Mike Lee and his family rented a 35-foot catamaran and headed out on Grand Traverse Bay for four days of quality time with each other.

This story was featured in the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy. 

I held tight to the video cam strapped to my head. Three, two, one!

My legs instinctively sprang forward, sending me hurtling through the air from the bow of the 35-foot catamaran toward the cool water below. The water was as clear as a pane of glass, giving the illusion that it was only inches—not nine feet—deep.

In the nanosecond that I was airborne, my mind questioned the decision to jump—was it really just inches deep? Broken legs could be the result of my bad judgment. Sploosh! In a flash, my body felt a sense of cool relief from the hot humid day as I slowly let myself sink toward the sandy bottom of Bowers Harbor. I watched the frenzy of bubbles from my leap rise and dissipate, and slowly the bow of the sailboat became visible.

I touched the top of my head; good, the video cam was still there. I slowly swam toward the underside of the boat, fantasizing that my video sequence would get a million hits on the Internet. I marveled at how, from my point of view in transparent water, the sailboat looked like some kind of odd aircraft hovering above the earth. This remarkable freshwater clarity is something you don’t experience just anywhere. Grand Traverse Bay is the exception.

Hours before anchoring in Bowers Harbor, we had started the four-day sailing trip tied in the slip … waiting … followed by … more waiting. A good chunk of the day was spent docked in the safety of the marina, while most of Michigan was tormented by severe weather. My wife, Marianne, will tell you that whenever sailing is involved, I’m not good at waiting. With the excitement to get underway building, the nervous energy on our catamaran intensified, not just within me, but within everyone—and between us. Yet there sat the five of us—my wife, sister, niece and our wiggly two-year-old daughter, Maddy, mustering as much patience as we could until the fronts moved past.

To give the trip a memorable aspect, we had invited my sister Becky and her daughter Kaitlyn to join us. They love anything to do with water and are always up for a good adventure, but they were new to sailing. I’m always eager to share my enthusiasm for sailing with whomever is interested, so this was a great opportunity for everyone. Also, both Becky and Kaitlyn are from the Wisconsin side of the lake (as I was at one time), and they had never been to Grand Traverse Bay.

Being a Wisconsin native, every time I visit the Traverse City area I always feel a tinge of envy, because my home state doesn’t quite have the same beautiful shoreline. It’s certainly nice, but nothing like Grand Traverse Bay. A sailboat would be an unforgettable way for Becky and Kaitlyn to explore the bays and peninsulas here, which I’d guess even many Michiganders have never tried. A few weeks previously, I had received an email from Becky with an 11-point questionnaire about sailboat cruising: “Do we need bed linens, or should we bring sleeping bags? Are there showers? What are the sleeping arrangements? Do I need to bring my pillow? Is there a refrigerator? Do we ever get off the boat? Do we need life jackets?” They were all good questions. I answered them while resisting the temptation to be a smart-alec brother, because if someone has never been on a sailing trip before, how would he or she ever know how to prepare?

To make the trip happen, Great Lakes Sailing Company in Traverse City provided the 35-foot cruising catamaran—plenty of boat for our small crew. However, being a sailor my whole life, I had many reservations about a cruising catamaran. Cruising cats, unlike fast-sailing Hobie Cats featuring two sleek hulls, are typically slow and clumsy. Yet Dave Conrad, the owner of Great Lakes Sailing Company, was very enthusiastic about this particular cruising catamaran and urged us to give it a try.

I resisted, but suddenly the light bulb in my brain went off when I remembered that a cruising cat can get into some very shallow places a traditional sailboat can’t. Traverse Bay is loaded with beautiful shallow bays that could be a lot of fun to explore. Why not! So there we were on day one, motoring out of the marina with two nonsailors, a toddler, myself, and my wife on a 35-foot cruising cat en route to Bowers Harbor.

All photos by Marianne Lee

While heading north under sail, and as we neared the lower portion of Bowers Harbor, we were greeted by a paddle boarder who was paddling hard. His passion for his sport was evident in his carbon-fiber board that featured an extra-pointy bow for speed. Slightly odd, however, was that this paddle-boarder was fairly far offshore and miles from any harbor. While we sailed along, he paddled alongside, said hello, and kept pace with us. As his paddle dug in, the scene reminded me of the 1979 classic cycling movie Breaking Away, where Dave, the young bike racer, drafts behind a semi-truck while the truck driver gives him hand signals indicating his speed. In a sense, the paddler too was drafting off our large sail, keeping himself perfectly in the wind-shadow.

I looked down at our knot meter (speed) and shouted to him, “Five point two knots!” He nodded and dug in with more ambition. I trimmed the sailboat for more speed. “Five point nine!” He grinned and paddled harder. In the light breeze I was limited to how fast I could get the sailboat to move. Slowly he began to pass us. We kept this up for several more minutes until it was time for us to change course; we waved and parted ways. Shortly after, we were anchored in Bowers Harbor.

On sailing trips, I like to give everyone a job to be responsible for. It takes a lot of pressure off me, and gives the others a chance to participate in the trip rather than just going along for the ride. I gave 16-year-old Kaitlyn the job of head cook, with her mom Becky as her assistant. I was a little worried they might feel I gave them the ditch-digger job no one else wanted. But that first evening at anchor in Bowers Harbor, as the boat gently rocked from side-to-side in small waves, I heard a lot of giggling coming from the galley as frying pans scrinched back-and-forth, liquids sloshed, and an occasional utensil hit the floor. They were having a blast learning how to cook with everything in constant and unpredictable motion.

Soon, a nice taco dinner with all the fixings arrived at the table. After the trip, my sister Becky confessed to me that doing the cooking was her favorite part of the trip. I was relieved it was a job they so enjoyed.

While cruising big water on a sailboat was new to my sis and her girl, life at anchor was new for them too. In my opinion, short of a couple of strong sleeping pills, being isolated on the water is about as relaxing an experience as anyone can ever have. There’s nowhere to go, you’re contained in a luxury 35-foot fiberglass environment, and the scenery is spectacular.

When anchored out in a quiet inlet somewhere, you can’t hop in the car and go to a restaurant or anywhere else for that matter. Electricity needs to be used sparingly as everything runs on batteries (meaning no TV or movies), and no one really knows you’re there. Both Becky and Kaitlyn were fully prepared with a stack of fresh-from-the-bookstore novels. Every time I looked, Kaitlyn was relaxing with a book in a new spot on the boat. I think her favorite place was up on the bow where she could lie out, read a little, watch some clouds float past, and watch the sun set.

Becky, however, parked herself in the cockpit. Book in hand, and a cold microbrew within easy reach, she was very content watching an eagle in a nest on the shore. For me, I loved the 2 a.m. walk-about, when I checked to make sure we hadn’t moved and we were safe. Each night, the stars were ablaze from horizon-to-horizon. The final night, I was treated to the northern lights. It’s the isolation that makes the anchoring experience so rich.

In a place like Grand Traverse Bay, the swim call gives a sailing trip that extra little zing. Most beach-bound vacationers, and probably a good portion of Michiganders, are unaware of the jewel beyond the shoreline that is Grand Traverse Bay. When the sun shines through the shallows, the water is turquoise blue with a hard-packed sandy bottom. At the outer edges, where the bottom drops off, the color quickly turns dark.

I usually tried to make sure we were anchored by early afternoon so the warmest part of the day could be spent in the water. Becky and Kaitlyn’s second favorite activity was to make stylish jumps off the boat’s bow, then quickly scramble up the transom swim ladder and do it again. My favorite thing to do was swim under the boat, which I had purposely anchored in very shallow water so I could measure the distance from keel to sand. It sounds pointless, but a sailor can appreciate it. I was measuring less than an arm’s length. It was the ability of the catamaran to get in shallow areas that made the swim-call a key part of the trip.

Because a catamaran has two hulls, when the wind hits the sails it doesn’t need a long, deep keel with a counter-weight to keep it from tipping over. For that reason, the boat only draws only 2 1/2 feet; about as deep as a large outboard motor. At this depth, the boat can be anchored almost anywhere, and with the soft sandy lake bottom (even if your math is a bit off on the depth), the hulls shouldn’t get damaged if you scrape bottom.

The other advantage of no counter-weight is it makes a boat lighter. And anytime a boat is lighter, it will always be faster. This became quickly evident when a gust hit us, and the boat took off like a scared horse out of a barn. What fun! A traditional boat would have heeled over farther, with little noticeable speed increase.

But, hands down, the true advantage of the catamaran for the new sailors was its stability. When sailing in bigger waves, without a doubt the newbies would have been seasick, and seasickness is a miserable, miserable experience. Plus, the ill feeling intensifies when one goes below deck and can’t see the horizon. However, even on our roughest days, Kaitlyn and Becky were below, cooking grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, with the boat bouncing only slightly. Unknown to them, seasickness would have put a huge dark cloud over a great trip.

Somewhere around the second day, my crew strongly suggested that a land expedition was required—whether I wanted one or not. I chose ‘not’ and stayed behind. After anchoring, they were off in the dinghy to explore the town of Suttons Bay and to see what main street had to offer. An hour later, the crew reported they had fun poking about while on the hunt for something to nibble on and fancy coffee to wash it down. The art galleys also gave their explorations a touch of culture. Niece Kaitlyn later told me that getting out and exploring was the part of the trip she liked best. Hopefully, she’ll hang onto that memory for a long time.

Anchored in Old Mission Harbor, the last evening aboard arrived much too soon. Marianne motored about in the dinghy filling up gigs of data cards photographing the darkening sky. I was in the forward berth helping young Maddy fall asleep. It was probably one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve ever had; Maddy asleep in my arms, the view of the northwoods visible past the wrap-around window, the smell of campfires drifting from shore, the sky turning dark orange, and the deep still silence. How does one hang onto this one valuable moment in time, knowing that soon it will be just a memory in the rearview mirror?

My mind drifted to thoughts about the four days that went by so quickly. I was glad to expose Becky and Kaitlyn to new experiences—sailboat cruising and the beauty of Grand Traverse Bay. Hopefully our trip will be locked in their memories for a long time to come. I suspect that someday they’ll be back.

Meet Your Captain

If you are saying to yourself, “exploring Grand Traverse Bay by sailboat sounds exciting, but I’ve never sailed before, so I’ll never get the chance to experience it.” Or, “Learning to sail could be fun, but I don’t have time to invest in lessons.” No worries. What most people don’t realize is that knowing how to sail is not a requirement. All charter (rental) boats, along with an extra fee, are available with a certified captain who will manage all the boat handling. If anchoring in quiet bays is not quite your style; it doesn’t matter. With a captain you can tie up in a slip each night, and experience fine dining at local restaurants. What a captain won’t do is the cooking and cleaning. He just gets the sailboat safely to the destination you desire.

Get Sailing Savvy—for Free

Without a doubt, the best deal in sailing is being a crewmember on a race boat. The hardest challenge most racing sailboat owners have is finding good crew members. It’s like filling the positions on a Wednesday night softball team—If there’s no one to play third base, it’s hard to play ball. It’s the same with racing. For each part of the sailboat, there’s a specific position requiring a person to handle it.

To become a crewmember, knowing how to sail is always a good skill, but certainly not a requirement. In the spring, many sailing clubs will have a crew drive, welcoming both experienced and inexperienced sailors. As long as you are eager to learn and always jump in to lend a hand, most boat owners will welcome you back with open arms. It’s the best deal going because not only do you get to sail, but there’s none of the boat owner’s hassles that come along with ownership—boat payments, slip fees, maintenance, and winter storage. In some cases the owner will even provide a great sandwich, cold beer, and snacks. What more could anyone possibly want! But wait! The best unexpected benefit is the lifetime of friendships that are made over the years. Speaking for myself, nearly every friend I have, including my wife, I’ve met through sailing. That’s hard to beat!

Northern Michigan Boating

Photo(s) by Marianne Lee