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Lady Michigan has new captain, upgrades for season

Courtesy Photo The crew of the Lady Michigan is seen in this courtesy photo, left to right, deckhand Hanna Bullis, deckhand Matt Southwell, First Mate Branden DeRoque, and Capt. Spencer Cootware.

ALPENA — The new captain of the Lady Michigan is excited for his first season on Lake Huron.

“I’ve been captain in Naples, Fla., the Naples Princess a 105-foot boat that’s a sightseeing boat. I run my own charter business. I’m up here for the summers hopefully for six months,” Capt. Spencer Cootware said.

Cootware came to know the area because his wife is from Michigan.

“The first time I came here I loved it. Before I left I bought a piece of property. So I’m a Michigander now,” he said.

A new captain isn’t the only change the Lady Michigan has experienced in recent months.

The Friends of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary has taken over operations for the glass bottom boat.

Friends Director Katie Wolf said the group leases the boat from its previous owner.

“The owner business also includes the pictured rocks boat tours,” Wolf said. “That has done well, it’s become huge. So he’s been focusing all his efforts there.”

Sanctuary Visitor Experience Manager Andrew Augustyn said the owner wants the smaller operations to become more independent.

“We have a six or seven year relationship with him. He wants to see the whole operation succeed as well,” Augustyn said.

Since the Friends group has taken over he said it has taken a heavier hand with everything.

Now it will have more to do with ticket sales, interpretation — the people who narrate and educate passengers about the shipwrecks — maintenance, boat employees and more.

There are about 10,000 people every year, Augustyn said. Wolf said all the staff are now part of the Friends group employee base.

“We do about 15 to 20 classrooms and the same number of private charters every season,” Augustyn said. “We’re looking to build on the market with public cruises going on, charter buses, weddings, memorials. We do about 220 to 240 cruises a year.

“We start in late April with classroom cruises. We’re usually done for the season the first week in October.”

With these changes Wolf said the group will be able to have more local involvement as well.

“We’re doing more business locally, instead of business imported,” she said. “Even with the marketing and advertising, it’s all very hands-on. Now even the boat repairs will be done here.”

Wolf said they haven’t created any new price packages yet, as they want they want to see how this first season goes.

Augustyn said last year was somewhat of a test of their operational strength.

“Now this is more the operation and management side,” he said. “Last year all the deckhands were newer. So now it’s about having deckhands familiar with the operation, from the shipwrecks we go to as well as interpretation. That helps a lot. This way we don’t have to train everybody from the start.”

The group also has worked to clean up the boat, Cootware said.

Cootware and First Mate Branden DeRoque said they’ve worked hard to “spiff up the Lady Michigan.”

“We’ve done 7 1/2 weeks of cosmetics, bringing her back to a very new looking boat,” Cootware said. “Paint, new seat cushions, she looks brand new. We’re proud of being out there in freezing rain and sometimes snow working on her.”

This also will be DeRoque’s first season. DeRoque knew Augustyn after they both graduated from the Alpena Community College marine tech program.

“I worked on a 289-foot intervention and supply vessel for the oil rigs,” DeRoque said. “I was a ROV technician and operator and came back to work here.”

He said the first mate and deckhand are the eyes and ears for the captain. He said they will work to ensure the safety of the passengers, cleanliness of the boat, and to make sure they dock properly, he said.

“Any excuse to be on a boat is a good excuse,” DeRoque said.

Cootware agreed. He said the water just attracts him to it.

“I’m excited. I love learning and I’m excited to learn about this area,” Cootware said. “For recreational divers and everything (the sanctuary does) here for this community. It’s incredible.”

Wolf said the boat has become a symbol of tourism for the Alpena area.

“I think it ties to the stewardship. The more people we can provide the Great Lake experience, the pristine environment. It makes you want to be more invested and bigger part of it,” she said.

To learn more go to the website at www.alpenashipwrecktours.com.

Jordan Spence can be reached via email at jspence@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5687.

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