In his famed novel Moby Dick, Herman Melville observed that “those grand freshwater seas,” as he called the Great Lakes, “possess an ocean-like expansiveness…with many of its rimmed varieties of races and climes.”
Same goes for the charter possibilities, of which there are many. Far to the north, the adventurous can enjoy a true wilderness experience exploring Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. Farther south, there are the warm, shallow waters and beaches of Put-in-Bay and the other small islands at the western end of Lake Erie. And roughly midway in between is Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, a narrow, but surprisingly large body of water just around the corner from the famed Straits of Mackinac and Mackinac Island.
Comprised of a pair of east and west arms, separated by the Old Mission Peninsula, Grand Traverse Bay measures some 30 miles north to south, from where it opens out onto Lake Michigan down to the town Grand Traverse. Although protected from the swells and occasionally severe storms found out on the open lake, the Bay can still experience some powerful conditions on its own—as I found out during a Fourth-of-July charter a few years ago beating into a chill, 25- to 30-knot northwester. Fortunately, the area is also dotted with islands and deeply indented with bays and protected anchorages, which provide many places to go and/or seek shelter, no matter what the conditions.
A short distance north-northeast of Traverse City—a well-established travel destination with plenty of places to provision—is heavily wooded Marion Island and Bowers Harbor, with Tucker Point providing excellent protection from pretty much every point of the compass other than due south. Northwest of that is Suttons Bay, both the town and bay itself, which offers equally good protection in every direction but the northeast. Beware though: while the sandy bottom at the head of the bay provides good holding, there are patches of weed that can easily foul even the best-set anchor, rendering it useless. North of that lie Omena and Northport bays, both good jumping-off points for those interested in venturing out onto Lake Michigan proper.
While on the subject of anchoring, in certain places the bottom drops off precipitously, making it necessary to nose right up into the shallows unless you want to put out a truly prodigious amount of rode. Fortunately, the water is crystal clear, so you should see the bottom coming up at you long before you find it with your keel. Beyond that, all rocks and shallows are clearly marked. On a sunny day in particular, there’s absolutely no excuse for running aground on Grand Traverse Bay!
Despite the fact that Grand Traverse is a heavily trafficked tourist center, complete with dozens of hotels, the bay itself remains magnificently rugged, providing a wonderful glimpse of the old time Great Lakes—back when these waters served as a highway for naval fleets and buck-skinned voyageurs. The rocky shoreline grows thick with pine; osprey, deer and other wildlife abound; and the northern sunsets have to be seen to be believed. Even on the evening of the Fourth of July, my crew and I had the place to ourselves.
The small community of Suttons Bay is also not to missed. With its well-provisioned marina and quaint downtown, complete with grocery stores, and brightly colored coffee shops and galleries, it’s a kind of cross between a Down East fishing village and the Bahamas, all in a North Country style: perfect for those looking for an adventure in their own backyard.
Photos by Adam Cort
For highlights, advice and charter company links go to:Five Charter Destinations in the United States