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Freshwater Delights

2012 April 2

Saltwater sailors discover great sailing, friendly folks and oh-so-wonderful fresh water on a northern Lake Michigan cruise

Why would sailors who live near the ocean leave to cruise the Great Lakes? My wife Marianne and I live in Rhode Island, the Ocean State. Without even trying, we have full access to beaches, coves, harbors, bays, inlets, clam shacks and anything else salty. If I'm not on the water on a Wednesday night, I can watch beer can racing from our bedroom window. Rhode Island license plates have little anchors on them in case anyone forgets they live in a place where the ocean is the centerpiece. So what did we do? We went to freshwater Lake Michigan, far from any salty ocean shore, to cruise Grand Traverse Bay and beyond.

We were looking for something different, uncomplicated and easy sailing. Our trip plan was an uncomplicated one-sail Grand Traverse Bay, make our way to Beaver Island about 60 miles north, then sail back. There is no tide, current or salt to make things sticky and crusty-first class features I couldn't pay extra for if I chartered anywhere else where the water is salty. In fact, in this particular part of the lake there is nothing but soft, sandy bottom, so even the worry of grounding out our charter boat's keel was minimal. Add a bit of New England shoreline, mix it with the clear sandy bottom of the Caribbean, top it off with the vast openness of the Midwest with few boats to get in the way, and you've got the ultimate waters for cruising.

My wife and I, both transplants from the Midwest, took the Lake Michigan cruising idea a step further and brought with us true blue-blood New Englanders. We weren't embarking on some kind of elaborate social experiment, like using our friends in a blind taste test between boiled lobster and beer-boiled bratwurst; they were simply good friends that were up for anything. Lanny, who has sailed Rhode Island waters his whole life, introduced his wife Andy to the sport while they were dating. Andy, a full-time school teacher, has more time off in the summer and had more than enough enthusiasm for just such a cruise. After my wife Marianne, the team photographer of this outing, concocted the trip, it only took them a second to decide to join us on Lake Michigan.

Stepping up to the plate to make this little adventure happen were Dave and Kristen Conrad, new-ish owners of Bay Breeze Yacht Charters. They set us up with one of their fleet's nicest boats in the busiest part of the season. Their story proves that with some fresh ideas, a little hard work, and lots of enthusiasm, anyone can take a business that is just chugging along and turn it into something successful. Not realizing the hard economic time that lay ahead, they bought Bay Breeze Yacht Charterers in 2008 and realized a 20% increase in business. In 2009, while most companies were struggling to stay afloat, they saw a 10% increase. Now, with 18 summer employees and five year-round, they can hardly keep up-evidence that even in the toughest times if you roll up your sleeves and get at it, success will follow.

The Hunter 41DS Bay Breeze provided had every amenity a sailor could want. It was luxury with a mast in the middle. Most sailors like to think of themselves as tough salts that don't need "no stinkin' fluff stuff" interfering with sailing the boat; things like a dodger with standing headroom, a bimini covering the whole cockpit and seat cushions to keep our backsides from getting sore. That kind of cushy stuff is for the guys with white sailing sweaters.

Lanny and I have been sailing together for several years. We gave each other a knowing look that said, "We're too tough for all that. The second we leave the dock that stuff is going to get shoved into the lazarettes." Of course, after sailing awhile, I reasoned we should at least give the cushy stuff a try for the sake of the article. And who would be crazy enough to pull the anchor all the way off the bottom by hand if all you had to do was push the up button on the electric windlass. Surprising myself, nothing got shoved in the lazarette.

Anchoring in New England water can be a complicated and tricky maneuver with tides, currents and rocky bottoms, as well as the sheer number of other cruisers jockeying for the perfect spot, with dozens of boats chock-a-block. It can be as tight as a Boston rush hour. Grand Traverse Bay was exactly opposite of all that.

Dave explained that all we needed to worry about was to make sure the plow anchor was set solid into the hard, sandy bottom. Unlimited anchorage options and no reservations required made the destination choice as easy as picking an interesting location off the chart. Normally, five days would seem sufficient for some serious cruising on Lake Michigan. Yet there are so many islands and bays in the Grand Traverse Bay area, we felt we weren't going to be able to give each location the amount of exploring time it deserved. We picked what we hoped were the best spots and chose a northerly route up to Beaver Island and back down via Charlevoix, with two stops along the way. I'm learning the best places to cruise are the ones that always leave me saying "next time."

The first morning, we patiently waited out a line of Midwest thunderstorms before hitting the bay. With sails unfurled, we took advantage of a strong wind from the backside of the storm that allowed us to fly on a reach the full 30 miles of the bay. When Lanny is not racing, he's always joking that he doesn't want to be bothered with tacking. Luckily for him, that first day of sailing we stayed on port tack until we dropped anchor in Northport Bay at the very tip of Leelanau Peninsula.

Although it was the middle of summer, which should be the cruising high season, there were no other boats anchored in Northport Bay's vast acres. Not knowing the protocol, I was a little hesitant to drop anchor in any old place. But as far as I could tell, no one cared, or even noticed, we had a hook down for the night. We swung in the breeze without a worry or care until we departed the next morning.

There is something about that first dinghy ride to shore that brings out my inner explorer. Possibly it is a leftover sailor gene from the days of tall ships that give me a charge of excitement, as though I am the first nonnative person to step ashore. For me, that is what makes a cruise a cruise. Marianne and Andy were sent to the town of Northport as shore party representatives of our boat to see if they could make friendly contact with the natives. When they returned, their report was favorable, and the natives were indeed friendly. They also said there were bakeries, coffee shops and antique stands that required the remaining ship's company to muster ashore.

The next morning, we departed across open water to Beaver Island. The sailing was a little rougher than expected, with the wind on the nose forming buzz-saw waves that made for a lengthy but sporting day. It was the extra-large dodger, bimini and waterproof seat cushions we had left out for "testing" that added to an enjoyable crossing. In addition, the autopilot held a perfect course, even though the wind kept trying to push us away from our destination. It was dinner time when we arrived at the perfect little harbor on the north part of the island and set anchor. A five-star restaurant with patio seating couldn't possibly have provided a better view for dining than the cockpit of our boat.
I had sailed past Beaver Island many times on Chicago-Mackinac races, yet had never stopped there and often wondered what the island was like. I reasoned that because it was literally in the middle of the lake, and no easy destination to get to, it would be close to a wilderness with no amenities. To my surprise, tucked into the perfect bay, was the little town of St. James, with restaurants, shops and year-round residents. This intrigued me because, even by ferry, it is a two-hour ride across the open lake for a not-so-quick day trip.

Early the next morning we allotted ourselves exploration time before our departure. Marianne and I cruised the deserted main street, while Andy found a sunny porch that served breakfast. When we walked past, she looked very content, happily enjoying some sort of avocado-egg creation. At one point, I came across five small Suzuki Sidekicks lined up for rent and thought what an adventure it would be to rent one and explore the back dirt roads in a remote part of the island. If only we had a day or two more.

Sailing in fresh water was nice, but that is not what impressed Andy and Lanny the most. Instead, it was the neighborly Midwest attitude that peaked their interest. Wherever we dropped anchor, Andy and Lanny would return to the boat and comment on the friendliness of everyone in town. Marianne and I had always hinted to others that there is a big difference in attitudes between the hard outer-shell personalities of East Coast people and the open friendliness of Midwesterners. During this trip Andy and Lanny discovered it for themselves.

Cruising this part of Lake Michigan offers a destination for almost all sailing tastes. We wanted to get away from the crowds and anchor in remote places. For sailors who want to sail hard all day and pack on serious water miles, there are many destinations such as Mackinac Island farther north. Those who prefer to stay in a slip each night and go out for a nice dinner followed by a stroll can take advantage of the many municipal marinas up and down the shore. Back in the 1990s, many small lakefront towns realized the value of the waterfront and invested money in building attractive marinas that draw boaters from all over.

Before ducking into Grand Traverse Bay on the return trip to the mainland, we pulled into the town of Charlevoix for a night's stay at the city marina. The cruisers' guidebook says, "The city of Charlevoix is perched on an isthmus between Lake Michigan and Round Lake, spreading out onto the shores of Lake Charlevoix. In addition to Charlevoix's natural attractions, the area boasts excellent shopping; dining and special events which take place throughout the year in our northern Michigan community as Charlevoix the Beautiful." For us though, it added an interesting contrast between anchoring in remote, isolated bays to docking for the night in a downtown setting full of summertime activity.

The last night of any trip always seems to have a heavy feel, knowing that the next day, in the blink of an eye, the trip will be only a memory. We anchored in the bay behind old Mission Point. The quiet evening and stillness of the bay seemed to reflect our mood. The shallow turquoise water, turning deeper blue at deeper depth, had a Caribbean quality that seemed out of place. The pine-tree covered shore gave the bay its own uniqueness not found anywhere else. What a discovery in the heart of the Midwest.

If you read a lot of sailing novels, there is always some point where the boat is becalmed; dead in the water for days, or even weeks. Water so smooth they forget that it is liquid. It is usually at this point in the story where the crew, or solo sailor, do what they can to keep their sanity. Sometimes there is mutiny, sometimes murder. Other times it's just as simple as going deep into the hero's dark thoughts. Doesn't it ever occur to them to put on some fun-colored board shorts and have a swim call?

It would have been nice to finish off our trip with a solid breeze, but like all good sailing novels, this was our dead-in-the-water day, with the thumping diesel providing the only forward momentum. We had time to burn before the boat had to be checked in, so I reached down, shut off the engine, and announced, "Swim call!" Lanny and Andy looked at each other, not really sure what I was up to. Marianne and I scrambled below and popped back on deck with our suits on, not waiting a second before jumping into the water like little kids. I can't imagine clearer water anywhere else in the world. On this hot, motionless July day, the 74-degree water temperature was, in my book, perfect. The depthsounder read somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 feet or more, so swimming underwater in crystal liquid without the bottom in sight gave me the sensation of floating high in the atmosphere. It only took Lanny and Andy a minute for them to realize the value of the swim call before they jumped in too. I am happy to announce that Lanny has now incorporated the swim call into his own Sunday afternoon cruises.

Rows of neat corn fields, a few barns, and Midwest scenes streamed past the car window on our way to the airport. We found ourselves in deep discussion about the highlights of the trip. Lanny was in awe of how few boats we saw on the water, and the fact that we could drop anchor anywhere we pleased. He was half serious when he stated that if the Maine cruiser knew about the lack of crowds on the east side of Lake Michigan, there would be a convoy of trucks hauling boats to the Great Lakes. Andy, the swimmer of the group, loved the fact that there was nothing in the fresh water to nibble at her feet-unlike salt water where you're part of the food chain. Marianne? Well, it is where she grew up, so it was fun for her to share it with all of us. For me, the highlight of the trip has to be the last swim on our way in. The clearness of the water was indescribable, and to experience calm in such a big body of water is rare. Our Lake Michigan cruise in the heart of the Midwest left us all saying, "next time."