Below the Mackinaw Bridge: Sailing on the Inland Seas

The S/V Inland Seas sailing under the Mackinaw Bridge

The date is July 6, 2016 and I’m standing at the helm of the tall ship Inland Seas, a two-masted, gaff rigged schooner like the ones that sailed the Great Lakes back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. I’m guiding her through the Straits of Mackinaw in northern Lake Michigan towards the bridge, into Lake Huron and Mackinaw City. It’s about an hour into my third shift at the wheel and with the bridge in view, I am now navigating by site instead of the compass, which I find much easier.

I can feel the boats every movement under my feet. She is an extension of my body now, with my hands and arms controlling her through very slight movements of the wheel and I like the feeling. I feel the gust of wind on my face and feel the waves, both trying to push the bow to starboard, and I anticipate the small corrections needed to keep us on a steady course. I watch as the bow starts to move to starboard but quickly bounces back on course because of the corrections I make with the wheel.

The air is warm on my skin and there is a late afternoon haze over the water. The lake is dark blue out here in the Straits of Mackinaw, with waves of 1 to 2 feet and maybe occasional white caps, although it’s hard to tell with the sun glaring off the water. I look towards the bow and I watch a wave as it is caught by the prow and forced to race down the side of the hull until it is released at the stern. As I look past the stern, I see the trail we’re leaving in the water and it is much straighter now than it was with my first shift at the wheel early this morning.

The two freighters following us up the lake all day

A few moments ago I asked captain Ben for permission to stay at the helm as we pass under the Mackinaw Bridge. He agrees and I get my camera out since I may not have this opportunity again. Gary, another volunteer, friend, and member of the crew, is sitting on the life jacket box on the port side next to me and we talk as we watch the scene unfolding in front of and behind us. I give him my camera to take some pictures of me at the wheel. As I look back over the stern, in the distant haze, I see the dark silhouettes of the two leviathans that have been following us up the lake all day. They are just coming up out of the passage and making the 90 degree right turn putting us directly in their path. They are traveling much faster than we are and for the first time today, I realize that they may overtake us at the bridge. Captain Ben is watching them too and tells me to steer towards the south tower to give them plenty of room to pass down our port side.


Gary in the yellow shirt
Jeanie in the blue tee-shirt in the foreground

The Schooner that I am sailing on, also known as the “Schoolship”, is owned and operated by The Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA). This is a wonderful organization that was established in 1989 by Tom Kelly to provide aquatic science, environmental awareness, sail training and a great time for anyone on the water. It is a non-profit organization whose mission is to inspire Great Lakes curiosity, stewardship, and passion in people of all ages through hands on learning activities aboard a traditionally rigged tall ship schooner. In 2014 The Inland Seas Education Association celebrated their 25th anniversary and has connected over 100,000 participants to the ecology of the Great Lakes. I started volunteering with the Inland Seas in 2012 as an instructor and since then I have also been learning to crew. It has been a great learning experience for me.

When I arrive at the Inland Seas dock early this morning, it is one of those warm, humid and overcast July mornings that feels like it could rain at any moment. The temperature is already 71 degrees and as I looked out over Sutton’s Bay, there is a slight wind out of the north northwest. The water has scattered areas of slight ripple over an undulating sea reflecting a slate gray sky. Looking out of the bay past Stoney Point into Grand Traverse Bay everything is very gray. It’s hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins. Rain is in our forecast.

The inland Seas leaving the dock in Suttons Bay

I will be sailing today as CIT (crew in training) and immediately start helping the crew with their boat checks. I climb over the stern into the tender boat to put in the drain plug and climb back out and help our first mate, Mathew, lower it to the water. We lower the rope ladder and I climb down into the small boat once again to test the small outboard. It starts on the second pull and I let it run until it runs smoothly without the choke. I try both forward and reverse and then kill the engine and clamber back up the ladder over the stern and onto the schooner. We then raise the small boat all the way up to its stowed position.

Soon, the captain calls everyone together on deck for a briefing before we depart. He says the radar shows two fast moving storms coming in our direction so we will not be putting up the sails when we leave this morning. We will motor out of the bay and north up Lake Michigan until the storms pass. The wind is forecasted to come out of the North-Northwest so it won’t be much help to us anyway. We then divide up the crew into three work groups that will rotate every 2 hours throughout the trip. I take first watch and settle in at the bow.

One of the small storms greets us as we leave Grand Traverse Bay and enter Lake Michigan. We put on our foul weather gear but soon hear thunder and the captain orders everyone below until it passes. A few of us gather around the table in the forward cabin. Rob, another Schoolship Instructor and CIT, Lisa, and  I begin a game of euchre. We barely get started and the quick moving storm races passed us before we are halfway through the game. Fred, the executive director of The Inland Seas Education Association, says he needs to use the cabin for the staff meeting they had planned so we scramble back up on deck. Which is where I’d rather be anyway.

Our first Mate Mathew in the blue shirt and Fred Sitkins, ISEA Director in the black shirt, with me at the wheel

Our course will take us north out of Suttons Bay and into Grand Traverse Bay, then along the northwest shore of Michigan, through grays reef passage, up through the straits of Mackinaw, into Lake Huron and Mackinaw City. As we leave Grand Traverse Bay behind and sail out into the big lake we haul up the sails starting with the mainsail, the foresail, the staysail and finally the jib. We rig the sails “close hauled” as we are sailing almost up wind at this point. With the wind coming out of the northwest it won’t be much help so the captain keeps the diesel engaged and we will “motor sail” most of our trip.

There is a surface current in Lake Michigan, though very slight and undetectable at this latitude, which is much dependent on the wind at the surface and won’t be much help to us either. Looking at the Great Lakes Currents map by NOOA this morning, I see a great counterclockwise rotation in the south end of the lake and a small current running north along the Michigan shoreline about halfway up the lake but then it kind of weakens and goes out in many different directions. At our latitude, the current is very chaotic. There is also a movement in the lake, as the water is pulled very slowly to the north. The greatest flow will be felt in the narrowest part of the lake at the Straits of Mackinaw. The flow in the Straits is met by the water coming down from Lake Superior flowing into Lake Huron. It causes the flow from Lake Michigan to be very erratic flowing both directions in the Straits of Mackinaw with the average flow into Lake Huron. But what force is pulling all this water?

Captain Ben with the Michigan Potato
Our cook found a potato shaped like the lower peninsula of Michigan and we all took pictures with it.
That’s life on a schooner

Maybe it is our altitude. We can’t see that we are sailing on water that is nearly six hundred feet above sea-level because we have no visible references in our view. We can’t see the great cataract at Niagara Falls, or the rapids and the locks and canals that connect us to the St Lawrence River that flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The Great Lakes system is so vast and the ocean is so far away, it’s hard for us to comprehend. But is this just about gravity or is there something more?

Maybe it is what some old-timers called the pull of the sea. A force that pulls the water across the land to the sea like a great syphon. I feel this pull when standing near a large river. My eyes are automatically pulled along with the current until the river bends out of view. Whenever I step into a stream, I feel the pull of the current on my legs as it try’s to pull me along with it. Water carries a tremendous amount of energy when it is in motion. It’s not gravity that I’m feeling, but a strong moving force in the water. Wendell Berry talked about it very eloquently in his essay “A Native Hill” when he said “All waters are one. This is a reach of the sea, flung like a net over the hill, and now drawn back to the sea.” If you’ve ever visited Niagara Falls and stood at the precipice looking down, watching all that lake water being pulled over the escarpment, you may have felt it to. I had to take a step back from the edge, no longer trusting my position for fear of being pulled over the edge along with the water.

I like to think it is because all those rain drops that fall on our great lake were stolen from the sea, carried here by the wind, and must return. From the moment these drops of water enter the lake they begin their long journey back to the sea. It may take them a hundred years or more just to leave Lake Michigan, but eventually, like all water, they must return to the sea.

Gray’s Reef Lighthouse

As we near grays reef passage the Grays Reef Lighthouse, guarding its southern entrance, comes into view. I am standing on deck, off duty for the moment, taking pictures as we approach the lighthouse very closely and I notice the water that is rising and falling in rhythm against its concrete platform. The surface of the lake looks very chaotic, with ripples upon waves and waves upon swells. On the boat you get used to the motion of the water and you don’t realize how much it is really moving. The rhythm of the swells rising and falling against the concrete structure reminds me of the rhythmic breathing of a giant living organism. One that is very delicate and under constant attack by invasive species, pollution, climate change, and human encroachment. One that can be very calm and beautifully blue at one moment and then, when the gales are blowing, she can be very dark and powerful, explosive, and terrifying. Today though she is very calm as we quietly glide across her slick blue surface without leaving much disturbance.

Gray’s Reef Lighthouse is located out in Lake Michigan about 6 miles west of Waugoshance Point, marking a narrow passage between Gray’s Reef and Vienna Shoal. Gray’s Reef juts out into the lake from Waugoshance Point off the northwest tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and Vienna Shoal is part of the Beaver Island Archipelago. The narrow channel traverses an area of very shallow rocky water and is considered a key component to the Great Lakes Navigation System. 

In 1891, one of the earliest Federal Lightships placed into service on the Great Lakes, Lightship LV57, was anchored at the entrance to the passage. It was replaced with Lightship LV103 in 1923. With authorization from the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1935, a deep-draft federal navigation channel, 3,000 feet wide and 25 feet deep was dug through the reef and in 1936 the permanent structure for the Gray’s Reef Lighthouse was placed at the southern entrance.

Captain Ben telling me to steer close to the south tower of the bridge

We pass the lighthouse closely along our port side correcting our course to align with the channel of Gray’s Reef Passage which is almost due North. The Passage is marked with a series of buoys red to port, and green to starboard when entering from the south. Buoys in the Great Lakes are placed in a similar manner as they are in the sea. The way I was taught to remember which side of the buoys to be on when you only have one buoy in view is “Red Right Return”. Meaning, keep the red buoy on your right or Starboard side when returning from the sea. Since today we are not returning but are traveling toward the sea, we will keep the red buoys on our left or port side.

The Mackinaw Bridge

As we leave Gray’s Reef Passage we adjust our course to almost due East and with the bridge in view, I can now navigate by sight. As we approach the bridge I hear chatter on the radio from the two Great Lakes freighters that are fast approaching from our stern. They are discussing who will go under the bridge first. I find it curious that there is no mention of our schooner directly in their path. Captain Ben tells me to steer close to the south tower to give them plenty of room.

The Stewart J Court
The first 1000-foot vessel on the Great Lakes in 1972.

As we approach the bridge, I hear a warning on the radio to stay clear from an ongoing rescue of a personal watercraft near the north tower and about that time I see 4 jet skis racing out to greet us from under the bridge. This is all happening as we approach the bridge and the first freighter, the Stewart J. Court, passes us down our port side. Interestingly, the Stewart J Court was built in two sections, bow and stern and then joined together in Mississippi to make the trip to the Great Lakes. They called it the “Stumpy”.  This was necessary to pass through the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal locks. It was then cut apart and joined with the midbody in Erie Pennsylvania. The Stewart  J Court was the only 1000-footer with the pilot house and all crew accommodations forward.         

The Lubie going under the bridge with us and one of the jet skies just off to the left

The second freighter, the Lubie follows close behind as we all stand on deck with our cameras taking pictures. This is an ocean going bulk carrier built in 2011 owned by the Polish Steamship Co., Szczecin, Poland (Polstean). It is a 623 footer with a cargo capacity of 30,000 gross tons flying the flag of the Bahamas. Of course the little camera lens on my phone makes everything look much farther away than it actually is.

When we emerge on the other side of the bridge we are now in Lake Huron. Captain Ben tells me to bring her about and I turn the wheel hard over to Starboard until we are facing up wind and the crew begins dropping and stowing the sails. Captain Ben then relieves me at the wheel and when all the sails are down and secure he guides the schooner through the narrow channel into the Mackinaw City harbor and we tie up at the end of the pier and end a very memorable day on the Great Lakes.


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