Thomas Bay

When reading some of the cruising guides for the North Channel it seems every anchorage is “perfect,” a “must see,” or a “favorite,” and it’s hard to tell which ones are genuinely worth exploring (most are!). I had heard great things about Thomas Bay, but in three previous trips to the North Channel had never even seen it. We had the luxury of time and a good weather forecast, so Kristin and I decided to check it out.

Thomas Bay lies about four miles east of Killarney. The approach to it was well charted, but the actual Bay itself is a “white area,” with no real depth soundings, depth contours, or hazards depicted. I’m assuming it has never been officially sounded for government charting purposes. Armed with a cruising guide that had aerial photographs, I cautiously steered Priorities in while Kristin stood watch on the bow ready to point out any rocks we hoped would be visible ahead of us.

My what a pretty spot! Giant pink… nearly red… granite rocks surround the anchorage, with a giant staircase of them on the north side. A small island on the south side… also pink granite… helps the Bay offer nearly complete protection. The bottom seemed like flat mud, with depths between 8 and 15 feet with water 3 feet above datum. Holding was good, with not too many weeds to foul the anchor.

Me sounding the anchorage from the dinghy with my portable depth sounder

Other than a cottage in the northeast corner (which might not have been occupied that night), we were the only ones there!

Kristin took this shot after paddleboarding ashore. That’s me in the dinghy.


With flat, warm water, and plenty of sunshine, we spent a day exploring on our stand up paddle boards. The northwest corner of the anchorage had a few deadheads… logs that sank to the bottom during logging operations long ago… visible as we paddled over them.  The islands to the south were fun to walk around.

Exploring via dinghy brought us to the barrier islands to the south

Just before we left on the second day, a rental J22 from the Killarney Mountain Lodge sailed in and anchored nearby for lunch. They left around the same time we did, and it was a nice sail with them back towards Killarney.


The Collins Inlet

I have taken Priorities to the North Channel four times now. This year Kristin and I felt like we had seen most of the recommended hotspots, and there weren’t really any more “must see” anchorages left. This gave us the luxury of time, since we didn’t have to sail or motor all over the place to see someone else’s favorite spot and allowed us to travel on a more casual schedule based more on the wind and weather… and perhaps find something new.

Somehow, in years past, we hadn’t traveled east of Killarney. Killarney is basically at the east end of the North Channel, and the west end of Georgian Bay. Cruisers traveling from southern Georgian Bay or southern Lake Huron are familiar with much of the scenery along the well charted and marked Small Craft Route east of Killarney. Since our home port lies west of the North Channel, however, heading east of Killarney is somewhat out of the way for us.

This year, we spent two nights in Covered Portage Cove, and had a few days to kill before needing to be back in Little Current for additional crew. Light winds were forecasted, so we would either need to motor somewhere or not travel very far. We also had plenty of provisions, so a remote detour wouldn’t stress boat or crew much… and so we decided to check out the Collins Inlet.

The 10 mile long Collins Inlet begins a mere five miles or so east of Killarney. It’s a very narrow fjord like gap between mainland Ontario and Philip Edward Island, surrounded on both sides by large cliffs that occasionally loom well over 100 feet above the water. The mainland side is mostly in Killarney Provincial Park, and the island side has little development.

We leisurely sailed the five miles from Killarney to the western entrance of the Inlet, and as expected the winds got too light and shifty to continue under sail. With high cliffs on both sides, it would be rare to be able to sail the Collins Inlet… perhaps when the winds are strong from the east or west it might be possible.

Since the Collins Inlet is navigable for its entire length, the “Red Right Return” rule applies when westbound, or “returning” from the ocean. Even though we were leaving the relative open water of Georgian Bay and heading into what looked like a river, green buoys and marks were kept to starboard since we were traveling closer to the ocean.

Heading into the Collins Inlet

Immediately we noticed a few promising anchorages for future reference… just southwest of Keyhole Island and north of the island at Mile 58. The water temperature was also in the low 70s here, much warmer than the upper 60s we had seen the previous several days in the North Channel.

Most of the Inlet is only 150-300 feet wide


Pink granite cliff walls of the Inlet

Looking at the chart reveals few major hazards as long as you stay in the middle of the Inlet, except at the east end. Not wanting to miss out on the scenery from inside our cockpit enclosure, I joined Kristin on the foredeck. This was one of the few times I actually was glad I installed a wireless remote for the autopilot, allowing me to make minor course changes while standing on the foredeck and enjoying the scenery. It wasn’t the safest course of action… if the autopilot freaked out and suddenly turned hard in one direction I might not make it to the cockpit in time before hitting the sides of the Inlet… but the likelihood of a sudden electronics failure was pretty low and had never been an issue in the past.

After about an hour, we arrived in Mill Lake. Mill Lake lies about two thirds of the way into the Inlet when traveling eastbound. There’s not much there, but the scenery is very pretty.

We anchored on Mill Lake for the night just south of Green Island, out of sight from any cottages or boats. It felt very remote. While exploring around in the dinghy we did meet some kayakers who were camped on an adjacent island. They were on a weeklong trip exploring the Island and Inlet via kayak… certainly a great place to kayak or canoe.

Anchored on Mill Lake
Water flowing down cliffs


The next morning we motored the rest of the way east out the Collins Inlet into Beaverstone Bay. Green buoys and marks were still kept to starboard here. In low water years, the channel at the east end of the Collins Inlet has silted to less than our six feet of draft. This August lakes Michigan and Huron are three feet above datum, so we were able to continue through the very narrow channel at the east end of Collins Inlet without major issue. Our depth sounder recorded a few depths of 5.8 feet, but I think weeds were to blame since it didn’t feel like our keel kissed bottom.

Narrow and shallow channel on the east end of Collins Inlet. Green to starboard.

After the shallow section, we raised sails are sailed out of Beaverstone with a 15 knot north wind. Beaverstone is pretty as well, with a few cottages built on many of the islands on the Bay. Though we considered sailing farther east to the Bad River or the Bustard Islands, a forecast of west winds the following day led us to merely circumnavigate Philip Edward Island and head west again… to Thomas Bay.

Covered Portage Cove

Taking advantage of strong west winds, our previous day had been a fast but long 40 mile sail from John Harbor far to our west, through the Whalesback Channel, Little Detroit, the McBean and Wabuno Channels, Little Current, and finally to Heywood Island right before sunset. With the following day’s forecast of the west winds becoming light, Kristin and I wanted an anchorage nearby that would be a short, comfortable sail and would be somewhere cool to spend two nights on the hook.

We both like the beautiful Lansdowne Channel, with the trees on its heavily wooded shores pruned to a uniform height by deer and the white LaCloche mountains adding a backdrop to the north. It also runs east-northeast / west-southwest, so with west winds it makes a pretty cool spinnaker run.

Spinnaker run down the Lansdowne Channel? Uh, yes, please!

Near the east end of the Lansdowne, near the town of Killarney, lies Covered Portage Cove.

Covered Portage Cove is one of the “must see” anchorages of the North Channel. Almost completely surrounded on all sides by thickly wooded steep hills on the southern shore and tall, white, rocky cliffs on the north… the anchorage provides complete protection.

Covered Portage is very popular, and therefore frequently crowded. While we had visited it many times in our previous North Channel cruises, we had never been able to find enough room to anchor on the inside. Low water levels had been an issue in years past, too, with our six foot draft. There is a decent amount of room and protection for anchoring just outside the cove, but with high water levels and a half moon to illuminate the cliffs we wanted to finally find a spot inside this year.

In order to squeeze into an already crowded anchorage we planned to eliminate the swinging of the boat at anchor by tying to a tree in addition to anchoring. In preparation, I got our spare rope rode out of the lazarette and got oars ready for the dinghy before we even entered the anchorage.

Approaching Covered Portage Cove takes you past a beautiful cottage perfectly tucked into the hillside above. It was for sale for a cool $2.8 million… including a dock, 50 acres of land, nearly a mile of shoreline, and a really cool deck overlooking the anchorage. Online photos revealed a spectacular interior, too!

At the entrance is a steep cliff which lately has partially collapsed to form a grotto near the water. At one angle, an outcropping on the cliff appears to resemble the face of an “Indian Head,” adding to the drama.

Entering the anchorage is a little tricky, so I had Kristin up on the bow looking for rocks. We communicated ahead of time that she would point in the direction I needed to turn… NOT at a rock! There are a few rocks at the entrance, but even with the high water they were pretty obvious, even from the cockpit… with Kristin’s guidance after the Indian Head I stayed left of center, swung wide, then steered to the center of the anchorage.

It was crowded when we entered, with almost a dozen boats swinging on anchors, plus another half dozen tied ashore. There was a Catalina 380 anchored in the middle of a small section just inside the entrance, leaving little room for us to use only one anchor here. In past years the water had been quite lower, and our depth sounder would be freaking out just inside the entrance… we had never even ventured much past the entrance before. Farther inside, a gap existed between the Catalina 380 and a Beneteau, but careful maneuvering around revealed we didn’t really have enough space to swing around here either since the cove gets a little narrower in that spot. Looking even farther in was more crowded, with boats at anchor swinging very close to boats tied ashore.

So, back to the gap between the Catalina and the Beneteau. With the light winds, we could drop the anchor in the gap and have time to row ashore, tie to a strong tree, then tighten everything up without hopefully hitting another boat or running aground. The Catalina and Beneteau would be free to swing at anchor if we could get close enough to shore to be out of their way. Since our depth sounder is in the bow and therefore forward of the keel, our deepest part of the boat, I slowly headed towards the tree to figure out how close to shore we could get.

On the north shore of Covered Portage, depths are quite deep very close to shore. Our bow pulpit was nearly in the tree branches and we still saw depths of 7 feet with no nasty rocks visible… good news. With depths around 9 feet where we wanted to drop anchor, plus 5 feet for the anchor roller height, we wanted about 70 feet of rode for 5:1 scope ((9+5)*5= almost 70), but we can safely get away with 4:1 (60 feet or so) in good weather when tying ashore. Since 60 feet of rode is a boat length and a half, I positioned the stern about two and a half boat lengths from shore (bow away from the tree) and dropped anchor from the bow, backing down in the direction of the tree.

We still haven’t really found a good way to keep the line that goes to the tree organized. It probably ought to be a fairly thin double braid line on a spool, but all we have is a heavy, slightly oversized, three strand rope that doubles as our second anchor line. It’s probably the original anchor line that came with the boat when it was new (including the rusted-in-place anchor shackle on it, as well!). Preferring the easier job of steering the boat, Kristin nominated me to row ashore with the tangled mess to tie to the tree. Eventually, it worked out.


With a snubber on the anchor chain, we motored in reverse to get much of the slack out of the tree line. I considered leaving some slack so the line would rest in the water, preventing “critters” from getting aboard, but preferred to be as out of the way as possible. We finally settled for having the stern about 30 feet from shore… and Priorities was safely tucked into Covered Portage Cove, tied to a tree less than a boat length away!

Tied ashore!

We spent more than a day exploring the anchorage. It’s a great place to stand up paddleboard since the water is so flat, and there’s lots of scenery to explore. Being so protected and shallow meant the water was warm, too, so we did plenty of swimming… I even cleaned off the fender marks on the topsides!

Taking the dinghy to the west end of Covered Portage gives access to hiking trails, including a few that go up the cliffs to the north. Though it’s only about a half mile each way, it’s a very steep climb and good exercise after being on the boat for a while. It’s also a really good spot to get some cool photos.

Covered Portage Cove, looking east towards the entrance
Covered Portage can get crowded, but we think it’s worth it
There’s a few places in the North Channel to get a photo from above your boat… and this is one of them. I just wish we had taken the colorful beach towels off the lifelines before hiking all the way up the hill!
Lots of boats tied ashore to trees, including Priorities, second from the top
Looking towards the west end


We discovered a heron surveying the anchorage from a tree nearby

After two very calm nights, it was time to move on and explore somewhere new. We upped anchor and headed for the Collins Inlet.

Beardrop Harbor

This year I’m fortunate enough to have enough vacation time to take six weeks off in the summer and bring Priorities to Lake Huron’s North Channel once again. I worked it out so my singlehanded delivery didn’t involve any overnight passages that can be very fatiguing when sailing alone.

A singlehanded delivery is still tough, though, since everything on the boat from sailhandling to washing the dishes is my duty and responsibility. After covering 360 Miles in 8 legs alone, fortunately about ⅔ of which were under sail, I finally dropped anchor in Beardrop Harbor. The “delivery” part of my trip was nearly done, and it was finally time to relax!

Sailboat at anchor
Priorities anchored in Beardrop Harbor in Lake Huron’s North Channel

I needed to be in Little Current by Friday to have enough time to reprovision before my girlfriend Kristin arrived via plane on Saturday. Since it was merely Tuesday, I could afford to spend two nights here… I had a full day to relax, explore the area on the dinghy, and clean up the boat a bit after all the long days spent traveling. I no longer felt pressured to be in a certain place at a certain time since I was nearly there (less than 40 miles) with several days to go.

I have a fondness for Beardrop Harbor partly because it’s one of the first easy wilderness anchorages I get to on the west end of the scenic part of the North Channel. It has protection from all directions, save for a tiny sliver from the west. Holding for the anchor is pretty good in mud (except maybe the south central part), and there don’t seem to be any hidden, uncharted rocks waiting to catch my keel.

Looking west, there’s a tiny sliver where waves can creep into Beardrop, but otherwise it’s very protected

Though surrounded by cliffs on nearly all sides, and far from civilization, I wasn’t alone… there were plenty of other interesting cruising boats anchored nearby.



Climbing the cliffs on the south side of the anchorage reveals nice views of the Whalesback Channel

While climbing over some of the rocks and cliffs surrounding the anchorage in the afternoon, I heard an unusual screech… and glimpsed a bald eagle! It circled over the Whalesback Channel to the south, then continued south to soar over John Island.


For much of my travels up Lake Michigan, across part of Lake Huron, and along the western section of the North Channel, I found water temperatures in the mid 60s, Fahrenheit. Both the water temperature sensor on the boat and my handheld sensor in the dinghy reported a water temperature of 72 at Beardrop. I’m pretty sure many of the anchorages in the North Channel have warmer water in late summer due to their relative shallow depth and protection from wind and waves. The air had been quite warm and calm for a few days, making it easier for the protected spots to warm up quickly. Having warmer water “up north” seems quite ironic to me, though.

After two nights in Beardrop I was rested and ready for more sailing for the last push to Little Current. I got underway early due to forecasted east winds, sailing a beat across the North Channel to Clapperton Harbor for my last stop before Little Current.

Harbor Island Thunderstorm

I’ve always known Mother Nature likes to keep sailors in check every once in a while… I just hadn’t had a reminder from Her recently about who was in charge. Until today.

The last 24 hours had been great. After several hours of motoring from the anchorage at Garden Island on Lake Michigan, I finally had enough wind to sail wing on wing with the whisker pole under the Mackinac Bridge. Passing Mackinac Island on the Round Island Passage was a challenge since I passed in close proximity to the large freighter John G Munson amongst all the ferry traffic, but still got some cool views of The Grand Hotel and Fort Mackinac. Shortly after, I was rewarded with a great singlehanded spinnaker run to the Les Cheneaux Islands where I spent the night.

Easy wing on wing sail under the Big Mac
I passed the John G Munson just west of Round Island Passage, in front of The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

This morning, with a forecast of very light winds and an expectation of having to motor to Drummond Island, I awoke to find winds from the west at 15 knots. This enabled me to have yet another great sail from my anchorage in Government Bay out into Lake Huron and on to Detour Passage. A few well timed jibes of jib and main positioned me well to fit in with the large shipping traffic transiting the passage.

Sailing out of the Les Cheneaux Islands into the open waters of Lake Huron

Things were going great, and I felt pretty good about myself as I headed north up the Detour Passage only about five miles from my planned anchorage at Harbor Island near Drummond Island, Michigan. Having a “delivery” mentality of getting as many miles in each day gets old after a while, and I was looking forward to relaxing at anchor and drinking a cold beer long before I’d have to make dinner. Also, any further sailing north or east would put me in Canadian waters, so one last evening in the US under my normal cellphone plan was fine with me.

Around then I also noticed a thunderstorm building north of me, but didn’t think much of it since most of the time serious weather moves west to east around here. A check of the radar on my phone showed it was moving SSE, but I would miss the edge of it and still had plenty of time before it hit.

About two miles from Harbor Island, the sky got much darker to the north than expected. I realized this stuff was actually much closer than I originally thought. A quick check of my radar app on my phone showed it rapidly building in intensity, but I still expected I had enough time to anchor at Harbor Island. No weather warnings on the VHF, no cellphone weather alerts, either.

I heard thunder, then noticed some low level scud nearby rolling in from the storm. I decided to be conservative and start the motor, furl the jib, and lower the main. The thunder got louder, much louder than expected. I got the sail cover on as quick as I could, still clipping my tether to the jacklines as I worked.

It would have been faster for me to skip using my tether and jack line system in the name of “getting things done.” When sailing alone like I was, I think being unclipped from the tether when outside the cockpit would be an unacceptably high level of risk, especially considering the proximity of unsettled and rapidly changing weather. It was frustrating, though, since being clipped in hindered my progress a little and probably doubled the time it took to attach the sail cover… just when I was pressed for time.

With the sail cover on and hatches latched closed, the loud bangs of thunder around me told me that even though safe harbor was only a mile away (under 10 minutes), I was still going to get slammed. My plan was to continue under power to the lee of Harbor Island if able, and if the engine quit for some reason I’d drop anchor immediately. I noted my compass heading in case lightning killed the autopilot and chartplotter. I hoped any remaining spinnaker sheets or preventer lines were secure and not overboard where they could foul the prop.

The winds went from west at about 8 knots to north at over 40 knots in less than a minute. Despite no sails up at all, Priorities heeled to 10-15 degrees while motoring east towards the lee of the island. The wind instrument peaked at 48 knots, and it felt like it. The bimini shook and zippers started to part while I wondered if the entire canvas structure would blow off the boat all at once. My new solar panels, installed less than two weeks prior, would surely be lost.

For the last several years I’ve secured the boom by tightening the mainsheet and attaching an additional line to the port side handrail to keep the boom from moving. Whenever the boom moves it can make annoying squeaking sounds that make sleep difficult, and chafes the sail cover on the dodger. Unfortunately, the handrail is not strong enough to hold the boom in position against a 48 knot crosswind from the port side.

In one loud bang, the handrail parted from the cabintop, passing through a dodger window on it’s way across the boat. It brought with it the four screws that had held it place, leaving four holes in the fiberglass cabintop. The mainsheet held the boom in place since it’s far stronger than the handrail. More zippers parted. Rainwater began pelting me, as I still wasn’t wearing any foul weather gear. I later discovered that rainwater poured into the aft head as well, since there were now four holes in the top of the boat.

At this point I was incredibly frustrated, since all the time I had spent taking care of the canvas work and installing the solar panels was about to be swept away in seconds. This was also the beginning of several weeks in the North Channel, and not having a dodger, bimini, or solar panels would be frustrating. I considered heading directly into the wind since I think the dodger may be stronger into the wind, but the apparent wind would increase as well if I headed up.

Lightning struck very close to me, with less than a second between the flash and the thunder. I avoided getting close to the backstay since it reaches skyward to the top of the mast, and minimized my contact with the wheel since it connects earthward to the rudder post via cables. Fortunately, fresh water is not a very good conductor of electricity, so Priorities was not a good enough path to ground for any lightning today. Having a mast above my head, and a metal bimini support structure around me, might have provided some protection from me getting too hurt from a lightning strike. Or so I told myself.

I reached the protection of Harbor Island, motoring to the south side of the island to avoid the north wind. The winds subsided to under 30 knots, and the water was flat. Not wanting to go out on deck with the lightning around and touch a metal chain that actually would be a decent path to ground when the anchor touched bottom, I slowed as much I could and held position with the motor, waiting for the storm to pass.

When it was all done, the damage to Priorities was generally pretty minor. Though the repairs will be annoying, it’s not enough to prevent me from spending another few weeks cruising the beautiful waters of Lake Huron’s North Channel.

With an eye out for Mother Nature, of course.

Luckily minor damage after ripping out the port cabintop handrail


South Manitou Island

On my northeast-bound trip to Lake Huron’s North Channel this year I got to make a stop at South Manitou Island. South Manitou makes a good stopping point for a bunch of reasons, especially since it’s a large enough anchorage that I feel comfortable arriving there after dark, if needed. The sandy bottom also has good holding. There’s plenty of hiking ashore to be had, too, which gives skipper and crew a break from being on the boat for a few days.  It’s also very close to the most direct route from southern Lake Michigan out to the Mackinac Straits… and Lake Huron, where I was ultimately going.

With a forecast of south winds around 20 knots, I weighed anchor from Portage Lake (another intermediate stop) and set sail for the 42 mile trip. Based on the forecast I figured I’d be dead downwind in decent size waves most of the time, so I set up the whisker pole for the jib and the preventer system for the main. Initial progress was good as I averaged over 7 knots for the first half while sailing wing on wing. When a pair gusty thunderstorms rolled over me I furled the jib to be conservative and not break anything.

The strong south winds increased after the storms moved through to around 25 or so. With a full main and most of the jib still out on the whisker pole on the opposite side, Priorities surged from 6 knots on the backside of the waves to over 10 knots on the front of the waves! The autopilot did a great job, and we made great time.

Low clouds enshrouded the top of the island as we approached, giving it a mystical look. The rusting hulk of a freighter that sank over 50 years ago was visible just off the beach, getting further pounded by the day’s south wind and waves. A jibe of the main just past South Manitou Light brought us west into South Manitou Harbor, and the water flattened and winds diminished as we sailed into the lee of Sandy Point.

Chart of South Manitou Harbor
The 14-22 foot shelf in the WNW corner of the habor is good for anchoring

At first glance of the chart, South Manitou Harbor appears way too deep for pleasure boats to anchor in, since most of it is 80-140 feet deep. However, there is a little shelf of 15-25 foot depths in the WNW corner that is actually big enough for over a dozen boats. I’ve anchored here probably 10 times, and holding has always been excellent in sand. Protection is good from most directions except east through southeast, and even then it’s only about 5 miles of fetch to the mainland. Depths of over 10 feet can be found deceptively close to shore, as well… probably within a boat length.



Sign of Chicago Road
The east end of Chicago Road (now a footpath) is on the beach by the anchorage

This anchorage is at the end of what is known on the island as Chicago Road. Now merely a hiking trail, it was once used to transport wood that ships would use to refuel here. It’s marked with a sign, visible from the anchorage. There was once a wharf here that is now ruins, so don’t anchor too close to the sign. The sign usually has hiking trail maps in it, as well.

The next morning revealed a very clear sky and warm weather. Seeking some exercise, I rowed ashore rather than attach the motor to the dinghy.


Once ashore, I walked a mile to the ranger station in the “Village” near Sandy Point. South Manitou Island is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, so it’s basically a park. Entrance fees are normally paid in Leland, but that was impractical for me coming from the south. A discussion with a ranger got me a mail-in form that I could pay the fee with later (and yeah, I actually plan on doing that!).

I then set out to hike the island, especially the dunes on the west shore.

Hiking a mud and gravel trail about three miles to the west leads to a smaller trail to an overlook of the wreck of the Francisco Morazan. The Morazan was a 246 foot freighter that sank in November of 1960. Much of the hulk is still above the water, and definitely visible from shore.

The wreck of the Morazan is visible from shore
The Francisco Morazan was a 246 foot freighter that sank in November of 1960

After a lunch break, I set out for my ultimate goal of the day: hiking to the top of the dunes. It’s a somewhat strenuous hike. After three miles slightly uphill to the shipwreck overlook, the trail becomes a steeper climb (in sand) to something like another 200 feet in elevation to the highest point on the island.  The view, and scenery, is pretty awesome, though, with the highest point of the island at something like 420 feet above Lake Michigan.


Climbing the back of the dunes just about treetop level, looking east


Looking east from near the top of the dunes. Note the hikers on the trail I had just been on.


Still looking east, South Manitou Harbor and Gull Point is just visible past the treetops, then North Manitou Island, then the mainland Leelanau Peninsula in the far distance.
The top of the dunes


Lots of unmarked trails run over various parts of the top of the dunes
The dune grasses left some interesting marks in the sand


I wonder how old these tree trunks are


A view from the edge of the dune, looking southwest. It’s a steep drop off of around 300+ feet to the water.


Returning the four miles or so to the “Village” area, I got a lighthouse tour from a volunteer ranger. The current lighthouse (the third here) was built in 1871 and decommissioned a while ago, and appears on the chart as “Abandoned,” but it’s in decent shape and worth the climb. The lamp was once whale oil, then kerosene, but now a simple small electric light bulb that probably isn’t over 100 watts. Combined with the magnifying power of the fresnel lens that is still in place, I’ve personally seen it over 15 miles away.

No longer in service as an aid to navigation, tours are available in the South Manitou Light


Off limits to the public, the old lighthouse home has some serious decay


A view of South Manitou Harbor. Several boats are barely visible on the far side of the harbor where it’s more practical to anchor.


A tiny electric lightbulb, when combined with the fresnel lens, is visible over 15 miles away


In all, I spent an entire day exploring South Manitou. My GPS-enabled FitBit recorded over 13 miles of hiking, over 30,000 steps, 281 active minutes of exercise, and quite a bit of elevation change (71 floors). I was tired, but the exercise felt good after being on a sailboat for a few days.

Visitors to the island can arrive via private boat, or via a twice daily ferry service from Leland, Michigan. Hiking all the way to the dunes is a lot to do in a day trip if using the ferry. The ferry is very weather dependent as well due to the island’s remote location. It didn’t run at all on the beautiful day that I was there, which seemed strange to everyone I talked to. There are plenty of rustic campsites on the island.

More information about South Manitou Island can be found on the National Park Service website.

Chasing Tall Ships

This past summer the Tall Ships Challenge, an organized regatta of tall ships from around the world, came to the Great Lakes. Some friends and I were fortunate to tour many of the ships docked at Chicago’s Navy Pier. Just the static tours at Navy Pier was worth a trip, but I really wanted a chance to see them under sail.

One of the races of the Challenge was from Chicago north to Algoma, WI.  A southeast wind in the forecast made it likely much of the fleet would pass near our home port of Milwaukee on a nice broad reach. With a start time of noon in Chicago and very light air the first night, I figured some of the fleet would pass Milwaukee in the daylight hours of the second day of the race.

The chase is on

Getting out of bed at home on the second day of the race, I tracked the fleet on Some of the faster boats, or those which may have started earlier, had already passed Milwaukee in the night. Many were doing around 3 or 4 knots, and though I can motorsail a faster 7 knots, it would have taken all day just to catch up to them.

i-usually-try-to-avoid-ships-rather-than-get-closer-1However, the giant, 198 foot long Brig Niagara from Erie was still lurking 20 miles southeast of Milwaukee doing 3-4 knots north. A friend in a highrise apartment on the south side of town could see the Niagara’s silhouette far on the horizon. If I motorsailed 7.5 knots east northeast and left right away I could catch her. Better yet, with the light winds and the fact this was actually a sailing race, she would have ALL her sails up in a most photogenic configuration.

I grabbed Kristin’s camera, some snacks, and headed down to the boat.

The Niagara

Tall Ship Niagra visible over the horizon
Niagara over the horizon

My first photo was taken just as I left the Milwaukee breakwall, with the Niagara still about 17-18 miles away. Notice how only her rig is visible over the horizon… the hull is over the horizon line.

Figuring out the intercept was a little challenging, especially since I usually try to avoid ships rather than get closer. Since Priorities wasn’t racing, I decided to motorsail in case the winds increased and the Niagara accelerated away too early.

Priorities has AIS, so I’m able to display other AIS equipped vessels positions on my chartplotter, along with their track, speed, and Closest Point of Approach (CPA) in real time.

Going roughly twice as fast as the Niagara meant I needed to steer Priorities such that I kept the Niagara around 35-40 degrees to starboard of my bow. This brought the CPA to nearly zero, confirming my geometry. Steering back a little to port (farther north), meant I’d pass a little in front of her.

Brig Niagara under full sail
Crossing just ahead of the Niagara.

After an hour and a half of motorsailing, I was comfortably in front of her with about a mile between us. I shut the motor off, and continued under full sail. Ten knots of wind, flat water, and clear skies make for a beautiful day!

Crossing her bow with plenty of room, I tightened up and then tacked to port while staying windward of her. I took the third photo as we passed offshore, with Milwaukee about 18 miles in the distance.

Niagara passing Milwaukee.

I felt fortunate the angle of the sun relative to the sails was the way it was for the fourth photo. Even her dinghy (or is it a “launch” on this size of ship?) had her sails up in the light air. I wonder if that was race legal…



Around then I noticed a target somewhat to windward on my radar with no AIS target associated with it. Based on the size of the signature, I figured it was another Tall Ship, so I set up to intercept her as well.


It was the Brigantine Playfair from Toronto, with a cool sailplan.  I’ll have to figure out what the sail poled out to starboard is called. In the next photo, you can see the Niagara in the distance.

Tallship Playfair undersail
Playfair with Niagara far ahead.

El Galeon Andalucia

El Galleon Andelucia, from Seville, Spain
El Galeon Andalucia, from Seville, Spain. Note the crew member climbing the rig.

Many miles behind was the 164 foot El Galeon Andalucia, from Seville, Spain. Not racing, she still participated in the shoreside tours, and was one of the more interesting ships we had toured two days before in Chicago. I was able to get some cool, rare photos of El Galeon under sail about 10 miles offshore and email them to her captain upon his request.

It ended up being a long day, and I ended up going about 50 miles mostly under sail and all singlehanded. The adventure was worth it!

Priorities and El Galeon Andalucia
Priorities and El Galeon Andalucia