Don Bednarik always had a love for boats.
He moved to the Poynette area in 1973 — after growing up on the south side of Chicago — and got into working on small boats.
It eventually led Bednarik, 65, to working on the Merrimac Ferry as an operator, beginning on Nov. 11, 1984. After five years, he switched to being a mechanic for the ferry, a position he stayed in for more than 31 years, until he retired — his final day was April 1.
“I used to work on small boats, then I landed the big boat and said this will be a nice big challenge,” Bednarik said.
But did he think he’d work on the ferry for nearly 36.5 years?
“Yes, no,” Bednarik said, who lives in Poynette with his wife, Lisa and their son, Dayne. “I enjoy it. I enjoy boats, and this was just a bigger scale and more complex.”
He said getting to be an operator for the ferry in the 80s was about who he knew. After a required amount of years, a ferry operator could choose to become a mechanic, but had to take a test. Bednarik was a favorite for the mechanic position because he had a marine background, having worked for Mercury Marine as a repairman. In order to work for Mercury Marine, Bednarik went to a technical school and later became certified by taking a master test and getting a certification number.
As a mechanic for the ferry, his day began around 7 a.m., doing some routine maintenance checks.
“I’d check for vibrations, check for oil leaks, check if pressures are where they are supposed to be,” he said. “I usually go up to the operators and ask them if they had any problems during the night. Every day, that was it. Things like washing the deck and just listening, because at different locations, you can hear different sounds.”
Unlike other mechanics who do their jobs with their subject at a standstill, Bednarik and others, had to complete a majority of the tasks while the vessel was in motion as the Merrimac Ferry runs 24/7 from April through November (or whenever Lake Wisconsin isn’t frozen over). The only scheduled down time is from 7:30-8 a.m. and 7:30-8 p.m. — shift changes for the operators.
“Anytime it’s down then, you’re checking oils or changing little parts,” Bednarik said. “We schedule things that way, so it doesn’t look bad on the public’s part (being stopped).”
However, things happen where the ferry simply can’t operate until a problem is fixed. Whenever that happens, the quicker the crew can get the ferry (currently Colsac III) moving again, the better.
“You still have those unexplained things,” Bednarik said. “We have to figure out how many pieces we need, and double that, so we have parts on hand. We’ve got a spare motor, spare drive motors, spare hydraulic pumps, filters … you name it … we have a lot of spare parts.”
Bednarik has been around for major stoppages during the season, too. He recalls one time shortly after Colsac III was put into service in 2003, where it was down for about two weeks due to major mechanical failures and the entire hydraulic system needing to de redesigned.
“When they put (Colsac III) in, they had a lot of problems with it,” Bednarik said. “So basically, it had to be redesigned mechanically.”
“It got to the point with (Colsac III), it was checking out design, changing parts and redesigning new ones,” he continued. “I worked with another guy and we did a lot of changing on this one (Colsac III) to what it is now. There was a lot of experimenting with metals and cables. It takes years of figuring out what this is and what that is, and what works and what doesn’t work.”
There have been no major stoppages since.
Bednarik also spent half of his tenure working on Colsac II, which was in service from 1963-2002. The current ferry is in its 19th year of service — about halfway through its expected lifespan.
“Everything has been going a little less and a little less, and we figured out how long parts last, then we turn around and change those parts before they fail, so it’s not shut down,” Bednarik said. “We change things while refueling or when traffic isn’t there. We work around the traffic as much as we can.”
Because the Merrimac Ferry is a one-of-a-kind vessel, Bednarik worked with another mechanic to fix the parts, and with an engineer to help design the needed parts.
Whatever needed to be done, Bednarik followed the saying of ‘Make Bo go,’ when referring to getting the work completed, doing whatever it takes to get the ferry moving again.
“Whenever something around here stops because of a mechanical failure, it’s a big thing,” Bednarik said. He added that when it happens, the state gets a call and things start rolling — the ferry has been controlled by the state since 1933 as part of its highway system.
“Most of the stuff down here has to be handmade,” Bednarik said. “You can’t go to the store.”
Bednarik said there isn’t a specific part that’s changed the most. He added that depending on the quality of the support cables, they’re changed anywhere between every six or 19 weeks.
The ferry has two engines, and Bednarik said that after every 400 hours, they shut down one engine to work on the other, then repeat the process after the next 400 hours.
“Things are actually being fixed as it’s going back and forth,” Bednarik said. “Sometimes we just have to detour people around Lane 2.”
The ferry usually doesn’t have to worry too much about the weather, as it operates only when the Lake is not frozen over. Bednarik said the only troublesome condition can be the wind. The worry is when it blows above 35 mph, but it could still operate.
“The wind is a little factor, depending on the conditions of the cables,” he said. “If it’s unsafe for the operators to land the boat, then we pull the plug on it until things stop.”
The job was never tedious for Bednarik, who enjoyed coming to work on the ferry every day, never knowing what might happen.
“It’s something I like to do,” he said. “It’s a big challenge, and I love big challenges. Mechanical parts only last so long, and we try to overcome that, but Mother Nature is going to win every time. Every day is a different challenge, because different things happen. We don’t always ask why it happened, we just fix it.”
And fix it they do. It’s estimated that the ferry runs around 5,600 hours each year, but Bednarik guesses that the most time it’s recently been out of service over a given year, excluding shift changes, was 50 or 60 hours — the equivalent of just two or three days.
“Looking at the last 10 years, the down time is pretty much zero,” Bednarik said.
Bednarik said he’s kind of on call for 24 hours a day, oftentimes showing up late at night to make a quick fix on something, or at least make it last until the morning.
“I like big challenges, and I’ll give 180% just to make this happen, to say, ‘OK, I fixed this,’” he said.
His days aren’t just about fixing the problems with the vessel, but getting to spend time with the public each day. It’s the people that Bednarik said he was going to miss most. He’s heard and seen all the stories one could think of.
“You name it, it’s happened,” he said. “The biggest thing is when you get grandpa with his grandson, and he says ‘I remember when my dad took me across the ferry many years ago.’ And now it’s trying to preserve things for the grandson. (The ferry) goes across generations.”
“A lot of things happened out here the last 36 years,” he added. “I’ve seen everything from A to Z … lots of problems, car accidents, people driving in the water … it’s all happened. I can spend a week on just that.”
He’ll miss the ferry, too, and all the designing and fixing of the parts to make it continue to run.
“The boat itself, it’s one of a kind,” he said. “And hopefully they can keep up with repairs and keep things going, because it’s tough.”
Bednarik plans to stay busy during retirement, possibly staying involved with the ferry as a consultant. Also, restoring stationary steam engines is a hobby of his, and he will spend a lot of time on that. He has a show every other year, displaying his work.
He also said he will go to some steam engine shows and plan more vacations with his wife and son.
“I’m definitely not going to sit at home,” Bednarik joked.