People visiting and people working in Door County have one key similarity: we all value our days (or even our few precious hours) off. So, when I was offered a chance by Captain David Graves to come aboard his Harbor Lady cruise boat on a sunny Fourth of July afternoon, I gladly jumped at the chance to be on the water for a few hours before my waitressing job beckoned. “All you have to do is bring a friend, meet us down at Stone Harbor Resort, and save some room for lunch,” Graves tells me over the phone the day before. “We’ll take care of the rest.” I was more than happy to oblige.
Graves grew up on the water, and even between all of the other jobs he’s held in his life (among them, a paramedic and the previous owner of Go Wireless, a wireless phone company that he sold to US Cellular in the fall of 2005), he’s made time to be on the water as much as he could. After the sale of his company, he was a bit restless as to what he might want to do next in life. “I knew that I loved Door County – Sturgeon Bay in particular – and I loved being on the water,” Graves says. “So I figured I would need to do something that incorporated those two things.”
He brainstormed a boat cruise that would take passengers through the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal. “I wanted people to get a feel for Sturgeon Bay’s rich shipbuilding industry, and since we were on the canal, I knew that we wouldn’t have to cancel trips due to treacherous waters.”
Once he decided to make the cruise boat a reality in Sturgeon Bay, the next step in Graves’s plan was acquiring his captain’s license, which he obtained at a national training center in Naples, Florida. “Although I had driven a lot of boats, I had never even touched a boat of this size,” Graves says. “The instructors teach you every aspect of boating – safety, techniques, navigation – you name it.” After getting the license, Graves purchased his first boat from Foxy Lady Cruises in Green Bay, and Harbor Lady Cruises was born in late summer 2008.
Graves is quick to say that the success of the Harbor Lady – from customer service to marketing and special event planning – is due in large part to his staff, most of which are his own family. His daughters Emma and Allison are the ones that will most likely welcome you aboard the ship, and Graves’s wife Joyce is usually the one pouring you a drink at the boat’s bar or offering you a homemade sugar cookie for dessert. Both Emma and Joyce recently obtained their captain’s licenses, so there’s a chance that driving the boat might be in both of their futures.
“You’ll usually see three out of the four of us on the boat on any given night,” Graves says. “We like to give each other at least one night off a week!” he laughs. “In all seriousness, though, working together as a family on this has been great. We’ve shared some really great memories, and it’s helped the girls understand the importance of a solid work ethic.”
The family aspect is what makes the Harbor Lady so accessible to customers – it’s a beautiful yacht, but comes devoid of any of the pretension that is often associated with the “y” word. The SkipperLiner vessel can accommodate up to 149 passengers, and guests may enjoy the cruise aboard the upper deck or in the climate-controlled cabin. The cabin reveals a spacious great room where the majority of meals are served during the cruises, as well as a marvelous view of the water from virtually every window. The upper deck of the boat contains a fully-stocked bar as well as an open-seating deck where one can catch a few of the sun’s rays while listening to Captain Graves narrate an interesting history of Sturgeon Bay’s shipbuilding industry. For those who want to see the navigation of the boat up close, Graves is more than happy to have guests visit with him (and a lucky few can even sit down next to him) while he’s in the captain’s chair.
The Harbor Lady offers a variety of cruises every day of the week, and all are organized with a visitor’s interests and budget in mind. A typical Saturday will offer seven different cruises – a breakfast cruise, a lunch cruise, a dinner cruise, and four sightseeing cruises (if a customer wants to board the boat without partaking in a meal, sightseeing cruises are offered at the same time as the meal cruises for a discounted price) throughout the day. These tours include either a trip out to the Bay of Green Bay to see the Sherwood Point Lighthouse, or a trip to Lake Michigan to see the Sturgeon Bay lighthouse along the Sturgeon Bay channel.
Other cruises during the week include a Tuesday night pasta buffet cruise, a Friday night tavern-style
fish fry, and a Monday evening SIN night (SIN stands for “Service Industry Night”). Graves says he created SIN night specifically for Door County’s service industry workers. “I thought it would be a great way to give back to the county’s workers for a job well done – and also because the people on the front lines of the tourism industry are our best word-of-mouth,” he says. Locals who attend SIN night only pay $8 to board the boat, with half-price drinks available throughout the evening. “It’s been a huge success,” Graves says.
There are also plenty of specialty cruises depending on the time of year – a Jimmy Buffet tribute, a Frank Sinatra tribute, a fall color cruise, and even cruises during Green Bay Packer football season – complete with DirecTV aboard the vessel. “The Packer cruises sell out fast,” Graves says.
In addition to the myriad of cruise styles that the Harbor Lady offers of its own accord, the boat is also available for special events. “Wedding receptions, family reunions, special birthdays – we really love doing these kinds of private events,” Graves says. “We’ve been working with clients over the past few winters, and we have quite a few things booked for 2011 – and several inquiries for 2012 already.” One of their clients, Teri O’Hearn and Gary Casagranda, a couple from Appleton who are getting married in October of this year, were on the Harbor Lady at the same time I was. The two were taking a cruise for the sake of “research” – scouting it out for O’Hearn’s bachelorette party. “I wanted to give my friends and family a different experience,” O’Hearn says, “and this cruise is exactly that.”
The usually modest Captain Graves would agree with O’Hearn. “The best part of this whole endeavor has been getting to work alongside your family – and then seeing other families enjoy themselves with something you’ve provided to them. That is the reward.” He pauses, and adds, “Well, that – and getting to be on the water everyday definitely doesn’t hurt!”
Harbor Lady Cruises is located in Sturgeon Bay, directly in front of Stone Harbor Resort on 107 N. 1st Avenue. The boat is ADA accessible and operates daily from April 15th through October 31st. For information or to purchase tickets for a variety of cruise options, please visit www.HarborLady.com or call (920) 707-5239.