Okemos man recounts trip across Lake Michigan in new book
By JUDY PUTNAM
Lansing State Journal
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OKEMOS — Fifty years ago, Vic Jackson got into a lively debate with his boss about just how small a boat you could take to cross one of the Great Lakes.
What came next is the stuff of legend.
On a $5 bet, Jackson declared he could cross Lake Michigan in a bathtub.
“It was a coffee shop bet, strictly a joke,” Jackson, of Okemos, recalled to the Lansing State Journal. “It wasn’t to be taken serious. I kept getting swept up into bigger and bigger things.”
Jackson went on to prove it, crossing the 60 miles from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wisconsin on Aug. 24, 1969, in a 250-pound cast iron tub fitted with a 20 horsepower outboard motor and buoyed by empty oil drums. The boat was called “Vic’s Folly.”
Foolish? Yes. Dangerous? You betcha.
But he proved it was possible.
Jackson, now 81, is reliving that adventure as the 50th anniversary approaches. He’s also written a book about his experience “Crossing Lake Michigan in a Bathtub.”
He’s the only known person to cross the lake in a bathtub. While he said he’s heard of other exceptional feats — the lake has been crossed by a swimmer and a few on paddle boards — he believes he is the only one to cross the lake solo in such an unconventional craft.
He wasn’t supposed to do it by himself. Back in 1969, he had an escort in a speedboat, but the crew decided to go to shore for breakfast, wrongly convinced they could easily catch and find the 6 mph bathtub vessel.
In 1969, Jackson, then 31, lived in East Lansing with his first wife, Ariel, and six young kids. He had attended Michigan State University, studying electrical engineering. He was working for a Jackson firm called Troup Electronics, servicing large telecommunications systems such as those used by law enforcement agencies.
After the coffee shop bet, the story started making the rounds. The next thing he knew, a worker at a trucking manufacturer, which was one of his clients, dropped off a used Kohler bathtub.
“The bathtub was sitting in my driveway, and I’m trying to figure out how to get rid of it,” he said.
Then another friend, a fellow ham radio operator, took the tub and added a frame and oil drums to make it float.
The fanciful idea was becoming a reality.
Pretty soon, there was a story in the Lansing State Journal with Lansing Mayor Gerald Graves, a former sea captain who took an interest in the vessel but turned down an invitation to take a ride. It was still in the joking stage, Jackson said.
After that, a marine company donated a motor. The story about his plans grew.
“You cannot imagine the media frenzy from there on out. That story went around the world,” he said.
He decided to attempt it.
Jackson said that he grew up near Lake Michigan, moving to Ludington with his family at age 13, so he assumed he knew all about the lake.
He didn’t. He learned about weather and navigation the hard way.
Jackson’s first effort, July 5, 1969 ended in a close call. He had to be rescued by the Coast Guard as small waves suddenly grew to big ones.
“Lake Michigan had turned into a raging fury of six-foot waves enveloping me in their deep green broiling water,” he wrote in his book.
His pleas for help over a radio could only be heard as his tub rode the crest of a wave.
The Coast Guard did rescue him, six and a half miles off shore, and towed his tub back to Ludington. The guardsmen, he said, thought it was hilarious.
“The newspapers had a field day at the expense of my ego,” he wrote.
The Detroit Free Press headline was “Bathtub Mariner is All Washed Up.”
Even nationally syndicated radio host Paul Harvey got a ding in.
Jackson said it was a low point. He was depressed. He endured a lot of razzing about his failed trip.
His father encouraged him to quit. His wife dubbed him “goofy” in a news article.
One person, though, gave him a glimmer of hope. It was a Ludington car ferry captain who examined the boat and told him he could do it if he waited for calmer weather in late summer.
He tried again Aug. 24, 1969, leaving from Ludington early around 6:30 a.m., hoping to arrive in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, in 10 hours.
As the mayor of Manitowoc and a group of well-wishers waited on shore, hours passed with no sign of Jackson. Jackson’s father, who had made the crossing from Ludington on a ferry, kept his pledge to call the Coast Guard if he didn’t make it by 5 p.m.
Out on the water, Jackson had drifted off course then corrected with the help of a compass and map, adding miles to his journey. His radio batteries were dying, and he turned off communication. He knew he was running out of gas.
As darkness fell he thought he could see a blinking light on the horizon. It turned out to be a grain elevator in Manitowoc.
As he motored slowly toward shore, he realized he was in complete darkness without lights and at risk for being hit by other boats.
But he made it around 9 p.m., Jackson said he had one pint of gas left out of the 30 gallons he took to make the crossing.
The crossing took him more than 14 hours. He estimates he went 100 miles.
“It was a real squeaker,” he said.
His story was carried worldwide. He later became a guest on Garry Moore’s show “To Tell the Truth,” stumping the panel about his adventure.
His son, Victor Jr., now 58 and living in Redford, recalls some of the attention given to his father after his voyage, such as Paul Harvey reporting his success.
“I know it was a crazy thing, but he actually did end up doing it,” he said.
Jackson’s later life adventures kept him off the water. He cycled thousands of miles on long distance trips. He’s also a licensed pilot. He married his wife, Karen, in 1979 and together they had nine children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren with one more on the way.
A group of family and friends plan to make a commemorative trip on Aug. 24, but this time aboard the S.S Badger, the car ferry that runs from Ludington to Manitowoc. He said his success in the bathtub boat gave him confidence in life. He founded several telecommunications companies, including a beeper and paging company that he ran and eventually sold to Ameritech Corp. He’s been a longtime consultant to lawyers working on telecommunications issues.