Camping Cruise on the Great Lakes

Anchored Mediterranean-style along the north shore of Lake Huron in Les Cheneaux Islands.
Photo by Charles Scott

It’s not ordinary for a sailor to be captivated by the sight of boulders the size of pianos slipping beneath the keel. In my experience as a lifelong big-boat sailor, visions such as this would have left me gasping rather than breathless (a subtle, yet significant, distinction).

But this was different. All afternoon I had sailed the 16-foot Wayfarer dinghy along Lake Huron’s northern shore. The clear water slid by, revealing all manner of wonders beneath—the immense fragments of mountains dropped here by glaciers long ago, grassy forests, sandy flats. Along the coast pines grew thick as a jungle.

I tacked behind a sandbar into a secluded bay and anchored in the shallows. Mediterranean style, I ran a line from the transom, looped it around a tree and pulled it tight. With the stern close to shore, I stepped out into ankle-deep water.

The scenery was breathtaking. The small anchorage looked onto the sparkling expanse of Lake Huron, and the boat cast her shadow on the sandy bottom. Pine scented the air as the sun set behind dark headlands. I gazed in wonder at the night sky, ablaze with stars so close I could almost touch them.

After a night aboard in Les Cheneaux, Charles enjoys a cuppa in the morning sun.
Photo by Charles Scott

Microcruising in Les Cheneaux Islands of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I was truly living the dream from a perspective I’d never known. For 50 years, I’ve been a big-boat sailor. I owned a Westsail 32 named Antares for nearly three decades and sailed her throughout the Great Lakes and into the Atlantic. Two years ago, I sold her after I had to admit to myself that she was becoming a handful to sail single-handed.

All that deep-water sailing had left me curious about the other bits, and after selling Antares, I began looking for a micro-cruiser to explore the shallows. Lucky for me, Michigan Sailing Club, of which I’m a member, had a Wayfarer that I could borrow to give this kind of cruising a try. She seemed like a perfect fit. Designed in 1957 by Ian Proctor of the U.K., it’s a proven little voyager and has a devoted world-wide following.

I approached cruising the 370-pound Wayfarer in the same way I sailed the 11-ton Westsail. The fundamentals still applied: prudent seamanship, good ground tackle, a reefing system, shelter from the weather, safety gear, a small stove, provisions. Apart from her centerboard, the biggest difference was that the Wayfarer had no motor. It was either sail, row, or sit, so I rigged oars to help in the calms.

Up to the Islands
Aboard my Westsail, it took days to reach Les Cheneaux Islands (The Channels) from the Detroit area.. From Ann Arbor, Michigan, I towed the borrowed Wayfarer there in six hours. The low-lying islands lie 30 miles east of the Mackinac Bridge in the Upper Peninsula. Shaped by Pleistocene glaciers, they came by their current name when French voyageurs traveled there in the 1600s. Long channels run between the islands, their forested banks lined with summer cottages. Little coves and welcoming anchorages beckon around every corner. The villages of Hessel and Cedarville have launch ramps and all the facilities needed to outfit a cruise.

I arrived on a cool September afternoon in Hessel where I rigged the boat. The mast pivots on a tabernacle, so it’s easy to raise single-handed. I’m a little rusty as a dinghy sailor (just five decades), so it took a few tacks to get outside the harbor. I worked around a tight series of rocky points and tacked up a long, narrow channel.

Skimming into Cedarville.
Photo courtesy of Charles Scott

Right away, my options suddenly expanded. When I sailed Antares through the islands years ago, her 5-foot draft had kept me inside the well-marked channels. The Wayfarer freed me from the confines of the red and green buoys. With the board up, she was at ease in water shallow as a wading pool, and I worked my way past stately summer homes that lined the shore, many with a classic wooden boat docked in its clapboard boathouse.

“Nice job tacking up the channel!,” a homeowner called from the end of his dock. I waved in thanks, pushed the tiller to the lee and made my way toward an inviting bay. I raised the centerboard and ghosted through tall reeds that brushed softly against the hull. At a dock the Westsail could have never reached, I got out to stretch my legs in the Aldo Leopold Nature Preserve. A naturalist, author, and conservationist, Leopold spent his boyhood summers in Les Cheneaux.

After a walk, I meandered down another inviting channel and sailed onto the empty sweep of Lake Huron. Only a distant personal watercraft, buzzing like a fly bumping against a windowpane, broke the silence. Little waves rippled under the hull until the wind died and left me circling on the still water. In the warm September sun, I floated motionless above tumbled rocks that shimmered in the emerald-clear water.

A zephyr returned, ruffling the surface with delicate scallops. Fresh land breezes sent me scooting back inland to a quiet bay where I anchored for the night. I draped a tarp over the boom and listened to the silence.

Anchoring close to shore in the shallows was a welcome change from my former cruising life. Antares needed deep water to anchor in, and I used a windlass to raise her chain and heavy CQR. The Wayfarer’s ground tackle was just 15 feet of chain, the rode, and a 12-pound Danforth. I’d entered a new world of lightweight cruising.

Life aboard, while similar in many ways to Antares, was far more minimalist on the Wayfarer—a cross between cruising and wilderness backpacking. In a 16-footer room is tight, and nearly every time I wanted something it was buried below a pile of other gear. I kept my food in a screw-top olive container and did not carry an icebox. Apples, oranges, and carrots would easily last a week, and canned soups warmed quickly on my little one-burner camp stove.

The weather radio warned of thunderstorms, so in the morning I sailed back to Hessel and got the boat up on the trailer. That night I slept in my minivan, worry-free from the concerns of a dragging anchor as rain hammered the roof and lightning flashed like fireworks.

On a chilly September morning, Charles surveys his protected anchorage on the north shore of Lake Huron in Les Cheneaux.
Photo by Charles Scott

Trailer-Sailing to New Horizons
The next morning, I “motored” (trailered) the Wayfarer just a few miles over to Cedarville, where I launched at the public ramp. Shreds of low cloud raced across the sun, and the brisk wind carried me down the channels. Foam curling under the bow, I sailed for hours. On the heavy Westsail, I could drop the tiller and she’d hold her course (for a while), but this old habit did not suit the Wayfarer. If I took my hand from the tiller, even for a second, she’d dart o? like a scared rabbit. It was the di?erence between flying a jumbo jet and a stunt plane.

One could explore Les Cheneaux for weeks, but other cruising grounds beckoned. I trailered the boat 20 miles east to the broad mouth of the St. Marys River where it empties into Lake Huron. Fifty miles long, the St. Marys flows from the ocean-like seas of Lake Superior, carrying ships from distant world ports between the lakes. I launched in a miles-wide bay dotted with dozens of pine-tufted islands.

Across the St. Marys is Lime Island where human activity dates back 6,000 years, and the remnants of 18th-century lime kilns stand among the trees. I sailed into the harbor there, past a moored barge that nearly blocked the entrance. The rudder caught on an underwater obstruction and fluky winds pushed me backwards onto a crumbling wall. Fortunately, my only audience was a flock of giggling gulls.

Charles only had to resort to oar-power a few times.
Photo by Charles Scott

In the morning I set sail in gusty winds for Harbor Island 15 miles across the St. Marys. Pitching into growing head seas, the Wayfarer was having a rough time of it, and cold spray stung my face. Following the old saying, “If you think you should reef, you already should have,” I hove to and reduced sail.

Reefing was never easy on the Westsail, but it only took a minute in the little Wayfarer. Both boat and I were immediately happier. I tacked east, hiking out and taking care not to capsize. On Antares the thought of capsize never occurred to me even in Gulf Stream gales, but it was a constant concern on the Wayfarer. My answer was to sail conservatively, reef early, and stay upright.

I reached Harbor Island under crisp northern skies. The island is shaped like a horseshoe and provides near total protection. Fifty years ago, I first anchored here with my dad. It’s always been a favorite. I dropped the hook close to the wooded shore and dozed in the late-summer sunshine. Pure bliss.

A waxing moon filled the harbor with pale light, and I slept snuggled beside the centerboard trunk on an air mattress. Overnight, dew had soaked the boom tent and the decks glistened in the soft light of dawn. After coffee, I set sail for home, drifting quietly out of the still harbor.

The bay was lively with a north wind and I made good time, estimating that I’d be back to the dock in two hours. I should have known better than to make such predictions. The wind died with a sudden gasp and the water flattened into a wide mirror. I drifted in circles, and smoke from a distant fire rose straight into the cloudless sky. Finally, I got out the oars and rowed the last 3 miles to the ramp, sweat trickling down my back.

In many ways, cruising the Wayfarer is similar to the Westsail, just on a much smaller scale. There are so many things to like about it; the gear is light, she can take me to the far corners of shallow bays, I can easily trailer her to explore new places, plus I enjoy the challenge of engine-less cruising. She is the essence of pure sail and simplicity.

But the Wayfarer can capsize, she’s a tight fit, and living aboard was just a step above tent camping. All boats are a compromise—one just has to find the right balance. I still appreciate hot showers, a gimbaled stove, cabin lights, and an engine, but the Wayfarer introduced me to a new world. For now, I’ll be sailing micro-cruisers and enjoying the pleasures this side of cruising offers.

Charles Scott is a semi-retired cameraman/photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. A world traveler and lifelong sailor, he’s logged 25,000 offshore miles on numerous ocean crossings.

August/September 2023