Northern Michigan Boating with the Unsalted Island Hopping Flotilla

`Seven sailboats left Traverse City with the simple mission of tagging Great Lakes islands—including Mackinac Island, Beaver Island and a chain of islets south of the Upper Peninsula—and letting the wind shape their unique Northern Michigan boating adventure.  The following essay was first featured in the June 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.  Text by Mike Lee. Photos by Marianne Lee.

The Might Mac in the background

Approaching the Mackinac Bridge on a foggy night.


It had been nearly 10 years since I’d raced in the Chicago to Mac and sailed through the narrow gap of Gray’s Reef at the western entrance to Mackinac Straits. I wasn’t competing on this trip, but the approach to Gray’s was just as intense, and my stress levels were rising by the mile. The reason: just 20 minutes before having to negotiate the treacherous reef, fog had smothered us. Visibility was barely to the end of the bow. Use whatever analogy you like: pea soup, molasses, gray muck, clam chowder. We were in the thick of it.

Gray’s Reef is a 5-mile-long narrow-ish passageway at the north tip of Lake Michigan that funnels all vessels, big and small, from Lake Michigan to the other Great Lakes. With the array of electronics available to the average boater, navigating is usually not an issue. A quick tap on the screen and our location is exact. However, the one electronic device we didn’t have was radar. We were blindfolded to other vessels that might also be floating in the fog soup. And we knew there were several; all seven boats of our Unsalted Island Hopping Flotilla were in the same vicinity, nearing Gray’s in the fog.

Then it happened, I heard the one thing I least wanted to hear, and my heart started to race. “Sécurité, sécurité, sécurité …” broadcast over the radio. It was a northbound 1000-foot lake-freighter making a general safety announcement to all vessels in the area. Like our flotilla, the ship was also 20 minutes from entering Gray’s Reef and, like us, motoring northbound. If we got there first, the lake freighter would sneak up behind us like an alley cat about to pounce on a blind mouse because freighters steam at 13 knots while our top speed was only 7. With the ship’s powerful radar, the captain certainly saw all seven of our boats, but because of the freighter’s size, it takes a laker several minutes to actually stop, and to steer clear is simply out of the question. I can imagine the salty language taking place in the lake freighter’s pilot house as the crew scrutinized the seven dots scattered about on the radar screen. Maritime rules dictate that it was our responsibility to stay out of the ship’s way … if we only knew exactly where it was.

TVM0614_UNSALTED7Then we rolled snake-eyes. Immediately after the “sécurité” announcement, there was a second announcement from a southbound lake freighter also 20 minutes out. Most of the time Gray’s is desolate and lonely, so what were the odds two ships would arrive simultaneously in on-coming directions?! It was going to be a party in the narrow mile-and-a-half passageway: two lake freighters coming at each other with seven sailboats scattered in-between. In 40 plus years of sailing, this was a first for me, and I was not convinced of a good outcome.

As we entered the foggy passage blind, right on cue, a deep horn blared through the gray mist sending chills up the back of my neck. Though we could see nothing, the warning signal did provide us a bearing on the northbound. We knew it was just off to our starboard (right) passing at what we hoped was a safe distance. But the sense of safe distance quickly evaporated when the laker came so close I could hear the thumping of its powerful diesel engines. Where exactly was it? I listened hard. It sure sounded like the ship was passing us. Two long minutes later the northbound ship sounded another horn confirming it was indeed passing safely.

But what about the southbound? It should be aimed right at us, yet it wasn’t sounding a horn. “Follow the rules of the road” was the safest bet; the ship stays on its side, we stay on ours. I took up a position on the bow where it was quieter and listened hard for the sound of a churning diesel engine. Nothing. Only our bow wave made a slight splashing sound as it cut though the water. The imagination can conjure crazy things in a situation like that. You think you see a massive hull of a freighter ghosting out of the fog, but maybe not. Suddenly you’re convinced you heard an engine, but maybe it was just something rolling around below deck. Nerves get a little jumpy.

Before realizing how long we had been in the passage, a green bell buoy materialized out of the fog indicating we should turn east toward the Mackinac Bridge. Our ride at the fun-house was suddenly over too: just like that our boat gradually pushed out of the fog. Relief. All seven of our sailboats in the Unsalted Island Hopping flotilla made it without incident to a safe dock on Mackinac Island, with the guarantee that fog stories would still be flying the next day. But where did that southbound go?

Click the arrows in the upper-right corner of the gallery to enlarge images; hit “Escape” button on keyboard to exit full-screen:

Slide show photos by Marianne Lee.

It all started for my wife and me several days earlier, after a long long road trip to get to the Unsalted Island Hopping event in Grand Traverse Bay. When we arrived in Michigan we were greeted by a bright yellow jeep in front of us with the little stick figure dude on the spare tire cover, telling us “Life is Good.” I had to ask myself, when is life good? Certainly not sitting in traffic behind a jeep blowing exhaust at us.

As for myself, life is good, if not best, when sailing and exploring new places with maybe a beach involved. That’s just me, though, and probably isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Then the little voice in my head reminded me, “You’re going to get to do all three on the Great Lakes.” I began to get excited.

The idea to island hop was the brainstorm of Dave Conrad and his gang at Great Lakes Sailing Co. (formerly Bay Breeze Yacht Charters) in Traverse City. Why not bring together a group of sailors to explore the upper reaches of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and check off as many islands as weather and sailing skill allowed. There are more islands up in that region than most people realize, with many uninhabited. Discovering new-to-you islands was a way to bring out everyone’s inner Shackleton right in the middle of the United States.

Then, like all good ideas, the mission grew. Why not add a few new sailors to the mix who were studying for their American Sailing Association certification, and put them on a boat with a captain (instructor), while experiencing the fun of sailboat cruising. The fleet grew from three boats to a proper flotilla of seven with the single goal of exploring islands. The group was a mix of people mostly from the Midwest. Some were landlocked, some not—each had his or her own reasons for joining the flotilla. One couple from Lansing, training for their ASA certifications, has the dream of someday sailing across the Atlantic. Island Hopping was the perfect way to gain experience while taking courses. Another couple, who were also part of the ASA program, wanted something exciting they could do together when the day comes to retire. Jerry Hardin, who owns a 40’ sailboat and is retired, sailed his boat solo, with friends joining him here and there, from Port Clinton on Lake Erie to Grand Traverse Bay. He thought the event sounded kind of cool, and the Island Hopping leg became part of his two-month sail to Chicago. In sailing, the weather is the boss. And lately the boss seems to be a bit cranky.

There was a strange brew of tropical storm Andrea immediately followed by a strong Nor’easter — extremely early in the season for the East Coast. Add to that the deadly tornadoes that leveled Moore, Oklahoma, wildfires spreading across the western states, plus a few biblical floods thrown in for good measure. On upper Lake Michigan the five-day forecast was starting to look like a rodeo of powerful weather fronts, and we were going to be the rodeo clowns.

There were no set plans for our destination because, in a most literal sense, we were going to go wherever the wind was going to blow us. With the raucous weather forecast, deciding a destination was extremely difficult for the fleet captains. The captains, responsible for everyone’s safety, wanted to spend nights in secure, sheltered marinas where they wouldn’t have to worry if the wind wanted to knock us around a bit. The plans changed dozens of times in a very short period. Tension and frustration began to build among the group as most wanted to island hop. But despite the forecasts, in the end the weather gave in and stopped sending fronts. Off we went to find some islands.

Many people know of Mackinac Island, home of fudge and horses, some know about Beaver Island, the big island 25 miles northwest of Charlevoix, but can the average Michigander locate High, Government, Saint Martin, or any of the many islands in between? (Using the “Mitten Map” on your hand won’t work.) In Lake Michigan alone there are 42 islands belonging wholly or in part to the public. Many are heavily forested. Some have only a handful of residents, while others are totally uninhabited. What strikes me as unbelievable are the number of islands rimmed with turquoise water and lined with long beautiful beaches … and not a person within miles. If a premier resort ever discovered one of these secluded islands, there would be a high-rise on it and an umbrella drink served before you could say “Petoskey.”

For our unsalted crew, the thrill of discovery starts by looking at the chart (map) and noticing some little, remote island we hadn’t noticed before. Then the “what if” starts to brew. With a finger pointing to a dot on the chart, someone says, “what if we sail over here … we could anchor off this island.” Then with no real logic to the route, because logic is not the point, the flotilla is off to discover a new island. I imagine it must be something like the thrill French explorers had centuries before as their Native American companions guided them across the lakes. Beaver, Mackinac, Les Cheneaux, Government, and High were the only islands we actually tagged that week on the water.

The potential was there for five times as many, but with sailboat cruising, that’s sometimes just how it rolls. There’s a certain coconut rum-drink attitude required that you can’t take anything, especially destinations, too seriously. If you do, you might as well stick with rush hour traffic—destination, your workplace! As the saying goes, “It’s the journey that counts, not the destination.” And so it was with the Island Hopping adventure. While there weren’t as many islands tagged as hoped, the real adventure was the journey. It was the journey, after all, that put us in the foggy soup of Gray’s Reef, which now makes for a great story to tell while enjoying a cold one. There was some sailing and even more motoring, there were a handful of islands landed, but in the end it was always about the journey. The yellow Jeep was right, “Life is Good.”


June 2014 Red Hot Best of Northern Michigan issue of Traverse MagazineMore Northern Michigan Boating

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