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First Time Sailors on the Great Lakes

Updated on April 15, 2018
Mike Hardy profile image

Mike is an author of tales, tastes, and fun in northern Michigan. When he is not messing around on the Great Lakes, he is writing about them

Sailing Was on our Bucket List

Coastal Sailing on the Great Lakes
Coastal Sailing on the Great Lakes

Before we were married, Melissa and I jotted down a list of life’s goals that we wanted to accomplish. All of those goals had been met except one…owning a boat. For years we had a place in the Upper Thumb of Michigan. The cottage was tucked in the woods and had a nearby beach that we shared with the neighbors. The kids loved to play on the beach and play in the cool waters of Saginaw Bay. This “baby beach” was always in use and we came to know many of our summer neighbors as our kids grew. With a kid in my lap I looked out over the Bay and wondered what it would be like to get out there. I was smitten with the idea but realistic about the responsibility and skill that boat ownership would entail.

The spring of 2006 was unusually warm in Michigan so we headed up to the cottage when ever we had the chance. One evening my wife and I were talking around the campfire when the conversation turned to our collage days when we used to crew for her dad in club races in White Lake on the west side of the state. I had admired her folks 27 Hunter, named Hey Jude, with her wide beam it was pretty comfortable and a great light wind boat. I wondered if Hey Jude was still out plying the waters somewhere on the Great Lakes. We looked at each other then it hit us. Let’s do it! Let’s get a sailboat like those we remember in the 80’s.

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Finding a Good Old Boat - Catalina 27

Our 1973 Catalina 27 . Hull  #60
Our 1973 Catalina 27 . Hull #60

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce likes to point out that you are never more then 5 miles away from a lake or stream. What they fail to say it that you pass by at least three boats for sale while getting there. Melissa and I started our boat search on-line. It was a great way to educate ourselves and the various cost ranges. However we ended up heading to the “boat-for-sale” capital of Michigan ….Bay City. With many large marinas to choose from we had no problem finding our next boat sitting proudly on it cradle. After an offer, a sea trial and a survey Melissa and her dad moved our sailboat, now renamed Trillium, up to Caseville for its first season.

Buying an older sailboat has its benefits and challenges. She came to us with lots of goodies. Fully equipped after three owners it was outfitted with a roller furling, new traveler, new outboard and pretty new sails. However the knot meter was flailing away in wild gyrations, the bulk head and teak looked like it was attacked by woodpeckers and the head was Gerry rigged with various cast off parts. It wasn’t long before a complete set of tools and wood filler was on board and I became adept at overhauling the head and the plumping system.

Our Slip at the End of the Day
Our Slip at the End of the Day

The morning air was hot, still and you could almost taste the humidity has we headed out on our first cruise with our 33 year old Catalina 27. Our three boys and one of their friends slid between the stays to get to the bow to enjoy a bit of a breeze. It was a fine day and I was grinning from ear to ear as I looked back to see the Caseville harbor break wall slide in and out of the mist.

A Great Lakes Freighter on Lake Huron
A Great Lakes Freighter on Lake Huron

A Hot Start to Sail On Saginaw Bay

We were heading across the bay to Tawas. It was a 25 nm shot that looked like we were going have to motor the whole way. The wind was non existent. The outboard was humming and slipping us north. We were two miles out of Caseville when we noticed a tug pushing a barge full of dredge swale right in our direction. There was a crew that had been out most of the summer dredging an area for a new water inlet for the village. The tug then confirmed its intent to overtake us with two blasts from its massive horns. I gave this working rig a respectable distance to avoid its wake. Then watched the barge dump its cargo with a series of muddy splashes.

The trip across was smooth and uneventful. The water was as calm as it could get and soon the sun was burning off the haze. Our course was to take us by the north side of Charity Island. This wooded gem in the middle of Saginaw Bay is uninhabited, but day sailors and small boats do anchor and explore its interior. Supposedly it was an excellent area to find Flint, a rock that Native Americans were able to shape tools and arrowheads. While we were still about a mile away I could see its restored light house noted that the trees go right up to waters edge. A rare site as much of the Great Lakes shoreline is spotted with cottages and summer homes.

Arrival in Historic East Tawas

Tawas Point Light
Tawas Point Light | Source

Coming into the Tawas Bay for the first time is a bit intimidating. Much of the shore of the bay is built up with little by the way of unusual land marks except its beautiful white light house near the tip of the curving spit of sand called Ottawa Point. However I did manage to program the GPS with the way point at the mouth East Tawas Harbor. A quick call to the harbor master soon led us to slip 96 and the first cold one of the day.

East Tawas is a charming port town. I released the boys and instructed them to explore and report back on the best place for ice cream and find out what was playing at the cinema. Melissa and I paid our slip fee, $27, (a buck a foot how handy) and met some of the other folks in nearby slips. Looking around we saw ourselves has having the smallest sailboat on the dock. Stretching our legs we walked into town and soon found our two younger boys heading back. We fended off the afternoon heat with slush’s and Boston coolers from an old fashioned soda fountain. After a swim, a grilled dinner and a movie we settled in for the night in our tight quarters.

Tawas Harbor Never Sleeps

I’m discovering that harbors never really close. At 4 am I woke to the sound of a nearby halyard slapping a mast as someone stepped off their boat. I got up, inspected our dock lines and took in the night activities. A lone duck quacked in the dark, a quiet conversation could be heard, and a radio was on. Out of the darkness a sail was coming in under power with its dingy in tow and a kayak lashed to the safety lines. I figured that this one must be coming back from a stint from the famous cruising grounds of the North Channel. The scene was made complete with a large German Shepard keeping watch on the bow.

The next morning continued with being hot and calm. Melissa walked into town to fetch breakfast as the boys and I got Trillium ready for a run back to Caseville. The weather report promised light winds and a chop out on the Bay. Soon we were out of the harbor and headed south. When we hit the big water a fresh breeze was noticeable. We raised the sails and started making good time at about 6 to 7 knots. Melissa and I took turns on the tiller bouncing across the waves in and kicking up a bit of spray. It was a thrill.

Our First Bit of Weather

About noon the wind turned more south westerly with gusts and with it came 2 to 4 foot waves that had the entire length of the bay to build. With the wind coming from dead ahead we tried our hand at an easterly tack but determined that it would double our travel time. Reluctantly we turned on the iron sail. The trip turned in to what I will call a wallow. Motoring through, or rather up and over the waves resulted in three of the four boys on board to fall back to sleep. While our middle son, Ethan, turned into a true deck ape. He bungees the main sail and then proceed to sit on the fore hatch and enjoy the wild ride in the building waves.

Sailing Home to Caseville

Charity Island LIght between Caseville and Tawas on Saginaw Bay
Charity Island LIght between Caseville and Tawas on Saginaw Bay

With about 10 miles to go to Caseville the waves settled down and the wind shifted yet again to a more westerly approach. We had entered in to what I call the archipelago of Saginaw Bay. Composed of Charity and Little Charity islands in the west coupled with the peninsula of Sand Point to the south serve to protect a large area of open water from the prevailing South West winds coming up the Bay. With this relative smoothness we kept motoring but opened up a bit of the Genoa to get her running at about 6.5 knots. With smoother waters the boys woke up and fixed lunch. I was handed a sub sandwich loaded with turkey, big chunks of cheese and dripping with dressing. Something about the open water and a light breeze can really get the appetite going. It made a mess on deck but it tasted great.

As we finally entered the Caseville harbor and into our home slip at Port Elizabeth I was filled with the good feelings that come when things go well. Despite our inexperience we crossed a bit of open water and found destination on the other side. Returning we hit a bit of weather, uncomfortable and unforeseen, but it allowed us to face and solve a challenge. My first little cruise was over and our new/old sailboat Trillium had taken us. I no longer viewed our boat as old but as an experienced veteran that will get a fresh look and enjoy many voyages ahead.

Sticks & Rags Are Beautiful

Owing and being on a sailboat has been anew experience for me. When I met my wife she already had eight years of summer sailing experience on Lake Michigan. Her family had owned two live aboard sailboats boats and cruised several times each summer. For her this experience was like going back home. For me it’s a new adventure with high potential for exploration and experiences. I had intentions of buying a power boat and even took a boaters safety course with the Power Squadron. I’m glad I found this collection of sticks and rags instead.

© 2018 Mike Hardy


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