I board the Schooner Manitou for her season finale: a four-day cruise from Traverse City. Cell phones off. Ports of call unknown. We’re heading wherever the wind blows with Traverse Tall Ship Company.
Featured in the September 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
My good friend Wenche suggested we go on a sailing cruise on Traverse City’s tall ship Manitou, home-ported on West Grand Traverse Bay. A cruise on Grand Traverse Bay and Lake Michigan? Sign me up! I had dreams of glorious gentle breezes, and warm September days. The possibility of late afternoon swims off Manitou danced in my head…
Tall ship Manitou is a striking and familiar sight in West Bay. She sails three times a day in the summer. And when the season winds down after Labor Day, she goes out for some exciting extended cruises in September.
I soon discovered that much of the fun of this four–and-a-half-day cruise is that you don’t know exactly where you’re going. The website promised a sail from Traverse City to some beloved Lake Michigan ports … we might visit the Manitou Islands, Old Mission, Northport and perhaps even Charlevoix.
What makes this particular trip special is the voyage on the vessel itself. Manitou is a schooner-replica—a gaff-rigged 114-ft. beauty that was typical of schooners that graced Lake Michigan in the 1800s.
In typical seamanship fashion, I recorded my musings in a log…
Tuesday, Day 1
We board the ship at 6:30 this evening. Our gregarious captain, Brett Derr, meets us at the gangway. I can immediately tell we’re in for a fun trip. First impression of the captain? This guy doesn’t look like a captain of a tall ship—he looks like a cowboy from the Wild West, straight down to his cowboy boots. (More on this later.)
Crewmembers whisk our luggage away to our cabins. Each passenger gets a quick tour of the vessel.
Manitou’s uber-efficient first mate, Brianna, reminds us to grab the brass railings, and descend the ladders backward. (By the end of the trip, we’re proficient at carrying our souvenir Manitou mugs up and down the ladders without spilling a drop of coffee or wine.)
The galley, salon (ship-speak for dining room) and our cabins are below deck.
The two combined head/showers are up on deck. I admire the gorgeous woodwork and gleaming brass. The entire vessel is pristine.
I settle in to unpack—I realize I brought too much stuff.
Each cozy cabin is equipped with reading lights, extra blankets and thankfully, a porthole that can be opened for some fresh air—with some acrobatics required from the top bunk.
Even at the dock, there’s a gentle roll, with creaks and noises to get used to. The crew explains this is why boarding takes place the night before the cruise—to get people accustomed to the boat and find their “sea legs.”
I fall asleep to a light drizzle, with Manitou rhythmically swaying and creaking. I pray the weather will improve…
Wednesday, Day 2
The smell of fresh coffee wafts down to the cabin, and I head topside to be greeted by a cloudy, blustery day.
At 7 a.m. a “soft breakfast”—an informal spread of coffee and fresh muffins—greets the early risers on deck, lovingly prepared by Chef Lexi. The brass breakfast bell rings promptly at 8 a.m. for a full spread.
Lexi knocks our socks off with this first breakfast. A vegetable frittata, cantaloupe, sausage and piping hot coffee are the perfect fuel for the day ahead. Captain Brett gives us a hilarious safety speech, but it’s clear that safety of crew and passengers are his highest priority.
After breakfast, we head topside while the crew readies Manitou for departure. Brianna gives an expertly detailed explanation of the sails and lines. Since this is a windjammer cruise, passengers are encouraged to help with sailing tasks, or any of the other tasks on board, including kitchen duty. I pitch in to help raise the foresail. It’s an absolutely exhilarating moment when the sails fill with a satisfying “whoosh.” We laugh and cheer. We’re off! I’m having an Up North moment, and find myself just a little choked up because this is so cool.
Manitou seems to fly straight north, up the blue expanse of West Bay.
We marvel at crewmember Aaron’s Spider-Man skills as he climbs the rope ladder to inspect the rigging high above the deck. I breathe a sigh of relief when he safely climbs back down.
There are always lines to be handled on deck, and crewmember John gives us great tips to keeping it all ship-shape. He’s in perpetual motion.
That afternoon, we sail up near Eastport, and then tack around past the iconic lighthouse at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula and head into the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay.
I’m amazed at just how big the bay feels when you’re out in the middle of it. Even familiar landmarks are hard to spot. When we approach the 45th Parallel, Wenche and I try to see landmarks on the shore of East Bay, where we both own cottages. Even with binoculars, it’s hard to see what we’re looking at. Perspective is everything. It’s so majestic, and makes me feel so small.
The sun finally comes out about 5 p.m. We lower the sails and drop anchor at Old Mission Bay, in the snug little cove in front of Haserot Beach.
After dinner that evening, a few of us jump into the dinghy captained by Brett. I capture a pretty shot of Manitou. The lighting is delicious. Moments later, we pull up on the shore of Haserot Beach and make the mile-long walk to the iconic Old Mission General Store. Afterward, we get in the dinghy and head back to the mother ship under cover of darkness. The evening lanterns are lit on Manitou’s deck. It’s stunning.
Thursday, Day 3
It’s a crisp, sun-dappled morning.
After another fabulous breakfast, we (well, mostly the guys) haul up the 500 lb. portside anchor, which requires a lot of teamwork and manpower. One passenger remarks that the effort is like “shoveling snow.” It takes us a while to tack out of Old Mission Bay because it is so windy. Brett tells us the wind is blowing about 20 knots and we sail with three sails—reefed. Lexi emerges with a delicious, hearty soup, served on the deck, as it’s just too tippy to eat lunch down below. Manitou is doing an impressive 8-plus knots, despite having reefed sails.
Brett checks in with each passenger, making sure everybody is comfortable because, as he says with gusto, “It’s a bouncy ride!”
The captain is clearly enjoying this incredible wind. “Some of the best wind we’ve ever had!” he enthuses.
I’m happy I’m wearing lots of layers, including wind pants, hat, gloves and scarf. It feels more like November, not September. We laugh like kids at the occasional cold spray flying over the boat.
My fantasy about taking a swim later today evaporated hours ago.
The conditions, however, make dinner prep challenging for Chef Lexi. Undaunted, she brings her large bowl topside, and sits on top of the aft cabin whisking egg whites for our chocolate mousse tonight.
We spend the day doing a lot of tacking in the bay. Brett says it’s too windy today to head into the open waters of Lake Michigan and up to Charlevoix. I express some disappointment—how cool would it be to come through the channel into Charlevoix and have the bridge open just for us?
I want to ask if I can go out in the dinghy with one of the crew to get a shot of Manitou under sail. Looking at the big waves and wind, it doesn’t seem like a good idea.
Later, we turn around and head for Northport, near the northeastern edge of the Leelanau Peninsula. Brett deftly maneuvers Manitou into the marina with the help of her diesel engine. It’s like threading a needle. Crewmembers Brianna and Gus scramble into the dinghy to help guide us in. There are no berths large enough to accommodate a vessel of this size, but we are able to tie her up along the breakwall.
The harbormaster’s office in Northport has modern and clean facilities—hot showers! It’s too cold to use Manitou’s showers, since they’re not heated. Several passengers decide to explore the delightful harbor town of Northport, just steps from the marina.
We’re all enjoying the camaraderie that develops on these kinds of trips. There are 19 passengers—mostly Michiganders and a few out-of-staters. There are singles, couples, friends and a father-daughter duo. Many great conversations start on deck, as well as during those family-style meals. I switch tables every meal to get to know all of these interesting people. Evening relaxation involves reading, cards, conversations and just chilling out. People are using their phones only to take photos. All look happy and relaxed.
I casually ask Captain Brett where he learned to sail. (Never, never assume that someone with such great sailing skills grew up sailing.)
“I didn’t—I’m from Wyoming.” I think he’s joking. He’s not.
As a kid, the captain dreamed of becoming a lighthouse keeper or a captain. He left college for awhile, made his way to Florida where he became a crew member on a tall ship. He eventually graduated from college, but the lure of life as a tall ship captain was irresistible.
“See that flag up there? That’s the ‘Rocky Mountain Navy.’” Brett points to the black and white captain’s flag that flies off one of the sails. On this flag there’s a bison, an anchor and four stars that represent the four guys from out west who are now tall ship captains. The same flag is replicated on his personal coffee mug, which is almost always in his hand.
He’s eloquent about the romance of tall ship sailing: “A tall ship allows us a time capsule to take us back to an earlier time of human interaction with water. We can close our eyes and envision giant ships crashing through the waves carrying cargo to the far ends of the earth, all at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he says.
“For thousands of years, time was set by the wind and the waves and the folks that sailed them,” he explains. “To be able to step back in time, unplug ourselves from the noise of modern society on a tall ship is such a wonderful opportunity.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Friday, Day 4
We leave Northport and head north until we are about 8 miles south of Charlevoix. I spot the huge cement plant in Charlevoix in the distance, as well as a freighter far out into Lake Michigan. After the discussion of unplugging, he pulls out his phone to check an app that identifies Great Lakes freighters; it’s really kind of humorous. And of course, Manitou has radar and all the modern navigational aids, and a diesel engine that’s only used for navigating the marinas.
It’s so cold and windy with some impressive waves! I’m getting windburn.
Today’s lunch is tomato bisque with homemade bread. It really hits the spot.
Some passengers take a turn at the helm, including me. I’ve never steered a sailboat larger than a 22-footer; I’m a bit nervous. I feel the power of the wind and the responsibility of steering Manitou. It’s exhilarating!
All of us on board are impressed by the skills and teamwork of this energetic, hardworking crew of six. We also note that they are extremely polite to one another.
I mention this to the captain, complimenting him on his crew and his leadership.
“I can teach anybody how to sail. I can’t teach teamwork and work ethic.”
Sometimes, he hires people with restaurant experience and NO sailing experience, he says, because he knows how hard they can work.
His own work ethic is remarkable. For example, crewmembers take turns doing a two-hour night watch, including the captain. “I won’t ask my crew to do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Chef Lexi usually stands the early morning watch because she rises around 4:30 a.m. to start breakfast prep. And since great food is critical to the passengers and crew, Chef Lexi delivers. She’s a formally trained chef, and works with her assistant, Gus, to crank out three amazing meals a day for the 19 passengers and six crewmembers. Cooking is done with a wood stove, including baking bread and cookies.
After lunch, a few of us stay in the galley and help Lexi with some dinner prep. Manitou heads back down West Bay, and drops anchor in the harbor at Suttons Bay for our last night of the trip. We see a rainbow, and the sun is peeking out. We’re close enough to see and hear the strains of a marching band on shore—it’s Friday night football! Our last dinner is a hearty chicken curry with a side of pineapple salsa. Wine bottles are shared. There’s music and singing later…
Saturday, Day 5
We wake up to sunny skies, and temps hovering in the mid-40s. It’s really looking like fall in Suttons Bay—we notice the trees on the shore are starting to change colors.
Brett tells us that in a few days, Manitou is headed across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, for a required Coast Guard Inspection of her hull.
Then, Manitou sails back to Traverse City where she will be tucked in for the winter, and readied for another season of sailing on Grand Traverse Bay.
It’s a short sail back into Traverse City, where we gather for a group photo and say our goodbyes and thanks to the crew.
What a terrifically fun week of great sailing, great camaraderie, and unbelievable food. Tall ship cruising it turns out, is the ultimate, and a most welcome, unplug.
Kathy Belden is a freelance writer and consultant. She has a lot of Up North cred despite making her home in Canton, Ohio.