It had been seven years since I’d taken my Westsail 32, Antares, out for more than an afternoon day sail. Such is the reality when taking care of an elderly parent. However, a year ago my dad passed away at the age of 100, and after we sold the family home, I found myself living aboard Antares with time to go cruising again.
I learned to sail with Dad on the Great Lakes and wanted to revisit some of the ports we’d discovered together years ago. But at the same time, I was not entirely sure that I’d be up to a month of coastal cruising by myself now. Antares is a handful for a singlehander with her hank-on jibs, manual windlass and running rigging led to the mast base. This would, therefore, not only be a voyage to remember my father by, but a voyage to see if I was still a sailor seven years later.
I spent a couple of months going over all the boat systems and getting Antares ready for a cruise up to Northern Michigan from my home port near Detroit. I bought new flares, fire extinguishers, charts of Lake Michigan and spare filters. I provisioned, built a new fore hatch and took care of a hundred other details necessary for an extended cruise.
Although I’ve sailed Antares solo from Lake Superior to Bermuda, I’d become a bit rusty and needed a refresher course or two. I did a couple of windy all-night sails on Lake St. Clair, testing both the boat and myself. If I could run the boat on a dark, breezy night I’d be OK taking her up the lake again.
The first step in reaching Lake Huron is to battle the strong current of the St. Clair River. Here the entire volume of Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron pours down between the narrow banks of Michigan and Ontario, Canada. It takes a long day of motoring against the current to reach Port Huron at the southern end of Lake Huron. Once a major shipbuilding and transport hub, Port Huron is now a quiet, pleasant place to spend some time before continuing on into the big lake.
With a fair west wind I sailed up along the Michigan “thumb” to Harbor Beach, where I anchored for the night in the well-protected harbor there. Late in the afternoon the next day I headed across Saginaw Bay bound for Presque Isle, 90 miles to the north. Staying well west of the busy shipping lanes, I kept a wary eye out for the big lake freighters that pass by in surprising numbers. Sailing the Great Lakes often puts mariners in close contact with massive ships (some from distant world ports), so you need be constantly on guard.
All that night and well into the next day I paralleled the shipping lanes, the Aries self-steering gear holding Antares on course. Eventually, the wind backed to the south and I made the last 20 miles wing and wing along the low, wooded shore past Thunder Bay lighthouse with its scenic red roof. I reached Presque Isle late in the afternoon and dropped the hook in the quiet little harbor. It had been seven years since I was last here, and it was good to be back. In the clear northern air, tall pines grew thick along the sandy shore, and I could see the anchor 15 feet down in the aqua-colored water. Dad and I first sailed in here 46 years ago. As dusk fell I thought fondly back of all the wonderful places we had discovered cruising together. Presque Isle had always been a favorite.
The next day a fellow sailor stopped by in his dinghy and offered me a ride ashore. He seemed familiar. “Have you been here before?” he said.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Do you, by chance, play the bagpipes?” he asked.
Then suddenly we both shouted together, “I know you!” realizing we’d met the last time I was here, and I’d played the pipes at his shore-side summer home for his friends. We spent some time catching up, and he gave me a shackle so I could sew up a new safety harness tether. With an internal elastic cord it retracts to a couple of feet, a huge improvement over the long tether that was always tangling around my legs.
That evening I went ashore and again played the pipes for new friends. A full moon rose over the still bay, and smoke from the beachside campfire hung in the evening air. These are the cruising moments one always remembers.
From Presque Isle I caught a few hours of good wind after turning to the northwest, bound for Mackinac Island, 60 miles distant. Eventually, though, the wind died and I motored all afternoon on the glassy lake, swatting flies that nipped mercilessly at my ankles.
Mackinac Island is a popular summer tourist haven, and the evening streets were busy with fudge-eating day trippers that ferry over from the mainland. I restocked with ice and groceries and anchored for the night in the small harbor. I’ve anchored here before, but the holding is only fair and is not safe in any real wind.
Up before dawn, a northeast breeze swept me under the mighty five-mile span of the Mackinac Bridge connecting Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, bound for Escanaba, Michigan, 110 miles to the west. And by midday I was threading my way through the reefs and narrows of Beaver Island under sunny skies, then running wing and wing again. A short while later the wind eased enough for me to set the cruising spinnaker, then it built around sunset till I was under just main and staysail. Afterward, it died off for a while, leaving a wicked sea that rolled Antares from rail to rail.
All night I closed the distant shore of the Garden Peninsula and rounded Poverty Island before dawn. I covered the last 20 miles in a fine south wind before turning north up to Escanaba, where I arrived in the early morning.
Once a booming mining and lumber town, Escanaba is home to a fascinating collection of old buildings, mansions and churches that line its wide main street. It’s a great place to relax for a while, and the city marina loans out bicycles. I took full advantage of this fine community as I waited out a day of thunderstorms, chatting with neighbors and getting lots of good local information on nearby anchorages.
From Escanaba I headed 30 miles south down Green Bay to Michigan’s newest state harbor at the mouth of the Cedar River. In the nearly deserted marina, I waited out another band of storms and spent my time bicycling down to the nearby state park, riding the trails and enjoying walks along the sandy beaches.
It was now mid-August, and I’d been out nearly two weeks. It was time to turn the bow east and start for home. In a southwest wind I sailed out across Green Bay and anchored for the night at the very tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula. Hedgehog Harbor is surrounded by high limestone cliffs, wide open to the north and well protected from the south. I was heading for Frankfort, Michigan, 60 miles across the open water of Lake Michigan.
At 0300 the light wind shifted to the northwest, and I jumped to the windlass and hauled in 100ft of chain and my 45lb CQR. I then picked my way through the ominously named Deaths Door Passage (Ports des Morts), set a course across the open lake and settled in with hot coffee under the brilliant stars. Far to the south a massive thunderstorm lit the sky with the frequency of a fireworks finale till dawn finally washed it from view.
By land, I’ve often visited the scenic village of Frankfort and its snug harbor set among the high dunes of Michigan’s western shore. I’ve also promised myself that someday I’d anchor my own boat there. Check another one off the bucket list! I spent four lazy days on the hook at Frankfort, taking the dinghy into town for morning coffee, window shopping along the main street, visiting with a friend who builds tiny houses nearby and enjoying sunsets at the beach. It was great.
With a southeast wind forecast, I set off northbound along the sandy bluffs of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Alas, the forecast wind did not hold, so I motored till late in the afternoon when a bouncy northeast wind popped up, right on the nose. I ducked into a protected harbor at the north end of the Leelanau Peninsula just inside Grand Traverse Bay. Under dusk’s restful glow I got the hook down, piped a few tunes and called it a day, relieved to be out of the wind.
Just after midnight a lively breeze blowing through the forehatch prompted me to sleepily climb topside where I was instantly jolted wide awake. The wind had shifted 180 degrees to the south and was now blowing the entire length of the bay, pushing growing waves into the anchorage. There was no time to lose, and I nearly had a heart attack winching up the anchor as fast as I could in the gathering wind. In the black night I followed my GPS track back onto the bay, pitching into rapidly building seas. I set a reefed main and staysail and fled north, as a wisp of waning moon rose over Charlevoix, Michigan. It was 0200.
By late morning I turned east around Waugoshance Point at the northern end of Lake Michigan and headed toward the Straits of Mackinac and Lake Huron. Enormous boulders slipped by 20ft below in the clear water. The forecast called for strong east winds by noon, and this time it was dead-on accurate. When the wind arrived it did so with a vengeance.
Just west of the bridge is a small cove that offers some protection below forested hills, but by the time I arrived it was seething with whitecaps. I could not get the anchor to set on the slab-like bottom and had no choice but to push on. Just around the corner and past the bridge is the crowded Mackinaw City Marina. Antares is a big girl and with her long bowsprit does not like close quarters, especially in a blow. I was terrified of going in there but I now had little choice. As the saying goes, any port in a storm…
Powering around under the bridge, I was soon fighting the full fetch of Lake Huron as it poured back through the narrows, a gale of wind dead on the nose. Steep, hard-hitting seas knocked Antares back on her heels, the knotmeter sometimes reading zero. It was like riding a mad rodeo bull in a wind tunnel facing a water cannon.
As I finally neared the marina another sailboat entered just ahead, rolling wildly. In the howling wind huge waves crashed over the breakwater. Once inside I had only a few moments to find a slip before the wind swept Antares from my hands. An aerial photo had shown me larger docks on the south side, so that’s where I headed. With the help of two other boaters I got tied up without smashing Antares (or her neighbors) to pieces. It wasn’t a perfect landing, but I’ll take it.
Meanwhile, most everyone else in the marina was down at the west end of the next channel hauling the other sailboat off the rocks. He’d become embayed and swept down to the far end after losing control.
I was shaking with relief and fright, adrenalin surging through my veins. I’d been at it for 36 hours with little sleep. Mutinous thoughts of taking up the RV life passed briefly through my mind.
The east wind blew hard for two days as I rested, feeling little pressure to push on. Friends drove up and visited one evening. A sailor in the next slip who keeps his boat at Mackinaw told me that after September 1, the weather can get really mean. Strong cold fronts are common, and the sailing season begins to shut down. July and August are the prime cruising months.
Finally, the wind turned southwest, and I jumped on board for a great ride along the shore back to Presque Isle. I made good time in the brisk wind. Tucked into the calm waters of the lee, Antares leaned into a broad reach, foam boiling off her bows. It was a delight to watch the summer homes, deep pine forests and lighthouses sliding by.
The next evening a favorable west wind took me 90 miles back across Saginaw Bay and down to Harbor Beach. Saginaw Bay is shallow and often breezy. In a fast night crossing, big waves rolled Antares down to her rail, as I pushed hard to get across before the wind came south. Long before land appeared below them, I could see dozens of huge wind turbines sprouting from the “thumb,” their red warning lights blinking in unison.
From Harbor Beach, it was a day’s run back to Port Huron, then a speedy ride down the St. Clair River and home. I’d traveled over 800 miles with only two broken awning snaps and a lost dishtowel as battle scars—not too bad. I was pleased to see I still remembered a few things about cruising despite my seven-year absence.