Crossing Lake Michigan
A first-time crossing on a 24 foot boat.
by Jim Iverson

I own a 1989 Seaward 24. It has a shoal draft wing keel, tiller steering, and a Nissan 6hp outboard. The boat is named Udjat and we sail out of McKinley Marina in Milwaukee, WI. Most of my sailing is confined to day sailing on Lake Michigan with an occasional trip up or down the coast to Racine or Port Washington. I suspect that every sailor on the Great Lakes entertains the notion to cross to the other side. It is only natural to want to see what is over that horizon. Last season while having a particularly enjoyable sail with my friend Mark Johnston, I asked if he would consider joining me on a trip across the lake next year. He enthusiastically agreed and we were committed. It took me several weeks before I mentioned this to my wife, who considered it a bit of a reckless boy’s adventure but offered no objections.
Udjat at the McKinley Marina prior to crossing.

Racing or cruising, sailboats cross the lake all the time. The vast majority of crossings are done aboard larger, heavier boats. The Seaward is no “blue water” boat but it is sturdy and sensibly designed and has a feel that inspires confidence.


Lots of glib answers come to mind: Because it’s there? To get to the other side?

Maybe it really isn’t any more complicated than that. Maybe Mark and I are just two guys looking for that experience that is different enough from our everyday lives to make it feel new and fresh. I feel we were both looking for that sweet-spot between boredom and terror, an experience that would allow us to make use of the skills we had been honing during our daysails. Maybe I was looking to capture a few magic images that would stay with me through the long cold Wisconsin winter.


Looking at a chart of Lake Michigan reveals a myriad of potential destinations for a lake crossing starting from Milwaukee. I was looking for a port that would be as different from my home port as possible. Ending a passage at a place not much different from where one starts would detract from the experience. Consulting the Lakeland Boating Harbor Guide, two ports appealed to me: Whitehall and Saugatuck.
A 600 foot freighter passes astern as we depart Milwaukee.

Whitehall was my first choice for several reasons. It was closer. At 78 miles it was the shortest distance from Milwaukee. Most important though, was the fact that it was described as the “beginning of the true North” along the Michigan coast. It has little in the way of the tourist facilities associated with the big bustling ports of Muskegon and Holland and that was the charm of it. Setting sail from the urban center of Milwaukee and arriving in the tree lined, sheltered harbor of Whitehall had a beautiful symmetry to it that appealed to me.

We are, however, sailors and subject to the vagaries of the wind and therefore an alternative destination would be picked. Saugatuck is a former lumbering town that became an art colony after the lumbering business left. It is now a tourist town along the lines of Provincetown on Cape Cod or Key West, Florida. It is very different from Whitehall but equally different from Milwaukee. At a distance of 89 miles it is a longer passage but it is to the South East of Milwaukee while Whitehall bears North East. No matter which way the wind blows, one of these ports should be easily accessible.


This is pretty easy. In order to make accommodations for bad weather I am looking to take a week of vacation time. I suspect the actual crossing will be about 20 hours so a week gives us plenty of days to wait for the right wind and wave conditions. Since we will be sailing through the night, I look for a week that has a full moon. The moon is full on the third week of July. Mark and I arrange to have that week off. The time and destinations are set.


The biggest change to the boat since I bought it was to replace the original Suzuki 8 hp engine with a 6hp Nissan four stroke. The Nissan never fails to start, sips fuel, and is over 30lbs lighter than the Suzuki. The boat has a built-in 10 gallon tank and an auxiliary 3 gallon tank. At cruising speed that will give us over 26 hours of motoring time.
Charting Lake Michigan.

Two years ago I had a second set of reef points put in the mainsail. Udjat also has a California-style dodger. This is a big dodger that does affect the windward performance to a degree but compensates with a drier, warmer cockpit when the wind and waves start to kick up. I installed a radar reflector in the rigging. Getting run down at night by a big lake freighter is a real possibility and anything you can do to avoid that is money well spent. I also rented an EPIRB from Boat US. An EPIRB is an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon. It will give the Coast Guard, via satellite, the GPS position of your boat if a life threatening emergency occurs. This is a great program if you need this device only occasionally. I highly recommend it. I thought long and hard about a life raft. I could have rented a raft as well but decided not to because of the cost. My reasoning was this: In mid July the Lake temperature is warm enough that hypothermia is not the grave problem it is earlier or later in the season. In the case of a catastrophic event our personal flotation devices and EPIRB would give us reasonable chances of survival.

I realize that making a cost-benefit analysis involving your life and the life of your friend is a bit of a fools game but we do it everyday of our lives and would be paralyzed if we did not allow for some element of risk. Anyway, crossing the Lake is NOT that risky of an endeavor.


As our vacation week approached I checked the marine weather report and forecast every day to find a weather window for our trip. Friday the 17th looked like a good departure day. Winds were predicted to be 7-10 kts out of the North North East, the wave height was predicted to be 2 feet or less, the sky would be clear. It sounded like a pleasant start to our adventure. I left the office early and stocked the boat with sandwiches and easy to prepare foods. I left a Coast Guard float-plan with my wife with instructions to give it to the Coast Guard if I had not contacted her by early Sunday. Mark arrived at the slip, we cast off lines and motored out the North Gap of Milwaukee harbor heading South East toward Saugatuck. We raised sail and made a stately 3.5 knots. We sailed through a regatta that was motoring around waiting for the fleet to assemble. A big lake freighter was coming into port and passed within 200 yards of us. The Lake Ferry blasted out into the lake on it’s cross lake run to Muskegon. Throwing up a huge rooster tail, it would soon be over our horizon and in Muskegon before we had lost sight of the Milwaukee skyline.
Stern Wheeler in Saugatuck.

I had told Mark that I was not a purist and that if our speed fell below 3 kts I would start the motor. I did not want to just bob around in the middle of the lake waiting for the weather to change. Mark is a pure sailor and is offended by the notion of motoring (in a sailboat!) but agreed to the strategy. We were able to sail on course averaging about 4 kts into the night. The hot humid air of the day turned into the cool air of night. The boat’s motion was gentle and we traded two hour tricks at the helm. The off duty crew would go below and sleep on the settee. Since we were on a port tack, the heel of the boat kept the sleeper firmly wedged into the cushions with no chance of falling out on the floor. We were able to use the moon as a target to steer by for hours at a time. It was the sweetest sailing imaginable, under a starry sky, the cockpit illuminated by the bright moon, the air cool and the seas calm. Bliss.

About 4:00 AM the wind began to lighten and blow from all around the compass. I woke Mark to help lower the sails and we motored through flat seas. Shortly there after we were invaded by black flies. I had heard of this scourge of the lakes but it is amazing none the less that we would find a swarm of flies more than thirty miles from the nearest land. Black flies bite and seem to prefer ankles. There was no escape, neither the cabin nor the cockpit offered safe haven. We sprayed ourselves with repellent and used towels to kill as many as we could. It was a massacre! The boat was riddled with the bodies of the flies but they never left us and we just learned to ignore them.

As the sky lightened in the east we were hoping to see the Michigan shore but the horizon was hazy and the lake was like glass, reflecting a perfect image of the sky. It was like motoring through space with nothing but a low contrast study in grays surrounding us. I made coffee. We sat in the cockpit and drank from our mugs and moved inexorably toward a shore we knew was there but couldn’t see. Finally when our hand-held GPS told us we were but two miles from shore, the great sand dunes of the Michigan coast appeared out of the mist. Landfall! I raised Tower Marina on the VHS and was able to get a transient slip. We were only a mile from shore before we could pick out the pier heads of the entrance channel to Saugatuck harbor. We wound our way up the Kalamazoo River several miles until it opened into Kalamazoo Lake on whose shore Saugatuck is nestled among wooded hills. We found our slip and were assisted by the couple in the adjoining slip. We tied up and climbed to the dock. It was 12:30, nineteen hours after having left Milwaukee we had arrived at our destination on the other side of the lake. We both felt satisfied but knew our mission was not yet accomplished.

We walked to the marina office as the clouds dissipated and the day turned sunny and beautiful. We inquired about warm showers and cold beer and flypaper strips. The rest of the day and evening were spent experiencing the pleasures of Saugatuck. We enjoyed the company of many fellow sailors all of whom were interested in our trip and eager to tell stories of their own adventures. We took a nap in the shade of some trees and retired to Udjat at nightfall.


After washing up at the marina we had breakfast in the cockpit before casting off and motoring out toward the big lake. According to my weather forecast we were to have light winds from the south east most of the day, slowly building to 15 to 20 with 3 to 4 foot seas throughout the night. One sailor had told me that no two crossings are ever alike. How true with our experience.
Mark ‘Stands’ Watch.

The day was hot and the sun was brutal. We sailed at 3kts and did one hour tricks at the tiller while the off duty crew took refuge in the cabin.

By 7:00 that evening the wind was building and so were the waves. We were sailing at six kts. The weather forecast had been upgraded to 20 to 25 kts of wind and 4-5 foot seas.

Udjat does not have a roller furling head sail. The smallest jib I have is a 100% working jib. We left the jib up and put two reefs in the main. The speed remained at 6 kts.

Shortly after our sail change the sky became overcast and we began to feel a light rain.

Almost immediately we heard the wind shriek in the rigging and we heeled violently. Mark was thrown out of his seat and across the cockpit. I managed to get the boat turned into the wind. I clawed down the jib and got it fastened to the deck. When the wind was no longer gusting we turned back on course and continued to sail under double reefed main alone. At 10:00 the wind was getting fickle. Our speed was reduced to about two kts. We could hear thunder and had occasional rain so I was reluctant to raise the jib. I started the motor and we motor sailed. The wind began to build in strength and the waves developed into the promised 4-5 feet. The sail was pulling good and with the engine we were doing 5+ knots in a quartering sea. Udjat seemed born for these conditions and only once did an unusually big breaking wave deposit a few gallons of water into the cockpit.
Milwaukee Light. Home!

Our regimen of dosing ourselves with Dramamine starting 24 hours before leaving on our trip seemed to pay off as we would both look forward to going down in the cabin for some rest and an occasional bite to eat. Most of the time in a sea state like this I avoid the cabin. Once again we were fortunate to be on a port tack that would snug the off watch crew into the settee for a secure comfortable nap.

About midnight at our watch change we both saw the lights of a big lake freighter approaching. I hailed him on the VHS: “Lake Freighter, Lake Freighter, this is a little sailboat do you know we are here?” He answered immediately: “We’ve got you on radar but we don’t have a visual.” At that moment I felt that the radar reflector was the best money we had spent!
Jim at the helm returning to Milwaukee.

After several minutes the lights appeared closer and we shined a spot on our sail and tried to raise the freighter again on the VHS. He assured us he would pass at a safe distance. We were only partially reassured by his words as the lights continued to approach our position. Finally the lights of the freighter began to fall astern and moved off toward the north. I am thankful for the attentive crew of that ship.
We continued to motor sail toward the coast of Wisconsin. After sunrise the clouds parted and we had a beautiful view of the Milwaukee skyline illuminated and golden in the morning light. The wind was blowing about twenty and we rode the big quartering waves right into the protected harbor. We were home!


A tiller autopilot! Being on the helm on and off for twenty hours is just hard work. Once the moon went down the helmsman was a slave to the compass. I would also carry a storm jib. We probably would have sailed all the way home if I were not concerned with carrying too much sail with the 100% jib. The smaller jib would have given us a lot of flexibility in our sail plan. Other than those two improvements I thought the boat was great. It certainly was up to the conditions we encountered and I suspect it wasn’t anywhere near its limit. Of course the big Lakes can serve up a maelstrom that could ruin anybody’s day but there is no reason that a careful skipper shouldn’t consider crossing the Lake a rewarding, confidence building adventure. Oh yeah, I’d bring fly paper too!

Jim Iverson lives in Bayside, WI. He has been sailing about 10 years and is a member of the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center.