Skip to Main

Northern Michigan in Focus: Bathtub Sailor

It all started 50 years ago in a coffee shop with two guys joking around, and then making a crazy bet.

The bet? That Vic Jackson couldn’t cross Lake Michigan in a bathtub. Yes, a bathtub.

Corey Adkins has this amazing story for this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.

“It wasn’t taken seriously, even after a friend dropped off a cast iron bathtub in my driveway,” said Vic Jackson.

In 1969, at 31 years old, Vic Jackson was a communications technician. He’s also a H.A.M. radio operator.

Sometimes he’d repair H.A.M. radios for his friends. That’s when a buddy of his who owned a metal machine shop stopped by.

“He brought over a radio to be repaired. He drives it in and looks over and says, ‘What’s that bathtub doing in your driveway?’ I said, “Oh, Ed, it’s a joke.’ I said, ‘I have a bet that I could take this thing across Lake Michigan.’  And he said, ‘Well, you know, I think we could make it float,’” explained Vic.

He made it float.

“So now I had a bathtub, and I said, ‘Wow, maybe I can win this bet,’” said Vic.

The media caught on and word spread fast.

“The local newspaper had the headline ‘Rub-a-dub-dub man to cross Lake Michigan in a tub,’” said Vic.

With a lent engine, the bathtub was almost ready to go but it needed a name.

“A couple of guys that I work with did a little welding job on the back and that’s how the name came about, Vic’s Folly. It was in welding rod on the back and couldn’t be erased,” explained Vic.

On July 5, 1969 Vic and his folly departed Ludington for the trip of a lifetime. But there were a couple issues.

“I obviously had no knowledge of the weather and I didn’t know how to navigate,” said Vic.

He left a foggy harbor and soon learned Lake Michigan is to be respected.

“Within a couple of hours, instead of running and just a little waves, I was running into 6 foot waves with whitecaps,” explained Vic.

Now everything about this trip was unorthodox, including the way he had to ride the bathtub!

“Now, understand, you ride a bathtub facing the faucets. So I’m going backwards and I would fall backwards into the next wave,” remembered Vic.

Vic knew he was in trouble. Here’s where his H.A.M. radio expertise came into play.

“I was truly afraid that the wave is going to take out my two-way radio and, speaking of that, when I would go down in the trough I couldn’t talk to anybody and if I got on top I could talk to a H.A.M. in Wisconsin,” said Vic.

The Coast Guard came and saved his life, but this adventure isn’t over. Vic’s dad’s neighbor was a car ferry captain for years.

“He thought my problem was weather and he was correct. And he said later in the summer I’ll call you when there will be two or three days when you can probably do this,” explained Vic.

So on August 24, 1969 Vic and his folly headed back to the Ludington boat launch and tried again.

“I take off and go out the harbor and I decided the best way to navigate is simply to keep the sun over the motor, because that would mean I was heading straight west then.  Obviously, everybody knows this: the sun will rise in the east and set in the west,” said Vic.

Since he didn’t know how to navigate, keeping the sun over the motor had him going straight up the lake! He was way off course. But again, his H.A.M. radio skills saved him again.

“I was able to figure out which direction Manitowoc was from where I was out in the lake by radio direction finding from the radio stations, and then get a rough compass reading and managed to get headed towards Manitowoc,” said Vic.

Somehow he found his way to Manitowoc.

“And there was a coast guardsman standing on the breakwater and asked, ‘Are you Mr. Jackson?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘Are you O.K.?’ and I said, ‘Well, physically,’” remembered Vic.

To commemorate this feat, Vic wrote a book called ““. There’s a lot of details we couldn’t get to in this story, but what was the bet?

“$5 and it took 10 years for me to collect it, and that’s a story in itself but it’s in the book.”