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American Boating Association...


2nd in a Series


As profiled in the last issue in overview fashion, there may be no better freshwater boating in the world than in the Great Lakes region. This incredibly varied part of North America features great cruising and a wide range of options on and off the water. Both veteran and beginner boaters may be surprised to learn that, taken together, the Great Lakes comprise the largest body of freshwater in the world.

There is perhaps no better sample of Great Lakes boating than Lake Michigan. With options ranging from big cities like Chicago and Milwaukee to many tiny marinas and quiet coastlines with few or any other boaters in sight, Lake Michigan provides a perfect introduction to the Great Lakes.

Along with other major metropolitan areas like Manhattan and Miami, Chicago is big city boating at its best. This midwestern boater’s mecca features eight harbors spaced relatively evenly along its approximate 30 miles of Windy City waterfront. A three-year $35 million renovation by Westrec Marinas really improved the facilities, including adding capacity to give combined space for almost 5,000 boats.

The best bases right downtown are Monroe Harbor and Burnham Harbor. From here, it’s easy to reach Chicago landmarks like the Magnificent Mile and the Art Institute of Chicago. The booming Navy Pier area is another convenient base or stop. To the north, Belmont Harbor is the place to berth if you want to take in a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, less than 15 minutes away by foot. Another option is a cruise along the Chicago River, where great views of architectural gems and several small marinas await.

Heading counterclockwise around Lake Michigan, the Windy City slowly fades into the lake and small town lake life awaits. For a unique stop, be sure to check out Hammond’s bustling marina and the gaming vessel, Empress III (several other communities along this stretch offer marinas with gambling vessels docked there).

Near the southernmost point of Lake Michigan, Michigan City, Indiana, marks the transition point from the big cities to the southeastern shoreline and rural sandy Michigan. Some popular stopovers along this stretch include: New Buffalo; St. Joseph/Benton Harbor; South Haven; Saugatuck (often called the ‘Cape Cod of the Midwest’); Holland/Lake Macatawa; and Port Sheldon.

The eastern edge of the lake means more small towns, marinas, and active friendly boating scenes. Some highlights include Grand Haven (named for its location at the mouth of Michigan’s largest river-the Grand); Muskegon/Muskegon Lake; White Lake (with great nearby wilderness areas); Pentwater; Ludington (home of the hulking S.S. Badger, a famed car-ferry); Victorian Manistee; Onekama/Portage Lake; Arcadia and sister city Frankfort; and Leland.

In the north, Lake Michigan becomes even quieter. Some favorite destinations include: the small towns of Grand Traverse Bay; Charlevoix; Little Traverse Bay; Petoskey; Harbor Springs; Mackinaw City/Mackinac Island; and Michigan’s ‘Upper Peninsula’ options like St. Ignace.

Over on the northeast coast of Lake Michigan, Wisconsin awaits with more small town port charm. The options here include: Green Bay (worth a visit and cruise of several days); the Door County area of European-style harbors; Manitowoc; and Sheboygan and its famed boardwalk.

Finally, a lake tour ends as it begins--with a big city. Like Chicago, Milwaukee is very friendly to boaters. McKinley Marina is the best in-city base for boaters, with nearby pleasures including the bustling Milwaukee River Riverfront development, the Milwaukee Maritime Center, great food, and more. From here, it’s just a short cruise to the Illinois state line and back to Chicago.

Of course, you don’t have to circumnavigate Lake Michigan to enjoy its boating pleasures. Many consider ‘crossing’ the lake as a rite of passage for Great Lakes boaters. This experience can range from a short shot of 59 miles from Algoma to Frankfort or a long angle crossing from Chicago to Holland. Either way, weather (and right-angle traffic) can play a role.

Climatologists refer to the Great Lakes basin as a climatological battlefield for three specific reasons: the Great Lakes feature huge bodies of water surrounded by large land masses; the air masses that tend to flow in from other regions; and the influences on the weather by the lakes themselves. This means weather systems change frequently between cyclonic low-pressure cells and anticyclonic highs.

But GPS, loran, and radar, as well as the Weather Channel and expanded local TV weather coverage, have all made boating easier when it comes to weather changes. Thus, Great Lakes boaters can plan to make time when the weather is calm and predicted to stay calm, why staying close to shore or laying over when the weather turns nasty or is predicted to do so.

Along with charts (see below), the best way to stay safe and happy while boating in the Great Lakes is with Lakeland Boating’s Ports O’ Call cruising guides. They remain the most comprehensive full-color resources on the market. The Ports O’ Call series includes Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, and Lake Superior.

Buying their Lake Michigan or other appropriate guide provides the perfect introduction to Great Lakes boating. Whether you’re heading to the Windy City by water or cruising up to Canada for some Great Lakes backcountry boating, it’s a great start to a great adventure on and off the water.


As mentioned in the last issue, Lakeland Boating magazine (800/827-0289, www.lakelandboating.com, regularly $21.95, but just $11.00 for ABA members) is a great resource for Great Lakes cruising. Their Ports O’ Call cruising guides (800/892-9342 or directly through the website, regularly $44.95, but 10% off for ABA members) are ‘must-haves’ for the area (their Lake Michigan guide is hugely popular). Marine Navigation (708/352-0606) in La Grange, Illinois offers a huge selection of up-to-date charts, as well as information, advice, and charts for practically everywhere else in the world.

Upcoming Issues: Lake Huron; the Gulf of Mexico