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April 22, 2014 | 02:26 PM
It’s been a cold winter.

Cold enough that, just two weeks ago, Lake Geneva Cruise Line’s finest couldn’t take an entourage of 25 international travel writers to Black Point mansion for a tour.

They had to make the trip in a far less romantic manner, by Badger bus.

Bill Gage Jr., president of Gage Marine and Lake Geneva Cruise Lines joked about buying an ice cutter.

“It’s been so many years since we had three feet of ice, and you forget how long it takes to get rid of three feet of ice,” said Harold Friestad, the cruise line’s vice president and general manager.

Spring weather has since cleared the ice and Gage announced that this past weekend marked the start of the annual tour season at the Riviera Docks, Lake Geneva.

For Harold Friestad, the general manager, the ice put a damper on some pre-cruise season charters. But it also gave the maintenance crew time to further pamper and prepare the eight boats that are stars on the lake during the summer season.

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A lot had to be done between the end of the last cruise of 2013 season and the first of 2014.

When the cruising season ends, the boats are wrapped up in canvas and plastic to protect them from the weather. The Walworth II, Lady of the Lake, Polaris and Loralei are pulled out of the water for their annual repairs and renovations. While several weeks were brutally cold this winter, the boat wraps kept most of the heat on the boats and blocked the winds, making working conditions fairly comfortable for the maintenance crew, Friestad said.

And the Polaris, Lorelei and Walworth II are kept indoors.

Anyone wanting a feel for exactly how large the cruise line’s two work horses, Lady of the Lake and Walworth II, really are should see them sitting up on blocks, their bows, keels and sterns exposed.

While cottages are closed down and the snowbirds fly south for the winter, Gage maintenance workers apply a fresh coat of paint to each of the boats, Friestad said.

One might think that an army of workers would be needed to maintain the eight boats, but Friestad said the winter crew is actually quite small.

During the summer the company has as many as 90 employees, captains, engineers, servers, ticket sellers and office people.

During the winter, the crew numbers only eight or 10, Friestad said

But those eight to 10 use their intimate knowledge of the cruise line’s vessels as a force multiplier as they maintain and renovate the boats, Friestad said.

During the fall and winter, all mahogany doors, balustrades and trim are removed to indoor storage for restoration and to protect them from the worst of the elements, he said.

Engines are taken apart and repaired and restored.

Not to say that the cruise line boats are not lake-worthy, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

Friestad said this past winter, 3-inch wide angle iron was welded to the outside of the Lady of the Lake to reduce the amount of water splashing into the boat and causing rust on the interior metal.

The canopy on the Lady of the Lake, already 51 years old, will get a one-year fix for this season, and then it will be rebuilt in November.

And this year, the Walworth and Lady of the Lake received special gifts from Friestad and his crew.

Wooden floors

The Walworth II has new floors made of garapa wood on all three decks.

The new, fine-grained, hardwood floors have a light, golden hue. Garapa is native to Brazil, and it is naturally resistant to rot, decay and insects, Friestad said.

“When we get this out, it will look like a yacht,” Friestad said proudly.

The wood gleams through eight to 10 coats of finish. Friestad said that it will be four or five years before another coat or two will have to be laid down to retain the gleam.

Friestad said that Bill Gage Sr., and now son Bill Gage Jr., invested considerable amounts of money and time to make sure their liners are in top shape when they hit the waves at the start of cruising season.

He said Lake Geneva Cruise Lines spends as much as $300,000 on off-season care and repairs for the boats.

Even the catwalks got a new coat of paint, and this season they will feature garapa wood walkways.

“When Bill Gage Sr. bought the line in 1958, everything was in bad shape. The boats were all rusting away,” said Friestad.

Since then, the line has replaced the rusting hulls with a number of new boats, including their star performers, the Lady and Walworth II. In addition to care and repair, the company has lengthened all of the boats from 12 to 20 feet each to increase capacity and some were widened by 2 to 3 feet to increase stability on Geneva Lake’s choppy surface.

The Lady and Walworth II, which is also Geneva Lake’s famous Mail Boat, log the most hours, Friestad said.

During the height of the tourist season, Lady puts in six or seven one-hour tours daily, while the Walworth II puts in three 2-hour trips daily.

The boats have liquor licenses, issued by the state of Wisconsin.

Friestad shuddered at the thought of having to get licenses from each of the municipalities along the lake.

Times have changed, and that hasn’t been all bad. Friestad said synthetic oils used in the boats’ engines have extended the lives of the powerplants.

And sometimes older is better.

The Polaris, the oldest boat in the fleet and the oldest on the lake, has a riveted steel hull. More modern boats have welded hulls.

“The Polaris never leaks,” said Friestad.

Perhaps the most significant changes to the boats happened in the 1970s, when Gage added what is the most important element for crew and passenger comfort.

Restrooms

“Back in the ‘60s, there were no washrooms on the boats,” said Friestad. “You could go out and have a three-hour party on a boat, but you wind up making a lot of stops along the way.”

Friestad, who started to work for the cruise line in 1960 when he was in college, said it’s not unusual for Gage employees to have decades of experience working on the boats.

He said that over the years, he’s hired teachers and college students to do maintenance and as captains and crew members..

Now, 20 and sometimes 30 years later, they are still on the job, he said. And when the staff needs to expand to meet the summer tourist demand, there’s never a problem filling the duty roster, he said.

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