The Star of Saugatuck
Marilyn Starring grew up on a farm with a father who disdained the water and went out of his way to make sure his children never went to the beach.
So, it may come as a surprise to those who grew up with her that she is the manager of the Star of Saugatuck Boat Cruises – a job which takes her to the water everyday. The jewel of the business she operates with husband, Bruce, is the Star of Saugatuck II, a double-deck boat powered by paddles.
“It all began before I met my husband when he graduated from college and he had some idle time on his hands and his mom and stepdad thought he should be doing something with his life,” Marilyn said.
Around that same time, the owner of the Saugatuck-based Island Queen excursion boat decided he was going to leave town and Bruce’s parents convinced him that he should buy an excursion boat and start a business. He bought some basic plans from the Island Queen’s owner, revised the plans and built a boat – the Queen of Saugatuck, later renamed the Star of Saugatuck.
That boat was built in a machine shop just east of town. In July, 1978 the boat began operating on a limited basis under someone with a license to operate it while Bruce and his father-in-law studied and earned the required Coast Guard certifications to captain the vessel themselves. Initially, passengers were taken up and down the Kalamazoo River and into Lake Michigan.
“A public address system was added and that’s how the narration began,” Marilyn said. “That boat weighed 14 tons and held 82 passengers.”
In 1998 financing was secured to build the Star of Saugatuck II. One year later the hull was launched and in 2000 the main deck and the pilot house were welded to the hull.
Rides were sold as part of a benefit to 150 people and she’s been running ever since.
One year after the Star of Saugatuck II was fully operational, the Starring’s sold the Star of Saugatuck to a gentleman in Waco, Texas. This left them with much-needed time to focus on the boat they now operate from May to October for tourists who come to Saugatuck from all over the world and throughout the United States.
“Excursion boats are greatly tied to the fabric of the community,” Marilyn says.
Boats in general have a long history in the area beginning with schooners and ships that used to travel to Singapore which was founded in 1836 only to become a ghost town 40 years later now buried beneath sand dunes along the Lake Michigan shore line. The boats that dock in present-day Saugatuck are mostly recreational or charter craft.
Water in general is the community’s biggest asset, according to Marilyn.
“We sit one mile inland from Lake Michigan so we’re still able to do our trips even when Lake Michigan gets crazy,” she said.
The opportunity to see Saugatuck from the water is a site that often elicits surprise and delight from tourists who appreciate the beauty and serenity of the area and are awed by the size of Lake Michigan.
“When most people think of a lake they think of a small body of water,” Marilyn says. “It’s hard for them to fathom that we have a lake that’s this big.”
While the Starring’s make their business look easy, it is not all smooth sailing and it takes a great deal of work behind the scenes to keep the Star voyage-ready.
Bruce has worked fulltime as a field service engineer for warranty work for a yacht company throughout the buildout and launch of the business’ boats. His job has him on the road for 40-45 weeks out of the year.
“There’s always down times in a business and we basically have 12 weeks out of the year to make our money,” Marilyn said of the Star. “School and sports start in August so you have an extremely short season.
“We always had a budget of what we needed to get through the winter and my husband always took jobs in the winter so we had money.”
Unexpected expenses such as increases in insurance can have a huge impact.
“You have to watch your pennies and you don’t spend what you don’t have,” Marilyn says. “You wait until the end of season to spend the money. You keep gathering nuts and keep storing them away.”
The Starring’s budget gets a boost because they don’t need to spend much on paid advertising since word-of-mouth advertising is bringing in their customers, including a new sort of customer who prefers to travel at their own pace and utilize the Internet.
“Now the phone rings all year long and emails come in from groups looking to book rides,” Marilyn says. “There is a lot more demand and people are planning further ahead.”
It would be fair to say that very few attractions are more synonymous with Saugatuck then the Star of Saugatuck II and the Starring’s are very aware of the responsibility that goes with this distinction.
Marilyn and her family take nothing for granted. She said the hard work is offset by the people she meets and the appreciation they express after riding on the Star.
“We really like being able to give people an experience to get out on the water and hear the history of our area. Some people have never been on a boat before,” she says. “You take all of this for granted and then you see it through their eyes.
“That makes it all worth it.”
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Want to plan your trip on the Star of Saugatuck, check out their website for updated cruise times and book your tickets online at http://www.saugatuckboatcruises.com/
Make it a multi-day adventure and explore all the great things the Saugatuck region has to offer. Check the availability of our lodging partners by clicking HERE!