Miller ferry Captain David Dress is Put-in-Bay lifer: Erie Interviews

Meet David Dress, a Put-in-Bay lifer who has been at the helm of Miller Boat Line ferries for nearly three decades.

“It was a summer job that turned into a much, much longer,” said Dress, 52.

Miller, the largest and most frequent ferry service on Lake Erie, started spring runs in March.

It was originally a charter boat service and ice harvesting business. In 1945 the company began running the South Shore, a 65-foot enclosed boat that could carry up to 12 cars and handle the infamous Lake Erie chop. The three trips daily between Miller’s downtown Put-in-Bay dock and Catawba took about 40 minutes.

Now, during the peak summer season, about 95 people work for Miller, carrying cars, people, kayaks and bicycles to and from Catawba, South Bass and Middle Bass Island, with trips begin at 6:30 a.m. and last until nearly 11 p.m. The biggest boat, the Put-in-Bay, can hold 600 passengers without cars, or about 280 passengers with 28 cars.

During the spring and fall, Dress works maintenance on Miller’s four ferries and during the summer captains the boats for as long as 12 hours a shift.

“I’m really on all the boats,” said Dress, who grew up around boats on Put-in-Bay. He worked on the Sonny S ferry that runs between Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass and when his wife’s grandfather retired from Miller, he took over in maintenance. Four years later, he started driving the boat.

Here’s Dress’s take on the ferry and what to do on Put-in-Bay.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Dress on the Miller ferry with his granddaughter. (David Dress)

What’s it like to take people on the ferry each day?

There are always questions. People want to know how far it is. How fast is the boat going. Where are the lifejackets?

It’s 3 miles. We go 11 or 12 knots. Maxed out, we can make the trip in about 16 minutes. We have a half-hour schedule, which leaves a little time to get things off and get back on and get going.

When people get nervous, I tell them the whole crossing is about 25 feet deep. If the boat sank, you would just have to stand on the upper deck. There’s no way it could tip over.

We’ve never had any issues. And we’ve been in business for a long time. We take the safety precautions we need to. And it’s usually a very enjoyable trip.

Is the water ever too rough to make trips?

What happens, is in the last couple years, the water level has risen a lot from the upper lakes. When we get an east wind, the water from Buffalo and Cleveland gets pushed up here. (That’s called a seiche.)

The water ends up over our dock, and the ramp to get people and cars from the dock to the boat is at too steep an angle. When you can’t get people on and off and can’t get cars on and off safely, you just have to call it. At some point, it’s not worth the risk.

Has anyone ever gone overboard?

We’ve had a few incidents. Most were intentional, which in last few years has subsided. People want to see if they can swim to shore. I did have to go in the water once for a guy who fell in and dislocated his elbow. That was kind of scary. It was blowing pretty good. Fortunately we’ve practiced that and we were able to get him out safely.

How did the Jet Express change business when it started running from Port Clinton to downtown Put-in-Bay in 1989?

We didn’t see a lot of our business change. They advertised. That just brought a lot more people to the island, people who didn’t know about the island before or thought that riding on a fast boat would be cool.

After they got there, they realized they could bring their car for the same price with us. We have a lot of free parking that they don’t.

Do you ever have to turn people away?

Saturday is the big people day. We’ll put on a third boat, and it’s somewhere around 1,500 people we can run in an hour to or from Put-in-Bay.

If we’re going to limit something, we limit cars. We like to get the people on the boat and over even if the cars have to wait a bit. We’ll filter 5 or 6 cars in, fill the rest with people because normally if someone’s coming with a car, not just coming for the day.

How has Put-in-Bay changed since you were a kid?

There’s just a lot more activity. There’s a lot more business. There’s a lot more choices. The old standbys are still really, really busy. We get a lot of daytrippers during the week, especially when the weather is nice. But I don’t think a lot of people stay for the week anymore.

Any activities you recommend for visitors?

Perry’s monument is very interesting, the history behind it and the view. You can see Canada from there, you can see the islands. There’s a butterfly house. It’s a really cool place to go. I take my granddaughter in there, we love that. And then the caves, at Heineman’s Winery and Perry’s Cave. Those are interesting with the island history.

What do you do in the off-season?

This year we got a lot of good ice fishing. My wife and I, we like to take a cruise where I don’t have to drive. Like I don’t get enough boating time. For several years, we didn’t have a lot of down time. We only had two weeks off and went right back to work.

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