Great Moments, Great Lakes

Many sailors dream of voyages to tropic shores and swaying palms, but Great Lakes sailors need look no farther than their backyards for some of the world’s best cruising. The Great Lakes are great indeed, stretching over 1,100 miles from eastern Lake Ontario to Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior. I’ve sailed these waters for much of my life, most recently aboard my Westsail 32 Antares. Each of the five Great Lakes holds a favorite memory I will treasure for a lifetime:

Ontario: We’d just crossed Lake Ontario and had entered the first lock in the Welland Ship canal system, which lifts boats 327 feet and around Niagara Falls to Lake Erie. The towering gates slowly rumbled closed, a burst of bubbles signaled the lock was filling, and suddenly the full flood of Lake Erie surged in, tossing us like a chip. In a maelstrom of wild churning water we pushed frantically away from the rough walls, thankful for the stout straw bags that protected the hull. It took 11 hours in all to pass through the eight locks, a thrilling rite of passage.

Erie: The western end of Lake Erie is home to the Erie Islands, a rocky limestone archipelago that includes Put-In-Bay, Ohio, where a towering monument commemorates Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British at the Battle of Lake Erie. At 0430 one October I left the anchorage there under a full moon as a warm breeze blew from the south. I raised the sails and ghosted noiselessly out of the harbor, the engine untouched, the spell unbroken. The dark shadows of the islands gradually receded into the night as I set a course homeward for Detroit.

Huron: It was my third night out during a slow trip in light air with long hours of calm. At 0300, still about 30 miles out, the wind suddenly turned warm and filled with the fragrance of the north country, the smell of rocky, tree-lined shores and dark pine forests—the smell of adventure. I was almost there.

Michigan: About 20 miles west of the Straits of Mackinac, the long finger of Waugoshance Point juts out into Lake Michigan. Rounding it early one morning I ran slowly south on a light breeze. The depth shoaled to 25 feet and suddenly I could see boulders the size of automobiles slipping by in the crystal clear water under my boat. Hanging over the side, I gazed in fascination, spellbound by the clarity of this unique view into a watery world of tumbled rock and giant stone.

Superior: The biggest, coldest and most remote of the lakes, Superior is a world of untouched wilderness. One evening, after a boisterous day off Superior’s southeast coast, we sailed off the open lake into a harbor named Little Lake, a large pond surrounded by tall pines. The wind, finding its way over the dunes, seemed to say “Quitting already?” We kept sailing, chased by the playful, laughing wind so that it was almost dark before we finally dropped the hook.

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