MANISTEE — During the latter hours of Friday afternoon a light rain fell on Manistee. Finally, about the time residents were gathering around their supper tables, the rain melted into a pleasant mist.
Through it all, Al Laaksonen stood patiently on the Manistee Riverwalk while he waited for his charter cruise boat, the Princess of Ludington, to make its way down the channel. And as he watched his 65-foot boat do just that, the sun broke out — if only a little — and winked at the 82-year-old charter boat captain.
“There’s the boat, there’s the boat, I see the boat coming,” Laaksonen said as he broke into a rain-washed smile. “Looks great, doesn’t it? Looks like it belongs here, doesn’t it?”
“Yes it does,” said Marc Miller, director of economic development for the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, who stood nearby taking pictures of the boat’s arrival.
Laaksonen watched as Capt. Dale Fitch maneuvered the boat into its new mooring site in the Victorian Port City channel that connects Lake Michigan to Manistee Lake. Then, when one of the two deckhands tossed a rope to secure the vessel to the dock, it was Laaksonen, himself, who caught that binding tether.
“I’ve been working on this so hard, for so long,” said Laaksonen, still sporting his giddy, youthful smile.
It’s been a dozen years since Laaksonen captained his charter fishing boat — named the Finlander in honor of his ancestry — to fulfill a deep waters calling that he would do for 37 years. Then, last year, whether he was restless or a dreamer — or both — he purchased the 48-year-old, all-aluminum vessel to carry 150 passengers at a time on shoreline cruises of Lake Michigan.
Built in Bay City in 1973, the boat was originally named the Inland Princess. For years it carried passengers to Mackinac Island, and to the Apostle Islands along the National Shoreline on Lake Superior.
But now, with Laaksonen’s vision for business and seagoing energy, it will carry passengers out of its new port in Manistee onto the “great water” – Michi-gami – as it was called by the Native American tribe of the Ojibwe.
“Docking was the big issue,” said Laaksonen. “I’m very encouraged by the fact that they have such a wonderful facility here from which to work from. When I went to Ludington last year, I didn’t know anything about what kind of business we would have. I thought that it would be difficult to develop the business, but it turned out to be a real good move for us. We ran 50 tours for (more than 1,000) people in the short time we were there, and it was very successful.
“This is our first year here. I don’t know much about Manistee, so we’re going to learn a lot and do our best to make it a very successful business.
“We have 90 feet here, so we have plenty of room to dock,” said Laaksonen. “They just didn’t have a big enough spot for me in Ludington that was adequate. I wanted a nice safe place for the customers to be and this is beautiful. You couldn’t ask for anything nicer then we have here.”
Laaksonen said last year his new business carried out 50 tours, and he hopes to at least double that number this year, and possibly even triple it.
“I don’t really have a number for how many tours we can make this year,” he said. “I felt I was going to double, or triple, my business in Ludington, because of how successful we were. Now, I’m not sure. We’ll have to do better than 50 cruises, if we want to do well. I’d like to run a hundred trips this year.
“But it’s all new to us – again –.”
Laaksonen said Miller “... called me the day that he read in the Ludington Daily News that we were having a problem finding dockage in Ludington.”
“That was about two months ago,” said Laaksonen. “He called me that very day and he worked on it with me the whole time. I just decided to move here in the last week. Miller, (Department of Public Works Director) Jeff Mikula and City Manager Thad Taylor are the ones who convinced me that I should be in Manistee, and so that’s why I’m here.”
“The relocation (of the Princess of Ludington) adds to Manistee’s tourism infrastructure, offering additional activities for visitors, and showcasing one of our community’s unique assets, the Manistee Riverwalk,” said Miller.
“The Chamber of Commerce is the county’s point of contact for economic development, and we have seen momentum in adding to our business sector and downtown area.”
Laaksonen and his Princess of Ludington will offer a number of different cruises.
“Our sunset cruise is our most popular,” he said. “All the cruises will be the same here, that we did in Ludington. Although you can do a sunset cruise anywhere on Lake Michigan, it’ll be a little bit different view of the shoreline.
“We can have a nice cruise up the Manistee River, which we didn’t have in Ludington. There could be a beautiful cruise onto Manistee Lake. This will be nice, people will love it. This is going to be a sight to see in Manistee, if things go well.”
Dampened by the afternoon rain and mist, Laaksonen backed away and looked at his Princess of Ludington, and at the Manistee skyline that surrounded him. His enthusiasm and spirit were not dampened.
“Of course, we’re not going to take it out into any storm,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll have fun.”
For more information go to ludingtonharbortours.com.