Lake Michigan Cruising – 2012

By Capt. Bob Kunath, Sans Souci

Cruising Editor Waterway Guide, Lake Michigan & Skipper Bob’s Lake Michigan


All Loopers will soon be cruising the full length of Lake Michigan, Earth’s sixth largest lake.  At 307 miles long and up to 118 miles wide, this is one serious body of water that deserves special care!  Here are some thoughts drawn from 20 years cruising this fresh water wonder.


First, here are some basics.  The water will be as clear as any you have traveled through but cold, ranging from 45 to 75 degrees.  Fog is possible, especially north of Milwaukee; humid, warm air on cold water, especially with an offshore breeze, and… you get the idea.  Weather changes can be very quick.  Squalls with 60+ knots and lightning can come from the west and northwest without much notice, so keep plugged into NOAA, which maintains several local channels around the lake.  Also, log onto to get real-time data from the two Lake Michigan weather buoys 45002 (north), 45007(south) and 45022 (Little Traverse Bay).  The Coast Guard, TowBoat/US and local marine police monitor 16 but Channel 9 is the preferred hailing frequency.  You can also get other links for weather at,; marinas, fuel reports navigation and cruising news at


Water levels are still low, several feet lower than say, 10 years ago, despite the very heavy recent rains.  Levels are almost a foot lower than last year, a drop from the 20 year low seen in 2008.  The projection for the rest of this season is about 577.5 feet above sea level, which is Datum for the charts.  Datum is the lowest level assumed when charted depths are reported, which means that when the water is actually 2 feet above Datum, you can add two feet to the charted depths.  This year there is no “extra” depth.


Many ports, especially those on the Eastern Shore have found it necessary to dredge annually to maintain minimum drafts.  An example is Arcadia, MI.  If you have a chart as recent as April, 2012 you will see the charted depth in the inlet is only three feet!  That inlet may be dredged by the time the Loopers get to that area. Charts of only a few months old may be out of date, so download the free charts at  Be sure to discuss current conditions with the harbormaster before entering all but the busiest ports.  You can also view the latest charts at the same site without additional software.


Above all, plan at least one day of three for layovers waiting for calm seas. Waves tend to be of short frequency and very uncomfortable, not long rolling waves like the ocean.  Due to the long fetch of the lake, waves can easily reach 10-15 feet or more with prolonged winds.  If you luck out and get to Chicago early, spend the time visiting a great city. 


You will find good harbors every 20 miles or so around the entire lake, and most are harbors of refuge, meaning those harbors are obligated to make room for any boats when conditions are threatening..   Anchorages are more plentiful on the Michigan side however, as the western shore has neither the inland lakes nor natural harbors that are so common on the eastern shore. 


Prevailing winds here are from the west, pushing warmer surface water to the beaches of Michigan, so the surf is usually 5-10 degrees warmer there than on the western shore. This year (2012) the water is warming much faster than usual, the mid-lake buoy 45007 is recording temperatures in early July in the 70‘s.  The westerlies also cause more and higher waves on the eastern shore than the western shore, which can be quite flat for the first mile or so, even with a stiff westerly wind. Of course a Nor’easter (yes, we get them too) reverses the pattern and can make the western shore ugly for days.  Both coasts have few hazards and deep water, so you can stay close to shore (watch the charts!) to take advantage of its shelter and enjoy the scenery. An exception to this feature is at Racine, WI.  The Racine Reef extends almost two miles offshore, with parts of the rocky reef as shallow as only a few feet, there is a reason they call this area Reefpoint. The reef is well protected by a 50 foot flashing light with horn mounted on a large concrete platform.  This year, however the platform and light is being reconstructed and has periodically out of service for most of the summer.  Be sure to take the light to starboard when heading south, or stay to the west of G1, the lighted can buoy marking the west end of the reef.


The best harbors of the Michigan side are in the northern half; most of the harbors on the eastern shore south of Ludington are attractive resort destinations with great anchoring and beaches. The ports on the western shore are quite different and are also worth exploring.  Consider a cruise plan that crosses from Frankfort or Ludington to Sturgeon Bay, Manitowoc or Sheboygan with a relatively short trip (50-60 miles) so you can visit the best Wisconsin harbors including Milwaukee and Racine, making a comprehensive Lake Michigan experience.


Mackinac Island is your entry to the lake, and is so unique you will want to stop there.  Reservations are sometimes tough to get, but there are frequent cancellations, so try calling a few days out, and even the same day as your hopeful arrival.  Mackinaw City, with a newly opened expanded harbor and St. Ignace are good substitutes; both offer ferries to Mackinac Island.  Most state and municipal harbors in Michigan can be reserved by calling 1-800-44-PARKS or on the web at


Assuming your course takes you south through Grays Reef, make sure you do not depart if there are S or SW winds over 15 knots.  If so, you will be greeted with high waves on your bow (thanks to the 300 mile fetch) as you leave the Straits of Mackinac through Grays Reef, and there’s no port within 20 miles.


Beaver Island is a great stop to learn its unique history and visit the beaches on the island’s western shore.  Dock at the recently rebuilt Municipal Marina.  Harbor Springs in Little Traverse Bay is a must stop.  You’ll find great anchorage, a splendid downtown, and the summer home for many of Detroit and Chicago’s rich and famous.  Petoskey, across the bay offers a larger, albeit more commercial downtown.   Look for “Petoskey stones (fossils)” in the local stores.  Charlevoix is even more attractive, loaded with fine restaurants and shops, and is where you’ll find the rest of Chicago’s rich and famous.  You may not be able to get a slip in either Harbor Springs or Charlevoix, but anchorage is plentiful.  Charlevoix has just in the past few years replaced their waterfront park and aging fixed piers with a new floating dock system, adding about 50% to their capacity, as well as new 100 amp service for large yachts.  New shore facilities provide a showplace resort experience.  Northport is a nice port with good shopping, and offers bus service to Leland, Sutton Bay and a casino.  A visit to Traverse City will find a newer marina, great shopping and restaurants.


Leland is a historic fishing village transformed into a tourist mecca complete with even more shops but also some good restaurants and Carlson’s smokehouse; try the smoked fish sausage.  The harbor was totally rebuilt last year adding a few dozen more slips, all reserved for transients. 


If you’ve seen enough shops for awhile, anchor at South Manitou Island, a National Seashore park.  There is a 25 foot deep sandy shoal near shore in the center of the crescent shaped natural harbor.  The island has plenty of trails for hiking to the old schoolhouse and 1858 lighthouse, which is now open for climbing the 117 steps to the top.  The National Park Service announced that a new fresnel lens would be built and lighted, it may be in service.  There are many wrecks close to shore, with three at or just below surface for snorkeling and diving.  No pets are allowed on shore.


Make a stop at Frankfort for provisioning at the grocery across the street from the boat ramp just past the city park.  Anchor just west of the ramp, dinghy to the ramp.  Make sure you take a walk to the beach north of the inlet, it is representative of the great sandy beaches on the eastern shore.  Jacobsen’s is the marina of choice, it features a new swimming pool and boaters’ lounge. 


Visitors to Manistee will find a new municipal marina building on the Riverwalk, a welcome improvement.


Moving south, most of the harbors feature inland lakes with old manufacturing towns reincarnated as vacation havens.  The beaches are excellent, the dunes breathtaking.  We especially like South Haven; also Saugatuck, which offers many restaurants, art shops and galleries.  Diesel should be reasonable in Grand Haven, where you will also find a “Dancing Waters” light show at night.


During your cruise south down the Michigan coast, keep a watch for a yellow 19’ rowboat, “liv” being rowed solo around the lake by Jenn Gibbons.  She left Chicago on June 15, 2012 to accomplish what has never been done before, a 1500 mile circumnavigation row of Lake Michigan to raise awareness and money for cancer survivors.  Give her a big “toot” but of course no wake if you spot her. Follow her progress at


There is a very different look to the Wisconsin – Illinois side.  Most of the docks are newer floating docks compared to Michigan’s aging fixed dock systems (although several have been replaced).  Manitowoc offers the best restoration of a WWII sub we’ve seen anywhere and also the best maritime museum (affiliated with the Smithsonian) on the Great Lakes.  Sheboygan is one of the nicest towns, featuring good restaurants, especially Trattoria Stefano.  Try the prime rib at the Port Hotel in Port Washington, where you will also find probably the cheapest diesel ($3.44/gal as of July, 2012) until Kentucky Lake.  In any event, make sure you have enough fuel to get to Kentucky Lake before entering Illinois; those pirates from Springfield charge road use tax on marine fuel.  The Port Washington Municipal Marina was totally rebuilt with new floating docks for the 2010 season.


Grocery stores near marinas are scarce in Wisconsin and Illinois and require q cab ride in most ports.  But there is a great meat market (Bernie’s) in Port Washington. The eclectic Milwaukee Public Market near the Riverwalk in Milwaukee is worth a dinghy ride from McKinley Harbor in Milwaukee.  Check out the art museum on the Milwaukee shorefront, designed by Santiago Calatrava.  There is a new harbor, Lakeshore State Park within the harbor just south of the museum, in front of the fairgrounds.  Anchoring is OK within this harbor, which also has 20 floating dock slips with electric but no water or restrooms. Discovery World, a new technology interactive museum targeting kids is also within this harbor, and has a few free day docks. There is likely to be a festival of some kind in progress, they are frequent. You can also take a short cruise up the Milwaukee River (bridges will open) to tie up for dinner at several excellent riverfront restaurants.   


Reefpoint Marina in Racine offers plenty of restaurants that you can walk to, especially Casablanca for Mexican food and Salute’s for Italian.  There’s also the Johnson Art Museum, West Marine and a growing number of art galleries and gift shops. Dover Flag two blocks from Reefpoint has a full stock of charts and guides for your trip. Try breakfast at the Racine Yacht Club on Sundays or dinner on Fridays. A farmers’ market on Saturday, art fairs at the Festival Grounds and street musicians on some other days round out the experience. Racine has been noted for maintaining one of the 10 cleanest beaches in the US, it is a large, sandy summer playground. Reefpoint is our home port, look for and visit us (the blue trawler Sans Souci) on Dock E-12.


Northpoint is the first Illinois marina, a huge marina with a free pump out but not much else except a restaurant, although you can catch a Metra train to Chicago.  Likewise, Waukegan is a good Boat/US marina with partially a new floating dock system but has little to offer within walking distance except the train station.  Larson Marina does offer full yacht services and can step and/or ship your mast for the trip down the Illinois River.


Finally, you’re in Chicago!  There’s an 18-mile bike path along the entire waterfront to get you just about anywhere.  Choose Belmont Harbor for restaurants, Cubs baseball, the Lincoln Park Zoo and a dog beach.  Burnham Harbor is closest to the museums and aquarium Grocery stores near marinas are scarce in Wisconsin and Illinois and require q cab ride in most ports.  But there is a great meat market (Bernie’s) in Port Washington. The eclectic Milwaukee Public Market near the Riverwalk in Milwaukee is worth a dinghy ride from McKinley Harbor in Milwaukee.  DuSable Harbor is closest to the Loop, shopping, Navy Pier and the entrance to the Chicago River lock.   Reservations are necessary, call or fax any of the marinas. 


Try to get below 17’ for the cruise down the Chicago River to avoid bridge openings, and you must get below 17’ for the closed bridge just west of town.  If between 17’ and 19’ you need to take the Calumet River instead, and will miss some of the best views on the Loop.  Over 19 feet?  Turn around; you’re too high for this trip.  If you are planning to cruise the Calumet, Hammond Marina reopened with new docks a few years ago. 


The ride through the city on the Chicago River is an awesome 45 minutes from the Chicago Lock if you get low enough to clear the bridges.  Time your passage to reach the Amtrak RR bridge just west of the Loop after 10AM, as it won’t open during rush hour.  From the 17’ fixed bridge there is no good place to stop to re-step your rig until you’re past the Lockport lock and tied up at the free Centennial Park wall (with 30A power) in Joliet.  Celebrate the cruise with dinner at Harrah’s Casino across the bridge!

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