Every Milwaukeean has a Lake Michigan story and for the next seven days OnMilwaukee will share as many as possible during "MKE Lake Week," sponsored by the Harbor District. Love our lake? You're in the right place.
If, like me, you travel along the lake most every day, you likely can’t help but notice when a Great Lakes (or seaworthy) cargo ship appears on the otherwise wide-open horizon. And, if you’re like me, you can’t help but wonder where it’s coming from, what it’s carrying and where it’s off to next.
I know I’m not alone because of comments on my social media posts of these vessels. But, I didn’t realize just how many Milwaukeeans are interested in this stuff until I stumbled upon the Big Boats MKE Twitter handle and blog.
Since 2016, Milwaukee newsman Ben Handelman – an anchor and reporter for Fox 6 News on WITI-TV – has run the blog and Twitter feed, sharing the comings and goings of cargo vessels and other lake traffic.
Just last week he broke a story about a $40 million superyacht owned by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos docked in Milwaukee that was then picked up by other media outlets.
It being lake week here at OnMilwaukee, this seemed like the perfect occasion to ask Handelman about Big Boats MKE and what puts the wind in its sails.
OnMilwaukee: Tell us when you started the blog and what sparked it.
Ben Handelman: I blog about big boats. Saying it out loud makes me chuckle. I started the blog as something that was half serious and I've morphed into a full on boat nerd. I started the blog with the sole purpose to share "hey I saw a big boat and this is where it came from." I didn't really think anyone would click on the pictures or care. I've quickly learned there are a lot of people who had the same question I was asking over and over again, "I wonder where that boat came from?"
The blog's beginnings stem from a 2015 big boat mystery. A giant "ghost ship" called the Lugano parked outside the break wall and didn't move for a week or so. I convinced the newsroom at Fox 6 we should do a story – lots of other Milwaukee media also did pieces on it. My photojournalist and I headed down to McKinley Marina and literally asked the first boat captain we spotted if they could take us out on a spin around the ship. After getting up close and personal to that massive ship I was hooked.
In April 2016, I launched Big Boats MKE on Blogspot, posting photos of every big boat I spotted. In February 2017, I moved it to its current home.
Has what you post changed over time? I feel like in the past you stuck mostly to passing cargo but recently you did the DeVos thing, too, didn't you?
The blog truly started with me simply posting photos of boats I saw, their name and where they came from, and that was basically it. Being a storyteller at heart, there are times I knew there was a story out the window that deserved more than just a picture.
For example, in January, a buddy at work told me about an old fishing boat that sunk to the bottom of the river in Racine and became entrapped in ice. So we took a drive down to tell the story – in -15 degree weather – for the blog. Bonus points when Fox 6 let us shoot a story for the news.
It's also been fun to blog about superyachts that have arrived from time to time. Whether it was Jimmy John's boat that Kid Rock was partying on, the yacht that had ties to Jay-Z and Beyonce, or more recently the boat owned by Betsy DeVos, which is still parked outside my window, we've seen quite a few. Who doesn't want to talk about $40million boats? It's been fun to "break" some of those stories.
So, the blog is still filled with mostly cargo ships, but we'll post pictures and stories of any big boat!
You have a pretty good perch from which to scout, don't you?
No offense to my friends who live in Waukesha and Wauwatosa, but Lake Michigan deserves to be lived near. I have a love affair with the lake. I moved to the Lower East Side in 2011 but didn't have a view. When my wife – Ashley Sears who is also a TV reporter at Fox 6 – moved to Milwaukee a year later, we switched apartments (to one) which has an awesome view of the lake. It allowed my inner boat nerd to emerge.
Are you a boater or do you have any kind of maritime background? Have you always been interested in ships and the like?
I once went water skiing as a kid. That about sums up my boat knowledge and experience. One of the main reasons I started the blog was because I literally knew nothing of Milwaukee's shipping industry and it fascinates me. I'm still learning a lot – I now know what a saltie is – and I'm still getting a lot of help from the longtime boat spotters, and shipping community who have sent in pics.
Have you been surprised by the interest in the blog?
Short answer: yes. Amazed actually. I started the blog thinking it was silly. "I know this is super nerdy, but here is a boat I saw." I didn't really expect people to click on it. Turns out there are a lot of suppressed boat nerds out there! What's been really fun is people have been sharing some amazing photos of our city. I think the port is one of the most fascinating parts of Milwaukee and it's often overlooked or forgotten. I'm excited to see that the city is long term planning for the harbor district. With the kind of interest I've had in the blog I think there is some untapped potential for the city to plan around people being able to see some big boats!
Does the station encourage it, discourage it, ignore it?
I've had some amazing support from the station and lots of razzing about my new found boat nerdiness. Many of my coworkers are avid Big Boat MKE contributors and a couple of the blog posts have inspired news stories that have aired on TV. Fox 6 has not yet offered to allow me to be a full-time big boat beat reporter, but I guess that's because someone has to anchor the weekend newscasts!
What's your goal for Big Boats MKE?
I want to share more pictures of big boats. I have a goal to make the blog more of a community page. Whether it is a boat nerd sending in a tip about an incoming super ship, or a local photographer who wants to share something cool they snapped, I want the boat blog to be the central marketplace for it.
I'm also hoping someone who owns one of these superyachts will read the blog and invite me on for a quick tour/ quick sail to southern France.
In the short term, I've started a Facebook page, Instagram account and twitter handle. I really hope people will connect somehow with the blog, and give our Milwaukee shipping industry the love it deserves.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.