As I stood in the Starcraft Marine plant with the iPad in my hand, I was very aware of the eyes that were on me as I assisted with the final inspection of the SunChaser 8522. It was as if those who use this iPad on a daily basis were eager to see my reaction to the updated approach to quality checking pontoons off the assembly line. I was given a rare opportunity to see firsthand what it was like to do the final inspection on a pontoon, but this wasn’t just any pontoon. This was a pontoon that had been built on the assembly line in this northern Indiana plant and was about to take a five plus hour journey to Wisconsin to meet its new family.
Down The Line
My idea to follow a pontoon on delivery from the factory floor to the water of the family buying the pontoon was something I dreamed up years ago. I wanted to do a “behind the scenes” type of a feature and Starcraft Senior VP Peter Barrett went above and beyond to make my trip a reality. My journey actually started a few hours prior to the final inspection when I took a tour of the facility in New Paris, Ind., home of Starcraft Marine as well as other top boat lines including Smoker Craft, Sylvan and SunChaser.
I was impressed by the attention to detail from each of the hard-working 80 plus men and women on the pontoon line who work on a pace to build on average 24 boats a day, or 125 per week. After being guided through each phase of the building process, we arrived at the end of the production line and that’s when I first saw the SunChaser pontoon that was bound for a family who lives near Milwaukee, Wis.
To test the pontoon you have a long list of quality checks, including hooking up to the wiring to make sure everything is ready for the customer. On the Quality Control iPad is a list of items in blue that each boat must pass and when they do, each on the list turns to green on the screen. If a specific part of the test fails, the red lets you know.
“This is clearly a more advanced way of quality checking our boats and when we used to do it using paper it was hard just to keep up,” says Dave Frey who is over Quality Control. “We had a lot of paperwork to file and it was hard to access. Now we just scan the bar code and all of that information is available electronically.”
The iPad system is so advanced and improved that you can snap a photo during inspection of something that needs to be checked, which not only speeds up the process but it makes the potential problem very clear so it can easily be fixed.
After completing its final inspection, the SunChaser bound for Wisconsin was now ready to be shrink-wrapped and loaded. This ‘toon was part of a three-pontoon load, plus a couple of trailers, that Keith’s Marina in West Bend, Wis., was expecting the next day.
The signal was given and Todd Yoder then pulled his semi truck forward into the loading dock. This was the first time I had ever met one of the company’s top truck drivers and he approached me with a cautious smile as he tried to figure out why anyone would want to take a six-hour ride to Wisconsin just to see a pontoon delivered. But Yoder was all smiles as we talked while the last pontoon was being loaded and I knew right away that we were going to have a good time on this run.
Yoder had pre-checked his load the day before, but as I pulled into the Starcraft Marine parking lot at 5:53 am eastern time he was just finishing up his final inspection. With over 300,000 miles on just this particular rig, he had put in enough windshield time to know the steps needed to ensure a safe run.
At 73 feet long, the truck and trailer looked less intimidating in the early dark hours of the morning, but either way I was glad to be the passenger on this run as I envisioned the type of traffic we’d be hitting with our scheduled route that had us going through Chicago, Ill., during morning rush hour.
Yoder has been driving for Starcraft Marine since 2005 and is one of the 19 drivers responsible for getting all of the boats from the many lines offered by this manufacturer to the different parts of the country, as well as into Canada. For as much traveling as he does, he has spent most of his life living in Indiana. In fact he grew up north of Goshen, which is close to company headquarters.
Delivering pontoons keeps him busy year round, and through his years of service he’s come to know a lot of the dealers.
“Delivering the boats is like the finish line and I love establishing my connection with the dealers and being their connection to the company,” explains Yoder.
Our day trip delivery is what Yoder considers to be an average run where he’s scheduled to be home that night, unlike trips over the U.S. border that have him gone for five or six days at a time.
Wake Up Juice
Before jumping onto 20 West, we made a quick 10-minute stop as Yoder refilled his coffee mug at a Speedway truck stop. By now the sun was just beginning to rise and I couldn’t help but snap a few photos as the driver checked his straps to see if anything needed adjusting after the first 20 minutes of our journey.
We’re only getting started, but by now I’ve already learned that the passenger jump seat doesn’t get used a lot and I can see why. It doesn’t recline and it has very little give, but even as comfortable as Yoder’s seat appears, I’m still very content with my role on this trip that includes not being responsible for such a long load.
It’s up to the drivers to pick their preferred routes and after this many years Yoder has discovered the best ways to get the boats safely and as quickly to the final destination as possible. On this trip we’re avoiding the I-80/I-90 toll road, but with multi-passes, the truck is completely covered for any road that Yoder may encounter.
Miles Not Hours
Yoder averages about 68 hours a week on the road and is a firm believer in keeping a tight log book, which of course is required for all truck drivers. The Indiana-native is paid by the mile, not the hour, which can make delivery assignments kind of competitive between other drivers.
“If my truck isn’t moving then I’m not making any money,” says Yoder with a smile.
The day began in the dark, but as the sun began to rise, I was able to look around the inside of the cab for the first time. The HOS Handbook: The Complete Guide for CMV Drivers catches my eye and I begin to flip through the pages out of curiosity. The book provides the who, what, when, where, why, and how-to for drivers, which again makes me glad I’m only the passenger on this run.
Got Your Ears On?
At around 7:25 am eastern we made the turn towards Chicago on I-94W and were now just 64 miles from the Windy City. Yoder got on the CB radio to check on traffic from any drivers who might be heading down I-94, which of course leads to my next question as I inquire if he has a nickname or handle for his radio.
“I prefer Chicken Hawk but there’s no real story behind it,” said the veteran driver. “Some guys tend to do a lot of talking on the radio to pass the time, but for me it just depends on the day.”
Yoder credits walking with his wife Joan of 10 years when he’s off the clock as well as avoiding fast food as keys to a healthier lifestyle that’s not typical for a lot of drivers who tend to be overweight from a life on the road.
“I take a cooler full of good food that I can just eat cold,” said Yoder. “Eating fast food a lot will catch up to you.”
Just after 8:00 am eastern time we entered the state of Illinois and as we got a little closer to Chicago, the traffic picked up a little and “orange barrel season”—as Yoder likes to refer to the road construction projects—wasn’t helping either. As he calmly weaved through traffic safely, changing lanes to pass slow moving vehicles, I realize his voice never changed as we continued to talk. It’s easy to see he’s as comfortable behind the wheel of this semi truck as he is anywhere else.
As we merge onto I-294 N the traffic really began to stack up and the hour time change has us sitting at 7:25 am central time with many impatient drivers attempting to make it to work on time.
But for the most part traffic doesn’t bother him too much, or even the road rage for that matter.
“The real stress can be the delays that traffic causes that gets me in late after the dealership closes,” said Yoder. “If you don’t make it then you end up spending the night as you wait for them to open, which again if my truck isn’t moving I’m not making money.”
Despite the fear of nasty morning traffic, we move through Chicago quicker than expected and by 8:00 am central, basically three hours into our drive, we’re at the Oasis truck stop near the O’Hare Airport for a half hour break where he once again checks his load. Yoder clearly takes pride in his job and takes his responsibility of getting boats safely delivered very seriously.
The chatter on the CB radio picked up and the farther we got away from Chicago traffic the friendlier the conversations appeared to be. Out of curiosity I asked Yoder if there is any truck driver lingo or CB slang I should be aware of.
“Like watch out for Smokey Bear using a hair dryer in the median,” he responds. “That’s just warning drivers that there is a police car up ahead with a radar gun. And Smokey in a plain brown wrapper is an officer in an unmarked car.”
Construction is in our favor and with the chicken houses, ahem, I mean weigh stations closed, were able to make good time as we crossed into Wisconsin by 9 am central. A half hour later we turned onto I-894/43 S.
The truck holds 300 gallons of fuel, which at roughly 6.8 miles to the gallon on average means he can go around 1200 miles between fill ups with a full load (empty he can go as far as 1800 miles on his return trips). His fuel card limits him to just under $1,000 per day, which goes to show you the costs that companies like Starcraft go to just to be in business.
As we got closer to West Bend, Wis., we followed 45 N until we got to the Slinger exit number 66 and on 144 N we go past Big Cedar Lake, which was a beautiful sight after miles of interstate driving.
We arrived at Big Rivers around 10:15 am central, so even with stops and traffic we were able to travel the 250 plus mile journey in just over five hours. Big Rivers is a distributor who has been supplying quality product to dealers since 1976. Keith’s Marina is just down the road from here, but because the boat dealer doesn’t have the equipment to unload the boats, they’ve formed a partnership with Big Rivers where they unload the boats onto a trailer and someone from Keith’s picks them up.
Brothers Bob and Pat Brown worked together to unload all three pontoons and by the time the last one was unloaded, Bob Fuchs was already there with a trailer to take them back to Keith’s. Fuchs has worked for Keith’s Marina for 20 years and with the customer set to arrive that afternoon, he knew he needed to get busy rigging the SunChaser. The family-owned dealership was purchased in 1968 by Robert and Joy Keith and today their five sons share equal ownership. Pat, Dan, Tom, Steve and Tim Keith, each own 20 percent of the business and work together on a daily basis to be one of the top dealerships in the region with a solid reputation for quality customer service.
By 11:30 am central, Fuchs began by removing the shrink wrap from the SunChaser that was not even 20 hours old. The pontoon will be powered with a Mercury 60hp four-stroke engine as Fuchs quickly and thoroughly mounts the engine. Adding and hooking up the battery, installing the bimini top and other rigging tasks are performed as the veteran employee finishes getting the pontoon ready.
A couple of hours later—while squeezing in a quick lunch break—the SunChaser pontoon was fully rigged and ready for the water. My journey from the Starcraft plant in Indiana to Big Cedar Lake in Wisconsin, where we got to try out the pontoon with the family who had purchased it, was now coming to end. I have a new appreciation for not only the many people who had a hand in building the pontoon, but for all those who helped make the delivery possible. It was a lot of fun to see the full process. Thanks Chicken Hawk for allowing me to tag along for the ride. Maybe we can take another trip again, just as long as the Smokey with the hair dryer doesn’t stop us.
For More Information
Big Rivers, Ltd.