Crossing Lake Michigan: Sailing on the Inland Seas

The Schooner Inland Seas and the Schooner Utopia rafted together at the Inland Seas Education Association dock in Suttons Bay, MI

When I arrive in Suttons Bay at 7:15 am on July 24, 2019, I find the crew already preparing the two boats for a planned 8:00 am departure. The Inland Seas and the Utopia will be making the 2-day trip together to Green Bay Wisconsin for the 2019 tall ships celebration but are now rafted together at the dock. I quickly stow my gear below, choose a bunk and then climb topside to immediately begin helping the crew prepare for departure. We disassemble the boarding platform and secure everything to the deck. We usually leave the boarding platform behind on the dock, but we will need it when we dock in Green Bay.

Our Passengers are a group of very dedicated and experienced Schoolship instructors and ambassadors for the Tall Ships Celebration: Sue, Bette, Elane, and John. This is the second time that John, Sue and I crossed Lake Michigan together since we started at Inland Seas back in 2013. The first time was in 2014 on our way to Escanaba, on the northern end of Green Bay in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Sue had our picture taken on our first trip and again on this trip.

I’ll be traveling as part of a very experienced crew with Lilly Heyns as Captain; Bob Fox as first Mate; Jim, Ernie, Gary and myself as deck hands, with Marcel as our cook. I’ve sailed with all of them before and must say I’ve learned a lot about the schooner Inland Seas and sailing tall ships in general from watching them perform. I like to think of them all as my “volunteer family”. I love volunteering and sailing on the Inland Seas because it’s fun and it provides the perfect platform for learning and teaching about the ecology of the Great Lakes.

The Utopia leaving the Inland Seas Dock in Suttons Bay

The Inland Seas will be a working ship at the tall ship’s festival and our crew, our schoolship instructors and ambassadors will be taking visitors out for sails on Green Bay. The passengers will help the crew raise the sails, they will be learning about sailing on a schooner, about the ecology of the lakes, and how important they are to our future. Our hope is that they will fall in love with and become stewards of the Great Lakes.

We leave the dock under diesel propeller power following the Utopia up Suttons Bay. The Utopia has to stop at Northport to take on fuel for the trip, so we take our time and put up the sails. Captain Lilly directs us to put up 4 sails since we have light wind out of the Southwest. She calls us together for a meeting and divides us into two work groups. I’m in group 2 and will begin my shift at noon.

Meanwhile, our wonderful cook Marcel, has prepared breakfast and we enjoy a meal of eggs, bacon, breakfast sandwiches, fruit and Coffee. The sun is shining bright on the sky-blue water, the wind is light, and the waves less than 1 foot. Everyone is on deck with their bellies full of enjoying the start of a beautiful morning. Little do we know what lies waiting for us out on the open waters of Lake Michigan. I take a panoramic picture of the inland Seas with my phone camera, starting at the bow and ending at the stern using the new “telescope” lens I have been experimenting with. Makes for a very confusing picture.

panoramic or “folded” view of the Inland Seas

We reach the mouth of Grand Travers Bay at 11:10 am with the Utopia now following about a half mile at our stern. The wind has picked up to about 20 knots and the sky has become overcast with the clouds moving in from the West, so we sheet in the sails as we begin our turn to the west around the point towards the open waters of the lake, as the Grand Traverse Lighthouse comes into view. Since we will now be sailing into a strong Southwest wind, we drop all of our sails and continue on the Diesel.

After lunch we have to give way to a freighter motoring North up the lake, so we turn south to pass at her stern and temporarily raise 3 sails to take advantage of the wind, now on our starboard side. We now are sailing on 3-to-4-foot waves with an apparent southwest wind at 22 mph. We all put on our harnesses as the sky turns black from an approaching storm and set up safety lines since it is now more difficult to walk around on deck. I am at the wheel when I put on my harness as I try to steer a strait compass course through an undulating sea.

The Schooner Inland Seas out on West Grand Traverse Bay

The wind and the waves keep building so we drop the sails as we come about to pass the freighter at her stern and once again rely on our diesel as we head west towards Green Bay. The waves continue building as we pass between The Fox Islands to our north and the Manitou Islands to our south. The lake is around 600 feet deep out here and we are now feeling the full fetch of Lake Michigan, which at this point is about 260 miles of open water, as big waves roll up from Chicago at the other end of the lake.

The waves are now over 6 feet and are crashing over the bow sending a spray of water over the boat. I have already put on my foul weather gear and am now on watch as I move back from the bow to midships. I find standing with one hand on the rigging and the other on the pilot house, with my legs far apart letting my legs absorb some of the motion of the boat, to be the most comfortable. Big rollers are hitting us off the port beam causing the boat to rise up and slide down sideways. This causes the boat to tip slightly towards the port until we reach the bottom of the swell. Then, when it rights itself, the boat rocks side to side. All these motions I find to be very uncomfortable if sitting down so I remain on watch standing where I’m planted.

Me at the wheel steering a course through some rough seas

I notice Earnie crawling forward to secure the boarding platform that has shaken loose and I stumble forward along the safety line to help him and then return midships and continue my watch. Jim comes forward to relieve me from bow watch but is too uncomfortable and returns to the stern. I would rather stay where I am anyway, since I am more comfortable standing in this location on the boat. Soon Sue and Bette join me and sit down in front of the pilot house, and we talk for a while.

I look to see if the Utopia is still following us and see her just off our port side. She is a longer and wider boat and I notice she is taking the waves with less motion than we are. Earlier when I took my turn at the wheel, we had just put on our harnesses and the waves were not as big as they are now, but it was still fun steering the vessel into the wind and waves.

When I turn and look back at the stern, I see most of the crew and instructors now sitting and looking forward, searching for the first sight of land. I turn back to the front and soon I can just see the first hints of land in the distance. These would be the outer islands separating Green Bay from Lake Michigan and I turn around and yell “Land Ho” and I only get a couple of thumbs-up, but I know they are as excited to see the islands as I am. I spend the rest of the afternoon watching the land become bigger and the lake becoming calmer in the Lee of the islands until we can finally remove our harnesses and walk freely about the boat once again.

Rocky bluffs of Rock Island with the Potawatomi lighthouse

We enter Green Bay as we pass between Rock and St. Martin Islands, and I marvel at the height of the rocky bluffs on Rock Island. The Pottawatomie light house now comes into view and we begin to see a lot of fishing boats trolling along the outer shore of Rock and Washington Islands. Soon, we pass a freighter leaving Green Bay for the open waters of Lake Michigan. We round Rock Island and enter a large bay on Washington Island. On the chart, this bay is called Washington Harbor and is a natural deep harbor carved out by the glaciers thousands of years ago, which will provide a safe anchorage, and we drop Anchor for the night.

I watch the Utopia as it follows us into the harbor and drops anchor off our Starboard side just as the sun is setting. We spot a raft of white Pelicans on the water on the other side of the bay. This is the first time I have seen them on The Great Lakes. Others I talk to say they have seen them before. I guess I always assumed they were an ocean bird and didn’t expect to see them here.

A freighter we pass leaving Green Bay for the open waters of Lake Michigan

We begin to put the boat to bed for the night. I watch as Earnie takes the lanterns out of the forepeak and fill them with kerosene. We light them and hoist them at the bow and the stern. We also put up a white Battery-operated anchor light high in the rigging. Captain Lilly then calls us to gather for a meeting to discuss the anchor watch. Someone must be on watch all the time we are at anchor so we will take shifts of 45 minutes each throughout the night.

Captain Lilley states during our anchor watch we are to record in the log the following: Compass reading in degrees: Wind Speed; depth; lanterns 1 and 2 are still lit and any comments that we feel important.
And, we are to wake the captain for any of the following: Another boat enters the harbor; wind speed is over 15 knots for longer than 15 seconds; depth reading is under 30 feet or over 50 feet; the wind speed over the beam is 10 knots for more than 15 seconds; lanterns on bow or stern out; any strange smells; Compass reading other than south south/west; Thunder or lightning; if not sure, wake up the captain. I will have the 2:30 to 3:15 am watch.

Captain Lilly says she wants to get an early start tomorrow morning. We have about a 10-hour sail down Green Bay to our mooring near the mouth of the Fox River in Green Bay Wisconsin, so everyone except the first watch turns in for the night.

I’m awakened at 2:30 am by Bette for my watch. I quickly get up and go topside to check in with Bette and make entries in the log. Bette says we are far from our original compass reading and wonders if she should wake the captain even though the boat hasn’t really moved. We decide there is no need since there is no wind, and we seem to be just drifting around the anchor. The captain must be a light sleeper and hears us talking and comes topside just to make sure everything is ok.

At Anchor in Washington Harbor. Sue Chrostek and Gary Longton near the bow of the Inland Seas

Captain Lilly, assured that everything is ok, and Bette go back to bed. I am alone now on watch with my thoughts on a very clear, very dark night. As I quietly walk from the stern towards the bow, I get a feeling of nostalgia. I see the flickering yellow light of the kerosene lantern hanging off the bow and then I look to the stern and see the stern lantern light flickering through the rigging and wonder if this was what it was like on schooners much like this one, back 200 to 300 years ago as they lay at anchor in the harbor. I try to imagine what we must look like from shore. Since this trip, the lanterns have been replaced with battery lights for safety concerns. I understand why but I’m glad I was able to experience the yellow flickering light of the lanterns on this trip.

Thousands of tall ships have sailed on the Great Lakes and hundreds of ships must have used this harbor for refuge over the last two or three hundred years. Of course, one of the most famous tall ships to sail the upper Great Lakes was the “Griffin”. There were a few tall ships sailing on Lake Ontario by the French but they were all blocked from the upper Great Lakes by the great escarpment at Niagara. Before the Griffin, the upper Great Lakes were explored by canoes which could be easily portaged around the falls. It wasn’t until LaSalle’s Griffin that tall ships sailed the upper Great Lakes.

The Griffin was built at the eastern end of Lake Erie near the Niagara River by Rene-Robert Cavelier de LaSalle to explore the upper Great Lakes, find a route to the Mississippi River (LaSalle thought the Mississippi River would lead him to the Pacific Ocean and a shortcut to China) and advance the fur trade for the French. LaSalle brought shipbuilders and equipment with him to the end of Lake Ontario and up the Niagara River. They portaged around Niagara Falls and entered into Lake Erie and began to build his boat on a creek near the eastern shore of Lake Erie. He sent half of his men ahead in canoes to Green Bay to trade for furs with the Indians and he would follow when his boat was completed.

After completion of his boat, he sailed with the rest of his crew on the Griffin to St. Ignace and then on to Green Bay. He loaded its hold with furs and ordered his men to sail without him back to Niagara while he and half of his men continued their search for the Mississippi River. It is believed the Griffin set sail from this very island, Washington Island, in 1679 (although recent discoveries of French artifacts on Rock Island, the island to the north of Washington Island, has caused some debate on this) and sailed right into a storm and the Griffin and it’s crew were never seen or heard from again. The Griffin has never been found and has become one of the great mysteries of the Great Lakes. Shipwreck hunter’s have been searching for it ever since.

I look to starboard across the bay to see if the Utopia is still there and of course it is and all is quiet. Off our port side I see a modern-day sailboat that was moored there when we arrived and it breaks my nostalgic spell. I hear and watch two young couples on the shore come down to the water and go for a swim at 2:30 am. And then, through the darkness I can just make out a raft I hadn’t noticed before, anchored just off the beach. Another couple joins them. Oh, to be young again.

The sun rising over Washington Harbor

After my watch I sleep till about 6:00 am and get up to start the day. We begin with boat checks and Jim and I pump water out of the forepeak that trickled in from the rough seas and rain the day before. We all get together and rachet up the anchor and all is calm as we motor out of Washington harbor. We navigate around Washington Island and head south down Green Bay on very calm water. So different than our lake crossing the day before. The sun is bright red as it lifts off the water this morning, as we pass a few more White Pelicans.

I had always thought of Pelicans as ocean birds, and didn’t realize they migrate to fresh water each year. Green Bay and the western shore of Lake Michigan is at the eastern edge of their annual migration range as they are native to the Pacific Coast of California and the Gulf Coast. However, a recent study in 2019 shows that they have been increasing their range east to as far as the western shores of Lake Erie. D.V. Chip Weseloh, a retired Great Lakes waterbird specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Service says “Pelicans are strange birds and will range far and wide hundreds of miles to feed” a feat documented with radio transmitters.

White Pelicans on Green Bay

The White Pelican is a very large bird, second only to the California Condor, with a wingspan over 9 feet and they have a long neck and long orange bill with a throat pouch for catching fish. They are usually found in groups sitting on the water when resting or wading in shallow water while feeding. White Pelicans breed in remote lakes in North America and Canada while spending the winter on the southern Pacific Coast of the US, Gulf of Mexico, and Central America. They look all white while sitting on the water but have a black area under their wings which include all of the primary and some of the secondaries that you can see when they are flying. During the breeding season, the males have a flat rounded plate on top of their bill. They are unmistakable and easy to identify. If you see one, you’ll know right away what it is.

A first glance at the chart for Green Bay shows a very long body of water stretching from Escanaba in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Over 100 nautical miles from top to bottom. The west and south side of the bay is all in Wisconsin. The east side of the bay is composed of two long peninsulas: The Garden Peninsula, from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the north and the Door Peninsula from Wisconsin to the South. An opening between them is filled with several large and small islands which provides entrance from Lake Michigan. A closer inspection of the chart also shows a series of islands about halfway down the bay that kind of divides it in half.

Heading south, we encounter this series of islands, and we navigate between Chambers Island and the Strawberry Islands, and then Green and Hat Islands following the marked channel. When we are just a couple of hours out from our destination, we begin to make the boat ship-shape. We swab the decks, Clean the scuppers, properly stow all equipment and neatly refurl the sails so we will look sharp as we enter the Fox River in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Following the channel markers at the mouth of the Fox River coming into Green Bay, Wisconsin

As we near the mouth of the Fox River we follow the buoys and begin a zig-zag course through the shallow delta that has formed at the mouth of the river. We travel past a small island that is totally covered with birds. I count almost 80 White Pelicans, and only a few cormorants Sitting in a couple of dead trees on the island. Finally, we pass the Grassy Island Lighthouse at the entrance to the fox River. When we arrive at our destination, I see 8 tall ships have already arrived. We tie up along the break wall between the “Appledore”, a large two masted Schooner from Bay City at our bow, and the “Windy”, a four masted schooner from Chicago that towers over us at our stern.

After securing the Inland Seas to the Break Wall, Captain Lilly asks me to go to the end of the long line of tall ships and catch the dock lines for the Utopia and help tie it up along the break wall. After this we have dinner and I take a shower in one of those portable showers in a semitrailer. I’ve never used one of these before but they were quite efficient. There must have been about 4 private showers on the men’s half of the trailer and I assume the same on the lady’s half. There was just enough room for you to turn around in the shower. The water stayed on for about one minute and then shut off. I was constantly turning the water on to complete my shower.

Afterword, the whole crew, staff, and instructors from the Inland Seas and the Utopia went to an outside Beer Garden within walking distance of the boat and had a beer and some appetizer’s and talked with some other members of the crew, staff and Captain Ben that had just arrived to replace some of us leaving the next morning. It was great getting together with everyone to talk about our trip. These social interactions are so enjoyable and I look forward to them after a sail on the Lakes.

The Windy, a Four-Masted Gaff-Rigged topsail Schooner from Chicago, Illinois. overall length 148 feet with a 25-foot beam

I took some pictures of the tall ships along the break wall before I left and got a picture of the Windy from Chicago before she docked. To me, the tall ships are beautiful, like poetry when you see them under sail out on the open water and should be viewed that way. I wish I could have been here to see them sail in. Tied up to the break wall, these ships look like a complicated mass of limp lines and halyards, masts and gaffs and spars. But out on the open water with their sails full, their lines and halyards become taught, and they tighten up like an athlete as they race across the surface of the lake.

Captain Lilly and I leave early the next morning in the Inland Seas van. It is about an 8-hour drive back to Suttons Bay, so we take turns driving and talking on our way back. The end of another great adventure on the Great Lakes.

Info on the “Griffin” (or “Griffon” I find it spelled both ways)

“The Wreck of the GRIFFON” by Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg, 2014
“Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals” by William Ratigan, 1960
“LA SALLE and the Discovery of the Great West” by Francis Parkman, 1910

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