL ferry, a fact that remains true today for automobile loads of a certain mix.

She's not a winter ferry, as she doesn't have the necessary structure or power for ice breaking, but it has been used more and more into late fall-to-freeze-up, and again in early spring.

This ferry was launched in late April, and it arrived on the Island in early June.   Our daughter, Evy, at age 13, christened the new ferry that year.  One of the notable events that day was the Boy Scout Troop from Maplewood, under scoutmaster  Dennis LeFevre, that led the Pledge of Allegiance that day.

Boy Scout troop from Maplewood led guests in
the Pledge of Allegiance prior to the christening.
(Al Belz Jr. photo)

That christening crowd was the largest to date, with many people onboard, on the pier, and a few in their boats nearby.  The weather was beautiful.  Congressman Toby Roth of Appleton, who was good friends with Islander Sarah Magnusson, sat next to her that day, on folding chairs set up on the main deck.

Evy Purinton broke the champagne bottle
against the Washington's kingpost in 1989.
Future ferry captain, Town Chair, County
Board Supervisor and father of four,
Joel Gunnlaugsson, stands in middle
(photographer unknown)

In another seven years, PBI would be out of business.  It would be a number of years after that before the level of seasonal ferry traffic, our need for a new winter replacement ferry, and our ability to handle the cost of a more expensive ice breaking vessel, would converge to a point where a new ferry contract would be signed in 2002.

(To be continued...).  Dick Purinton  

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