Sailing Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay
I’ve sailed past Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay many times, first as a deckhand on various ore boats making their way between Minnesota and Indiana Harbor, Indiana, then during the course of a number of Chicago-Mackinac races. Without looking too closely, it had always struck me as a little body of water of no great account—but it sure didn’t seem little now!
My wife, Shelly, our seven-year-old daughter, Bridget, and I were headed north from Suttons Bay toward Northport on Grand Traverse Bay’s western shore, just around the corner from the open waters of Lake Michigan. The wind, which had been blowing out of the west-northwest at daybreak, was clocking round to the northwest, where it would soon be right on our nose.
It was also blowing stronger than forecast—much stronger. Instead of gusts in the low 20s, we were seeing sustained winds of 25 knots and more, with gusts in the low 30s. Miss JoDi, the well-maintained Catalina 350 we’d picked up the day before from Bay Breeze Yacht Charters in Traverse City, was fine with the conditions, but the same could not be said for her crew. Although there had not yet been any complaints, the novelty of beating into a cold, gray chop under dark, scudding clouds was fast wearing thin—especially for Bridget. She was down in the saloon reading, but I knew it couldn’t be much fun getting knocked around so much, even with Inky the Indigo Fairy to keep her company.
“How are you doing, honey?” I called down. “Should we turn around?”
“Yeah,” Bridget said, “probably.”
“What do you think?” I asked to Shelly, who was at the helm.
“How much farther to Northport?”
I glanced at the chartplotter. We had another five miles to go, at the very least. “I’m thinking another couple of hours. The seas are only going to get worse when we clear Omena point.”
“Doesn’t sound like much fun.”
“Let’s do it then,” I said, and Shelly put the wheel down to bring Miss JoDi around on a course that would take us back to Suttons Bay. I felt a pang of regret at having allowed the weather to “defeat” me, but I changed my mind almost as soon as we were on our new course. There’s a good reason gentlemen never sail to weather. Now that we were on a comfortable broad reach, it seemed the entire world was smiling again. The wind was no longer whistling through the rigging, Miss JoDi’s motion was much smoother, and we all felt a good deal warmer. I told myself we’d have plenty of time to explore when the weather cleared, and even found myself believing it.
It’s amazing how having a seven-year-old on board, even a plucky one like Bridget, can make you a better sailor.
SIZING THINGS UP
From then on it seemed we could do no wrong—a welcome change given the events of the past 24 hours. Arriving in Traverse City on a Sunday night, we’d set out early the next day with light southerlies and a sickly overcast sky, knowing full well a cold front was scheduled to come through some time soon.
The resulting storms weren’t supposed to be too terrible. But then again, having spent plenty of time on the Great Lakes in general and Lake Michigan in particular, I know you can never be sure what you’re going to get weather-wise until you’re actually in it.
It was during the chart briefing with Bay Breeze Yacht Charters owner Dave Conrad that I began to appreciate the true scale of the body of water my family and I were about to explore. From where it opens onto Lake Michigan to Traverse City at its southern tip, Grand Traverse Bay is more than 30 miles long. It’s divided into east and west “arms” by the Old Mission Peninsula, so there are plenty of good harbors, but there is also plenty of fetch for a strong breeze to generate some good-sized waves.
According to Conrad, we could spend the night in Bowers Harbor, midway up the peninsula and just east of Power Island (or Marion Island, as it’s designaged on the charts), but I suspected it might be a bit exposed to the south. He also suggested the aforementioned Suttons Bay, which offers excellent protection from pretty much every point of the compass except the northeast. Conrad warned that in some places the bottom can shelve steeply close to shore, going from 50 to 15 feet or less in only a few boatlengths. This was especially true of Power Island, where the combination of a bow and stern anchor is sometimes necessary to keep from swinging into the shallows.
One more reason to press on to Suttons Bay, I figured.
Setting out a few minutes later, the “terrors of the deep” I tend to imagine before each charter once again proved to be highly over-rated. We had 10 knots of wind out of the south and flat seas, perfect for reaching toward Bowers Harbor, where we gybed onto port and sailed through the channel between Power Island and Tucker Point.
Sure enough, things got shallow pretty quickly as we closed with the public beach at the head of the Suttons Bay. But there were only two other boats in the entire anchorage (despite the fact that the Fourth of July weekend was only a few days away) and we soon found a good spot in about 20 feet of water. The hook bit on the first try, I took some bearings, and after a brief snack, we dinghied ashore to stretch our legs. It was just starting to drizzle as we returned to Miss JoDi to start up dinner and then hit the hay.
WHAT A DRAG
A few hours later, Shelly and I woke within minutes of each other to the sound of the wind whistling in the rigging. It was around 0300, and our surroundings were almost completely obliterated by a misting rain. I could just make out some lights on shore, including a few homes, and the streetlight and the flashing red light marking the entrance to Suttons Bay marina from which I’d taken my bearings a few hours earlier.
Going on deck to check things out I discovered the wind had swung into the west, just as predicted, and that it was cold—very cold. In no time I was shivering uncontrollably and knew I couldn’t stay out much longer. Nonetheless, I stayed where I was, reluctant to go below because of the way Miss JoDi was sailing around her anchor. My bearings looked good, but something was definitely not right.
Finally, it hit me. Even in the driving mist, it was now apparent that the lights of the homes on the bay’s eastern shore were much closer than they’d been when we went to sleep. Sure enough, flipping on the chartplotter, I discovered we were now a good quarter mile east of where we’d anchored. As it turned out, the streetlight I was looking at was a different one from the light I’d used earlier that evening. “I hate to bother you Shelly, but we’ve got a problem,” I said, hurrying below, “and dress warmly.”
Five minutes later we were both bundled up in full foul-weather gear, the engine was on and Shelly was up in the bow taking in the rode. When the anchor finally broke the surface, it proved to be all but invisible beneath a beach-ball-sized mass of weed, which took a good 15 to 20 minutes to clear away with a boat hook. Of course, we then promptly dragged the anchor right through another pile of gunk, so Shelly had to clean it off all over again. Luckily, the next time it got a solid bite and set for good.
After that, Shelly went below to get some sleep while I stayed in the cockpit on anchor watch. The rain stopped, but the wind did not abate, and the rode was bar-tight.
Eventually, as the sky began to lighten in the east, I lay down in the V-berth forward promising myself I’d take a look around every 10 minutes or so. This worked for a short while—but then the next thing I knew it was full daylight. Amazingly, Bridget slept through the whole thing, and we all felt surprisingly refreshed by the time breakfast was finished and it was time to get under way again, bound for Northport.
After turning off Omena Point we had a spirited sail back to Suttons Bay, where we grabbed a berth in the marina. In the end, having to return to Suttons Bay proved to be a real stroke of good luck, because it allowed us to fully enjoy this great little community. The marina facilities are excellent, and there’s a park with a nice little beach next door for stretching your legs. The main drag includes a number of galleries and restaurants, as well as a post office and shops for provisioning. As the afternoon wore on, the sun broke through the clouds, and we were able to track down some pastries and a couple of café lattes. Looking out across the wind-swept bay left us feeling that much cozier when we snuggled down in our slip that evening.
The following morning dawned crisp and clear. The gusting winds of the day before had died down and clocked into the north-northeast, leaving us with just enough pressure to short-tack our way back out onto open water. Weathering Stony Point, which guards the mouth of Suttons Bay, we bore away and began gybing downwind back toward Power Island. We’d initially toyed with the idea of exploring the bay’s east arm, but decided against it. We had to return Miss JoDi to Bay Breeze the following afternoon and didn’t want to feel rushed.
As we hardened up around the green can marking the shoal water off Tucker Point, the wind went light so we motored the rest of the way to the head of Bowers Harbor. Once again, with the exception of a trimaran off in the distance, we had the place to ourselves. Picking out a spot to anchor in bright sunlight and calm conditions was almost surreal, thanks to the clarity of the water. It seemed we could see forever, making out every feature of the bottom. There is absolutely no excuse for running aground on a clear day in Grand Traverse Bay!
Afterward, we went ashore to do some beachcombing. Bridget also took out a little time to hone her rowing skills in the tender. There’s a private marina and yacht club on the eastern side of Bowers Harbor, but the western side is given over almost entirely to woods, with only a scattering of summer homes among the trees. Strolling the beach, we found deer and raccoon tracks everywhere. At one point we noticed a great blue heron keeping an eye on us from beside a small pond while something looking a lot like a bald eagle flew overhead.
Later we were treated to one of those crisp, breathless sunsets that are so characteristic of the northern Great Lakes: sunsets that seem to last forever and are so quiet you find yourself speaking in hushed tones in spite of yourself. I was once again amazed that such a prime anchorage should be so empty. But then again, the State of Michigan does have more coastline than any other of the lower 48 states so I guess there’s room enough for all.
The next morning offered up bright sunshine and more calm seas, with the added benefit of higher air temperatures, which meant it was time for a swim.
Motoring over to Power Island’s western shore, we anchored in water that seemed to be even clearer than the day before. I’d by lying if I told you it was warm. But it was still great for swimming, and all too soon we had to pack it in and start making our way to the Bay Breeze Charters base back across Traverse Bay. Looking over the chart, I couldn’t help chuckling over how little area we’d covered, despite our best efforts. But that’s OK, I told myself. It just means we’ll have that much more exploring to do next time we get a chance to go cruising here.
Photos by Adam Cort