Sailing the Great Lakes

Sailing the Great Lakes – Sturgeon Bay, WI to Cleveland, OH

It is time for my new post. I delayed writing for reasons known to me only? One thing is great though, the boat is looking good and necessary preps are almost done. As I write this post we still have few more details to look into and we should be ready for another part of our journey – Sailing the Lake Erie and Navigating the Erie Canal. sailing the great lakes mapBefore we do that let me take you back little over a month ago back in days when we were getting ready to departure from Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin towards Cleveland, Ohio. The first leg for our new little boat.

The Great lakes

Have you ever sailed the Great Lakes?
It is the unique experience! It really is! It can be hard, almost painful. Fascinating, difficult and dangerous. Severe storms, heavy waves-sometimes 20ft high, shallow water and ship traffic? All mentioned above does not sound tricky, not even to a moderate sailor? Right?

The tricky parts lies in geology and geography, both. Imagine for a moment, you have a cooking pot half filled with water sitting on the counter top in your kitchen. Water surface is flat. If you put just a tip of your finger the wake will spread in all directions and return back when it bounce from the pot’s edges. If you put your finger in and out several times the height to the bounced wake might be high enough to spill over the top. Very similar phenomenon applies to the Great Lakes as they are quite big in surface but still shallow enough. So the waves build up to 20+ ft is a normal thing. Waves are not necessary coming from the same direction as the wind does or even close?
So you have a moderate wind blowing across the planes of mid-west, relatively big but still shallow waters and waves hammering your boat from literally all directions. Hope you are getting the picture? Not a pleasant experience! Those sailors, who by guessing dare to say sailing the Great Lakes is easy should try it first. Back to our route.

Sturgeon Bay – Egg Harbour

Sailing from Sturgeon Bay towards the Straight of Mackinac leads North from both shores of Door County which is I have to write here by far is the nicest place I visited in Wisconsin! We sailed west from the Door County. On the West side of Green Bay which everyone told us to follow. Before leave Sturgeon Bay towards West you will have to use radio and announce your attentions to the both bridge masters if you want to pass. I never did this before. Smoking a cigar and sailing under the open bridge which is now raised for you only! Simply magnificent!

sailing the great lakes igor sestanj

This was a short passage. Not more than 20 NM but since we departed late afternoon it was just perfect to test the sails for the first time. Configuration is old fashioned. To illustrate it, mainsail halyard has a winch attached to mast which is not really convenient nor safe to operate. Foresail is quite big and powers the boat nicely. Depth and speed instruments are broken. But she sails nice. First night sleeping on anchor was calm. Having a can-food on board and watching Sun turning to almost pink while sets down makes you feel as a true explorer.

Egg Harbor – Washington Island

(Bay on North side where School House Beach Park is located)

This was an introduction day for what was coming. North light wind and waves made this passage more difficult than it should be. Basically motored for several hours sometimes through shallow areas not more than 4 to 5 ft and able to almost feel sandy bottom gently touches Paradise’s keel. We arrived to Washington Island early afternoon which gave us just enough time to explore the island by bike and enjoy beautiful scenery, farm houses, horses and silence.

Washington Island – St. Helena Island

Next morning we woke up early as we were aware that this might be a long day. Passage leads between Rock and St.Martin Islands to the open waters. This was my bad day. I thought after all these years I will finally meet the God of seasickness. But I haven’t. Next time you green faced bastard. It was close!

Boat handles these 20+ft waves quite good. However, sailing rough waters for more than 10 hours is nothing but a torture. After a long day on the open waters of Lake Michigan, tired and sleepy we ended-up navigating in pitch black night and anchored just west of Mackinac Bridge in protected bay on St.Helena Island.

St.Helena Island – Presque Isle

Morning light revealed completely unexpected scenery. Last night was so dark we could not see anything but red lights which we thought are buoys. Those lights were airplanes navigation lights sitting on high poles and on shore!? So much of an experience. Water was calm. As a glass. No wind. High humidity. Silence. It was one of those flashback moments again. I have seen this many times back in my rowing days. Early mornings in skiff on Danube. The day was beautiful and warm and we continued under a mile-long Mackinac bridge and crossed to the Lake Huron. We stopped briefly in the Roger’s City to get gas and groceries. I forgot the name to a friendly guy, the harbormaster in Roger’s City Marina. He prepared us a reading material about Roger’s City and while chatting we learn that marina is still not opened yet. ‘Maybe in week or so since it is still cold’, he sad. Just enthusiasts and fishermen are on the Lake he added later. That is who we are. From Roger’s City we continued South following shore lights and safely anchored in shallow waters just South of Presque Isle.

Presque Isle – Harrisville

“Red in the morning sailors warning” and yes it was a warning! As soon as we left relatively protected bay of the Presque Isle we ended up sailing right into a heavy storm system! Rain continued to pour with strong winds for the next 5 long hours! The good thing was we had bimini cover up and the bad one was the realization that not even well designed cover was able to resist. We were soaked, wet and exposed to a harsh conditions on Lake Huron. It was horrible! I envisioned myself many times and being Lt. Dan (Forrest Gamp), talking bad to the Big Almighty Guy out there? I remember thinking again about an underwater craft with a large kite sail propelling it?

I thought I’ve seen bad weather. I really did! Snow storms high in the Alps counts as bad weather but this, this was different scale. A horrible one! Being on the sailboat in a bad weather is the closest you can experience to a space travel. No place to escape nowhere to go. Deal with it, try to find peace? I remember thinking it is in my head. How it is not that bad. I went through them all…And yes! It was terrible! I have a photo. I should name it? Unprepared in a storm 🙂

sailing the great lakes 2012

Harrisville Municipal Marina was the the best! I felt like we were rewarded somehow?! We stayed as the only guests in the marina. Lots of amenities, library having old magazines and facility being organized in take and leave manner. I recommend this place if you look for a slip in this area!

Harrisville – Harbor Beach

Hot and humid morning made us both grouchy. We continued across the Saginaw Bay towards Port Sanilac which was a ambitious plan. No wind, no waves, fog, bright Sun and flies. Thousands of them! After couple of hours in the fly world we briefly had a great wind and sailed to Harbor Beach as it got dark again. Later that night we realized that we were in the middle of an eye to some heavy storm system. Somehow, for us and flies it was just sunny and very humid.

Harbor Beach – Detroit

Next morning was cloudy and rain was fighting with the Sun so we continued South towards the Port Huron. After the storm system left the other way to Canada and left moderate wind behind I experimented while motoring on less than 1500 rpm and with foresail rolled out to perhaps 40% and got steady 8 knots. Good speed saved us a lot of time to be in the Port Huron in just about 2pm. We continued South along the St.Clair River. This was a very interesting experience, motoring downstream along with large container-ships and speed boats. Gorgeous housing and numerous docks with lifts for their boats. Mouth of St.Clair River reveals shallow areas with partially dredged river banks. Peaceful life on the river is sometimes disturbed with huge ship slowly passing by. River is so narrow it’d be impossible to fit two of these big guys together. They indeed navigate one way half of the time! St. Clair Lake is by far the best when it comes for light features. If you motor in the middle of the night, like we did it is impressive! Reds and greens, border being lit across the entire lake and you’ll see Detroit lights far in the distance.

Detroit – Kelley’s Island

The Motor City has interesting skyline. When sailing close to the shore from the North you’ll notice beautiful housing obviously made in Detroit’s golden era. On the other side is Canada and the city of Windsor. Downtown is clearly noticeable by the Detroit People Mover monorail system. There are also numerous skyscrapers but the one is more distinguish then the other. GM Renaissance Center is huge and impressive. Following the river on the right bank scenery becomes more industrial. Heavy steel factories and warehouses. It is so obvious and ironic as you navigate slowly that civilization can not sustain yet to be green, we are”Type 0 civilization” as Mr. Kaku uses frequently. Mouth of Detroit River to Lake Erie is just beautiful. Lots of islands, shallow water, bird sanctuaries, gorgeous housing and several dredged channels for ship traffic. Coming to the Lake Erie from the North changes everything. Water looks completely different than further North. It is not clear anymore. We are noticing dead fish floating here and there. This is something we’ve never seen on Lake Huron nor Lake Michigan. I think nuclear power plants on the Lake Erie are making water warmer than it should be. Water is for sure several degrees warmer than on both of the lakes at the North. I remember that River of Sava in Belgrade, Serbia is now up to 3 degrees Celsius warmer that it was before just because of Krshko nuclear power plant 400 km/250 miles away in Slovenia. Same thing applies here and along with industry it seems like we humans won this battle over the nature.

Steady wind powered up our sails nicely for some time. Several hours later we had no wind but 3 to 4 foot waves. The passage leads between Bass Islands where we stopped briefly in Put in Bay trying to buy motor oil. Later that night we had maybe an hour of great sunset sailing experience but later that evening wind picked up again and we had to find alternatives or ‘port of refugee’ if you wish. Better safe than sorry we thought.

One more day…

Having this distance (500 NM) in such a short period of time and with unexpected late spring weather like we had is just exhausting.

sailing the great lakes huron

Kelley’s Island – Cleveland

When I woke up the next morning and crawl out from the cabin still having life vest on me. It was so obvious that’s not over yet! Cloudy skies and waves made me understand what the guy last night had on his mind when said that we are not going anywhere for at least a day! He had a point! Being so close to destination pumped out just enough of freshly collected adrenaline builded up over the night. After having a warm breakfast we were quite sure being stronger than we actually were. (Just a small update here. Later on our trip I’ve learned Kelley’s Island is a home to a small sweetwater dolphin colony?)

Two hours later and Lt. Dan was back in business again!

Passing shores nearby to City of Lorain was the worst ever! Several people radioed Pan-Pan! To be honest I knew what is coming as I lived by the Lake Erie for the past two years. From the shore and while riding my bike and I have seen big and bad waves more than dozen times. Weather can go nasty in this area!
After several long hours we finally arrived to our slip in Whiskey Island Marina (Cleveland, OH) where we stayed with no moving out from the marina not even ones for entire month! How funny is that? Paradise and both of us are ready again, this time in more relaxed way. Thanks for reading.

sailing the great lakes


Sailing the Lake Erie from Cleveland to Tonawanda you can read in this post.


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