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'I'm shootin' for 110': Former Captain of Milwaukee Clipper celebrates 100th birthday

"I just can't fathom what a great day this turned out to be. I'm shootin' for a 110, what the heck," he laughed.

MUSKEGON, Mich. — A former captain of the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper celebrated a very special birthday this weekend.

Robert Priefer turned 100 years old Saturday! He's been a part of the Clipper for over 80 years.

The birthday celebration was aboard the ship and was open to the public. Cake was, of course, provided. 

While we may think 100 years old is impressive, Priefer says he's ready still for more.

"Wonderful turnout. I just can't fathom what a great day this turned out to be," he laughed, "I'm shootin' for a 110, what the heck."

When Priefer got a job working aboard the Clipper in 1941, he didn't truly get off the historic vessel for nearly 30 years.

"It's been part of my family," said Priefer. "The ship is like a step-child to me."

Priefer's assent during his sailing career as quite unique, and in many ways, impossible. His first job aboard the Clipper was as a dishwasher.

"I was a Pearl Diver," Priefer joked. "That's what the ship's dishwashers were called back then."

Every single year Priefer came back to work on the Clipper, he got a promotion. 

"I never wanted to be a sailor, but my father and brothers were in the shipping industry so it became my calling, too."

Priefer worked his way up the ranks, obtained his pilot's license, and 19 years after first stepping foot on the Clipper, he became its skipper.

"It was a big deal," Priefer said. "Back in those days, a trip from Muskegon to Milwaukee was like going from Muskegon to the Caribbean.

"It was a long distance for a lot of people."

Priefer was the ship's captain during its last decade of operation. As one might imagine, he has many memorable stories to share.

"There were times when bad weather arose," Priefer recalled. "I remember one time there was something coming out of the northeast, the sea was getting rougher, and [the Clipper] dug her nose into a big swell and we took on a couple tons of water.

"When you have that much water coming down a confined space, it's a problem. It poured into the portholes and flooded the club lounge."

With a smirk, Captain Priefer then said, "You don't want to be a heavy weatherman; they're all on the bottom of the lake."

The captain also remembers a couple times when he had to get on the Clipper's speaker system and yell, "Overboard."

"We had a gal onboard who jumped over the side," Priefer recalls. "I remember turning the Clipper around and having crewmembers have to go fish her out of the water."

Credit: Robert Priefer
Robert Priefer, 99, was the captain of the S.S. Milwaukee Clipper from 1960-1969, which was it's final year of full service on the Great Lakes.

Priefer adds that they managed to rescue her with a lifeboat, got her back onboard, then got back underway to the destination.

Another anecdotal story Captain Priefer likes to share is about when the Clipper's owner's dog jumped over the side and into the lake.

"One of my crew notified me that something went overboard," Priefer said. "We didn't know what it was, but protocol requires us to turn around and check it out."

They'd eventually see something splashing in the water and realized it was a dog.

"Here's this dog paddling for Michigan," Priefer joked. "I didn't think he'd make it."

Once again, Captain Priefer had to deploy crewmembers aboard a lifeboat.

"The lifeboat was so high out of the water, they couldn't reach the dog to get him into the boat, so the third mate had to jump into the water, and that allowed the dog to climb right up his back and into the lifeboat.

"So, we saved the dog but almost drowned the third mate."

Watch Priefer recall memories aboard the Clipper below. Happy birthday, Captain!


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