Northern Michigan Attractions: People come from all over the world to boat on Traverse City’s West Bay. The sunset painting Mission Peninsula orange, specks of beachgoers wading in the distance, a breeze off the water that is as pure as it gets. Boat rentals and chartered excursions are all advertised around Grand Traverse Bay, but one boat in particular is worth seeking out. The Champion, a sailboat that looks as though it has come straight from the 19th century, offers an elegant, unhurried sailing experience for six passengers. Still, her day job is even more impressive. She doubles as a vessel of hope and learning for local children that come from homes of abuse and neglect.
Traverse City’s SAIL Champion Program, a therapeutic sailing program for at-risk youth, was established in 2008 and created by Mental Wellness Counseling and the Maritime Heritage Alliance. It is the only boat that has on-board licensed therapy in the country. Monday through Friday kids learn the basic skills of sailing, but more importantly better themselves. Although the youth program is only a week long, the benefits from one-on-one therapy sessions and the challenges of operating a sailboat last long past the summer.
The program is one-of-a-kind in itself, but so is the sailboat. The “boat’s incredible”, says longtime charter captain, Rorke Miller. Harbor Springs resident and C.E.O. and Founder of the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History, Henry Borkhausen, donated the 52-foot vessel for the program. The previous owner wanted a classic piece built, not just any sleek, motorized yacht, thus the sailboat was built in a traditional, 1870’s cutter style. In addition, Borkhausen wanted a boat that his family of six could operate. The Champion is a registered Tall Ship, but one of the smallest of that class. Everything about her is miniaturized. For the SAIL Champion Program this means that the six girls or boys on board get intense hands on experience, operating a sailboat, gaining self-confidence, and acquiring other invaluable skills. To put things in perspective, Champion has 27 lines (or ropes). A little Sunfish has 2.
While the Champion is occupied Monday through Friday until 4pm, the elegant Tall Ship is also available for private charters. All of the funds from these trips go directly to making the SAIL Champion Program possible. “Charters make our program run,” says Captain Rorke. Hourly-rated cruises, day packages, unique overnight opportunities, and even team-building sails are all offered weekday evenings and anytime over the weekend. Excursions to Power Island, docking for dinner at the Boathouse Restaurant, or pulling in at Bower’s Harbor (where, fun fact, Champion was featured in the Hollywood hit, Hide Away) are all summertime favorites.
For those that appreciate an older, slower pace, taking a sunset cruise aboard the Champion- without the iPhone- is summer perfection. Yet, even more important, the funds from these chartered outings go straight to impacting the lives of at-risk youth in the area. To book a ticket and learn more about the SAIL Champion Program, visit sailchampion.org or call 231-577-WIND.