Cruising Uphill

Tim McKenna explores sailing on the Great Lakes

December 2017 Feature

The Great Lakes offer some of the best summer cruising grounds to be found anywhere. Sometimes getting from where you are to where you want to go can be a bit of a challenge. This past July I found myself on a very nice sailboat headed to Port Huron, Mich., for the Bayview to Mackinac Race. Given that my home grounds are in Lake Erie, this required a trip “uphill” as one might say to go up the St. Clair and Detroit rivers.

Transiting the river system on the way from Lake Erie to Lake Huron makes for a nice, albeit somewhat slow trip. The currents in the rivers can hit as much as 2.5 knots, slowing our speed over the ground to between 4.5 and 5 knots at times. An effective way to do this in a sailboat is to take two or three days for the trip. We broke our trip up into two long days leaving Put-in-Bay in Lake Erie and finishing the ten-hour first day at the Gross Pointe Yacht Club in Lake St. Clair.

The second day was about eight hours to Port Huron at the base of Lake Huron. There are many marinas in the Detroit and Windsor areas as well as in Lake St. Clair that offer transient dockage and services allowing for shorter trips if desired. We would occasionally put up the main to get a little extra push against the current—every little bit helps.

Lake St. Clair itself is something of a sailing gem. While shallow with a maximum depth of only about 20 feet, there are several areas with excellent facilities for the recreational sailor in St. Clair Shores and the Clinton River. Pay attention to the depth when sailing Lake St. Clair. It is possible to be out of sight of land and have less than ten feet under the keel. The scenery along the rivers offers everything from wilderness to industry, farms to cities and about everything in between. On the water requires a constant lookout for the navigational aids, freighters and ferry boats crossing back and forth. The 125-mile trip from the Detroit River Light in Lake Erie to Port Huron or Sarnia, Ontario, is worth the effort as these two towns are the jumping off point for cruising Lake Huron and for those headed to the Georgian Bay and North Channel. Port Huron is located on the Black River and Sarnia is across the St. Clair River on the Canadian side. Both towns offer excellent facilities.

The Blue Water Bridge connects the US with Canada at the southern end of Lake Huron. Needless to say, the current here is moving right along. Whether you are motoring or motor sailing you will need to stay as close to the Canadian shore as possible to minimize the effects of the current. In a small sailboat, it is nice to have some wind on the beam to help get out into Lake Huron.

I remember years ago heading under the bridge on a 26-footer with a 9.9hp engine. Even on a beam reach in 12 knots of breeze and the engine working hard it took about 45 minutes to get through the last half mile or so. Once on Lake Huron there are many choices and challenges offered to the sailor. The first choice is whether to take the Michigan or Ontario side of the lake. There are great towns and marinas on both sides of the lake that are less than a day sail apart. Or, if you want a good challenge, sail non-stop to either Tobermory or Mackinac. For most cruising sailboats it is a good 30 hours or more to Tobermory at the entrance to the Georgian Bay. You cannot always sail directly where you want to go and sometimes you must “slog uphill” to get there. But getting there on a sailboat is always worth the trip.

About The Author

Tim McKenna is the founder of Erie Islands Sailing School. He began sailing as a child on Lake Erie and, as they say, the rest is sort of history. Tim has competed in most of the Lake Erie races as well as more than a dozen Port Huron to Mackinac races. Although a lifelong Great Lakes sailor, Tim has also enjoyed the opportunities to do some extensive “Blue Water” sailing in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean. He has done multiple deliveries to and from the Caribbean from New England and the Chesapeake, sailed to the Azores and even had a trip from Gibraltar to the Canary Islands. Tim has sailed through or around most of the Islands in the Caribbean and even managed to live on his sailboat for two winters in the Bahamas.

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