Lake Michigan Shoreline
Manistee to New Buffalo
by Cyndi Perkins
Chip Ahoy’s journey down the Lake Michigan shore continued on a balmy Tuesday afternoon. The one-to-three foot waves of morning flattened to glass, and we once again fired up the engine, motoring to Manistee, nicknamed “Victorian Port of the North” for its architecture. The municipal marina, one of five on the Manistee River, didn’t answer our radio calls on 9 or 16. We later found out it is only open from 3-5 p.m. after Labor Day. Lots of fishing boats and charter businesses, including the cleverly named “Pier Pressure.” A gaggle of white trumpeter swans invaded our slip after Scott’s outstanding solo docking. There was a decent current in the river, shoving Chip Ahoy’s bow away from the dock and preventing me from getting a line off the bow to a cleat or even lassoing a dock post. No one panicked, ’cause we all know that doesn’t help, right? Scott maneuvered the stern and got off himself to secure the back line. The single-handed docking in those conditions was quite impressive.
|Swans and mallard ducks enjoy popcorn in Manistee.|
The bathhouse in Manistee is open 24 hours, and includes a nice clubhouse area with TV and microwave. We do not have a microwave or toaster on Chip Ahoy. Captain Scott has assisted many boaters who totally depleted their battery banks with indiscriminate use of these hungry electrical appliances.
We don’t shy away from other electrical conveniences, we are just mindful of our capacity. There are laptop computers, a DVD player and a television aboard, all frequently used. Scott’s TV “rabbit ears” are working well for reception in towns with one or more strong over-air tower TV signals. Sailing traditionalists may laugh, because he clips the antenna to our stays on deck or even up on the halyards. Let ’em chuckle. We are able to catch up on national and state news or just chill out with a Star Trek re-run. We haven’t missed a Sunday football game yet. Like a lot of other cruisers, we also enjoy watching movies, especially nautical cult favorites including Master and Commander, Pirates of the Caribbean, Waterworld, Dead Calm and of course, Captain Ron (“Whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen out there.”).
In less technical areas, Scott is having an awesome time with his wooden loon whistle, especially down here where loons are rarely if ever heard or seen. The swans don’t know what to think when they hear the loon call and local boaters wear equally puzzled expressions.
After sharing my microwave popcorn with Scott and the swans it was time for a stroll.
Manistee has a lovely river boardwalk and historic downtown with a grocery store where we picked up a few choice items. Food stores have been available to us at every stop so far, some a little higher priced but all offering basic provisions and local specialties. Chip Ahoy carries plentiful stores of canned goods and we supplement along the way with fresh local produce, meat and fish.
On Wednesday Sept. 10 we motored out the river and down Lake Michigan to Pentwater, a logical place to wait for a weather window. Two to three days of strong southerlies and predicted storms prompted our decision to hole up and wait it out. Chip Ahoy is more than capable of bashing into 3-5 footers for days on end, making headway under engine and sails, but the thought of banging our way at a tortoise pace south is not appealing. There’s also an urge to simply bite the bullet and blast across the lake into the rivers at Chicago. The impulse is growing as we are at the skinniest part of Lake Michigan, about 105 miles to the Waukegan, Illinois lighthouse. If we are rested up and the seas settle, an all-nighter is totally do-able.
|Chip Ahoy scoots down the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Photo by Bonnie Brennan.
Meanwhile, Pentwater is a pleasure, with an attentive, professional and low-key harbormaster and attendants. The rate break off-season was $22 per night. The bathrooms/showers are older but clean, although the spiders are an abomination. The harbormaster tells us he’s been fighting creepy crawlies all summer, as have other marinas and campgrounds in this sector of Michigan. I was glad for the info, as I could shift my daily shower time to sometime between noon and 6 p.m. when the critters are at rest for the day and less apt to land on your head.
There are several marinas in Pentwater, which is easily accessible off Lake Michigan through a channel leading to Pentwater Lake. Numerous private moorings showcased awesome sailing vessels, including a picturesque Panda 34. The Pentwater Yacht Club conducted Ensign races in front of our municipal marina, but general boating activity is tapering off for the year. In mid-September we find many businesses closed entirely or operating on limited seasonal hours. There are two decent food/party stores nearby. We like the Pentwater Market. Our first night in town we bought the advertised dinner special: two thick New York strips and a bottle of Canyon Oaks wine for $17.95. We sampled the Syrah and found it quite tasty for a modestly priced vintage. There is no grilling allowed at the docks – a rule at most marinas - so Scott pan-fried the steaks in garlic and butter. Yum! During our stay we also gorged on an excellent Friday night fish fry at Gull Landing, a downtown restaurant with dining al fresco on a covered deck. “All U Can Eat” perch was served with soup & salad bar for $12.95. There were many tempting side dishes to choose from, including garlic mashed potatoes, but Scott and I both chose to go with acorn squash baked with brown sugar and butter and graced with a half-ear of sweet Michigan corn in the hollow. Even the fresh-brewed ice tea was top quality.
Apparently there isn’t much of a fall color season here. Pine and evergreen dominates the scenery. The harbormaster said many locals go to our Upper Peninsula for the color show. A few fishing charters are still going out and the fish-cleaning pavilion, with stainless sinks and spacious counters, is still seeing steady use.
High, unfavorable winds penned Chip Ahoy at the Pentwater docks for five days. While weathered in, we can always find plenty of chores to occupy our time. We whiled away one afternoon on separate projects. I dusted and polished the yards of teak down below while Scott changed the oil. He keeps a strict eye on engine hours and maintenance. The official log showed Chip Ahoy had completed 511 miles on this journey. The next afternoon, we played hooky from boat chores and enjoyed the Lions-Packers football game in a friendly local tavern.
On Monday, Sept. 15 there was finally a decent forecast. Departure plans for 7:30 a.m. were delayed when a thunderstorm rolled in with waterspouts on the front end and BB- sized hail on the back. Scott retied the springlines and we had autopilot, GPS, etc. out of the wet before the brunt of the storm cell hit at 9 a.m.
We motored out the channel to Lake Michigan at 10 a.m. – it was a banging good ride down the coast and I was grateful for my seabands, used to quell motion sickness. The lake settled down toward the end of the afternoon, but for most of the day we were going directly into 3-5 footers with a few 6-9 footers thrown in. Our rule of thumb is to stay the course as long as we are making at least 4 knots under power, sail or a combination thereof and are not getting too physically beat up by the wave action. We find that the headsail or reefed mainsail/headsail combination adds great stability and makes the ride much more comfortable, even if the sails aren’t dramatically contributing to speed. We wanted to make some headway down the lake, so we bypassed the next available harbors down from Pentwater and still arrived in Muskegon with plenty of daylight left.
Once again we entered a channel, this one leading to Muskegon Lake, which is five miles long and two miles across at its widest point. The municipal marina is near a foundry and paper mill. Both reek. Mariners should be aware that the foundry smells like electrical fire. Scott thought our laptop was frying. Skipper Bob’s highly recommended guidebook for the Great Circle Loop has been proving quite helpful, but doesn’t mention the smell, nor the long hike to any sort of services through the industrial wasteland surrounding the marina, which is chainlocked at night. We contacted the marina by cell phone. The friendly harbormaster said he’d leave the key for us in the mailbox when he departed at 4:30 p.m., and assigned us slip 102, which we located on the second try. There is no shame in backing up, turning around and giving it another go, eh? Especially when you have headed down a dead-end runway that shoals rapidly. A nice couple on a sailboat across the docks from us warned us about the dead end, pointed out the proper slip, helped with lines, told us about the only restaurant in walking distance and volunteered to drive us to the grocery store. He works at West Marine and also pilots one of the tourist ferries the ply the lake. She’s a restaurant cook who also works on the ferries. Like us they live aboard their boat all summer and they are planning to tackle America’s Great Circle Loop in the near future.
It’s hard to believe that fish prefer the muck-ridden, trashed-up, weed-slimed waters of some Lower Michigan ports to Lake Superior’s icy cold pristine environment. But the fish – and the fishermen – are running wild down here. Salmon fever is at its peak. Big fish have been working all around us out on the lake and in many harbors. We debated staying another day but gave in to our traveling fever and a better-than-nothing weather window calling for W-SW winds switching south later, directly on the nose again but supposedly with just 1-3 footers. Twas another rockin’ and rollin’ day for Chip Ahoy and her sore crew from the moment we got back on the lake around 9 a.m. until mid-afternoon, when we diverted from a plan to visit lovely Holland, Michigan and turned back to Grand Haven, three miles behind us. We were only making three knots headway and couldn’t use our headsail to steady out the boat once the wind shifted.
Bonnie and Jerry of the 44-foot customized steel workboat The Bear, whom we’d met in Pentwater, showed up shortly after we docked at Grand Haven Municipal Marina in downtown Grand Haven. I suspect we have found a new buddy boat, as we really enjoy each other’s company and respect the seaworthiness and seamanship displayed on each vessel and its respective crews.
Grand Haven’s waterfront is a textbook illustration of recreational development combined with re-use of old industrial sites. There’s an expansive multi-leveled boardwalk spaced with small shops selling ice cream, burritos and other treats. An old piano factory has been converted to shops and restaurants. There’s a fabulous bakery, gourmet food shops and galleries galore as well an excellent mariner’s store, Marine Tech Boat Supply Co., where we picked up additional emergency flares and talked with the owner. He and his wife also hope to “do the Loop” after they modify their coastal cruiser for bluewater sailing. We also located good banking services and a photo shop with one-hour film developing and a classy frame on sale that perfectly fits a photo of our friend Mel, a dear departed friend who always said he wanted to take this trip with us – we keep his picture on display for inspiration.
Directly adjacent to the marina the old train depot has been transformed into an historical museum. The public grounds also house spectator stands for a regularly featured musical waterfalls show across the waterway, similar to the Jackson, Michigan Cascades.
All in all, Grand Haven is a great stop on this Great Lake. There was only one damper on my visit when the male morning cleaning crew interrupted me in mid-shower. The facilities are adequate, even pleasant, but overnight guests should brace themselves for unwanted intruders.
On Wednesday, Sept. 17, Chip Ahoy and The Bear headed out in company. We took photos of each other near Port Sheldon, Michigan, before they passed us. The trawler’s top cruising speed is about eight knots. Morning rollers flattened to 1-2 feet, thank heaven, but the wind remained on the nose as we motored past Holland around noon. Two miles from Saugatuck we finally caught a breath of favorable wind and could pull out the headsail.
|Chip Ahoy and The Bear snagged a coveted spot on the Coral Gables dock, an impossible feat during the busy summer season.|
Saugatuck Harbor is located in Kalamazoo Lake, connected to Lake Michigan via the Kalamazoo River. Sandy banks, dune grass, elegant mansions, time-weathered cottages and all manner of docks line the river shore. The shallow depths shown on our year-old Richardson’s chart put fear in me, but dredging had taken place since, and the prevailing depth remained a comfortable 12-14 feet.
The Bear was already tied up in front of the aging but stately Coral Gables, a restaurant, bar and marina. Jerry had phoned ahead and was told no one minded if the two boats stayed on the day-use, overflow pier, and that a man named Larry might show up at some point to collect a docking fee. Again we benefited from the relaxed rules for off-season visitors, as this prime spot is occupied to full capacity during the summer. The Coral Gables marina and a marina at the end of the river had no transient slips available and were very busy with end-of-season duties including pulling boats. There is another marina across the lake that we didn’t try, as it sounded more fun to be in town where the action is.
Saugatuck’s artsy ambience is a cross between Disneyland’s Main Street and Beverly Hill’s Rodeo Drive. There’s only one party/grocery store, but tons of upscale gift shops, galleries and restaurants. We especially enjoyed browsing through the old-fashioned drug store with soda fountain and a kitchen shop featuring every type of cookware imaginable. We did a lot of walking and gawking in Saugatuck – it’s a photographer’s paradise, lavish with manicured parks and fanciful sculpture gardens. At 6 p.m. we boarded The Bear for cocktail hour on the back deck. Larry showed up around 7 and collected $20 from each boat. He handed over one key for the scary bathrooms, which he warned us had not been recently cleaned. Bonnie produced a gorgeous Guild acoustic guitar she bought for Jerry several years ago. Scott favored us, and passerby, with a few tunes. He didn’t realize he’d attracted an audience until he heard applause from the dock behind him. We didn’t head back to our boat until 10 p.m., a late night for cruisers.
After corned beef hash and poached egg breakfast, Scott braved the shower area, where he identified several interesting varieties of spider. I passed on the natural science lesson. I would shower at the next stop, use our sunshower, or take a bucket bath from the lake. We don’t use the shower attachment in Chip Ahoy’s small head, preferring not to introduce more humidity down below. Before we left I took a last walk around town. In the early morning there were more black squirrels than people on the streets and the strains of a practicing marching band boomed pleasantly from a distance.
Day sailors outside South Haven were having a wonderful time outside the channel entrance are we came in at around 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 18, but we had wind on the nose again. We probably jinxed ourselves by taking the cover off the mainsail too early in the day. Don’t feel sorry for us, though. Life is not hard when you are cruising along a sandy shoreline in turquoise water under the hot sun. It was my first day without seabands in quite some time.
The Bear had already docked and Jerry motioned us to “their” side of South Haven municipal marina, which is actually composed of four facilities with 229 slips situated on both sides of the channel.
All in all we’d have to rate South Haven as one of the most excellent boating facilities in Michigan. Harbormistress Globensky runs a very tight ship. Everything is spotless and even the laundry room boasts a panoramic view of the harbor channel and entry light. The private shower stalls with super water pressure and plenty of heat, are hard to leave.
On Friday the marina office connected us with a transit bus and we visited our first Wal-Mart Superstore – wow, we were like kids in a candy store. Jerry came along with a provision list for The Bear. Bonnie and dog KC stayed aboard to keep an eye on things, as we were feeling the aftereffects of Hurricane Isabelle combined with a strong northwest front moving down from Canada. The fishing boats didn’t go out, deterred by 5-8 footers on Lake Michigan. Giant surf crashed against the entry breakers and even in our protected marina basin the boats were rocking and rolling. Chip Ahoy’s lines took a beating, even with chafes on and constant line adjustments. The Bear was so bouncy she took a few bites out of the dock and lost a couple of glass ornamental items that weren’t battened down. Bonnie, Jerry, Scott and I had dinner at the Chop House a short walk from the marina. Scott and Jerry went Mexican (wet burrito, chimichanga), while I had the perch and Bonnie went for prime rib. It was all delish, including the crabmeat Rangoon appetizer, prepared eggroll style with lavish chunks of crab. We continue to eat very well on the boat or ashore. Scott supplied an outstanding stir fry on Thursday night featuring scallops and sautéed sirloin strips. On Saturday we explored more of the downtown area and took care of laundry. The lake calmed gradually, as predicted.
Bright and early Sunday we extricated ourselves from the somewhat tight turns of the marina basin, the Bear close behind and soon to pass us up. Just outside the channel we took on a hitchhiker, a small hawk that glided up behind Chip Ahoy and settled on the wind indicator atop the mast. He rode with us for 10 minutes or so before swooping back to shore. By 9:30 a.m. we were passing the Palisades Nuclear Plant and the curve at the very bottom of Lake Michigan. With headsail up we got some use from the wind, but not enough to shut off the engine. By early afternoon winds had shifted on the nose, so Scott occupied himself watching the Detroit Lions/Minnesota Vikings football game while I kept watch above. We would arrive in New Buffalo just in time for the Green Bay Packers game.
It was a great scoot down a pretty shoreline dotted with more sand dunes and small towns. The stacks of Indiana Harbor in Gary were visible in the distance as we passed by Cook Nuclear Plant before docking at New Buffalo Municipal Marina. Jerry of The Bear once again proved himself indispensable by pointing out our assigned slip, as I couldn’t read the dock numbers from the channel. As has been the case throughout the trip, we did not make reservations, although we would definitely do so if we were visiting between Memorial and Labor days. We simply hailed the marina as we got closer for a slip assignment and docking instructions.
After a quiet post-game dinner we turned in early. We would leave New Buffalo as soon as there was enough light and cross into the Central Time Zone, skirting the bottom of the lake in search of our next planned port in Hammond, Indiana. Here we would step the mast and enter the Cal-Sag Channel, beginning our adventures on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers down America’s heartland rivers to Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
|Resources: Manistee to New Buffalo
Information on all of Michigan’s state waterways commission sanctioned marinas, parks, campgrounds and boat launches are available at
www.michigan.gov/dnr Under the boating link you will find a listing for harbors and harbors of refuge.
In most cases the marinas are linked to a state-operated reservation system, making it easy to book in from one marina to the next once your boat name and other information is entered. All marinas may be hailed on Channel 9. If you aren’t raising anyone on 9, try Channel 16.
Below are the most recent contact numbers for selected Lake Michigan harbors:
Pentwater Municipal Marina: 1-231-869-7028. General info:
Chamber of Commerce: 1-231-869-4150
Muskegon Municipal Marina (Hartshorn Marina): 1-231-724-6785 or 1-231-724-6776 General info: www.ci.mi.us/ Or google Hartshorn Marina Muskegon to view the marina’s website. Convention & Visitors Bureau: 1-231-724-3100 or 1-800-WAVE
Grand Haven Municipal Marina: 1-616-847-3478 or 1-616-842-2550
General info: www.grandhaven.org Chamber of Commerce:
Saugatuck: This state-designated harbor of refuge offers anchorages and several private marinas. Our buddy boat called Coral Gables Restaurant at 1-231-723-1552 and received permission to tie up at the day dock, but only because it was off-season. Another option for yacht club members is to seek reciprocal privileges at Saugatuck Yacht Club. Most Michigan yacht clubs welcome fellow members and offer perks such as rate breaks or a free night’s stay. General info: www.saugatuck.com
South Haven Municipal Marina. General info: www.south-haven.com
The marina also has an excellent website, including dockage rates and area charts
Chamber of Commerce: 1-269-637-5171
New Buffalo Municipal Marina: 1-269-469-6887
(Note: this is a transient dock that does not accept reservations)
General info: www.harborcountry.com Chamber of Commerce:
Ramps: There are numerous boat launches that may be suitable for trailer sailors; check with one of the marinas for guidance.
Charts and guidebooks: Richardson’s Lake Michigan Charts is essential. We also kept Skipper Bob’s “Great Circle Route: 5th Edition 2003 handy, as it provided excellent information on what to expect and where to stay. The Michigan Harbors Guide put out by the Department of Natural Resources was also quite useful. Lakeland Boating’s Lake Michigan “Ports O’ Call” was also spotted in many cockpits.
Cyndi Perkins is a freelance writer and full-time cruiser traveling with husband Scott aboard their 32-foot DownEast sailboat Chip Ahoy. The couple completed America’s Great Circle Loop - a nine-month, 6,000-mile journey – on June 4, 2004. Since returning to their Lake Superior homeport they have been visiting favorite destinations while preparing for another extended cruise south. Cyndi will be sharing top northern and Midwest boating destinations with readers in the regular “Cruiser’s Notebook” feature.