Cold-Weather Distractions

With more than 3,200 miles of coastline and hundreds of years of commercial, passenger and pleasure boating heritage, Michigan maritime history is on display at several museums around the state.
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U.S. Navy and Marine pilots trained over Lake Michigan during World War II, flying off passenger steamers converted to aircraft carriers.
U.S. Navy and Marine pilots trained over Lake Michigan during World War II, flying off passenger steamers converted to aircraft carriers.

For many boat owners, the day their vessel is hauled for winter storage is the worst day of the year. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways they can get a maritime fix during the winter months. With more than 3,200 miles of coastline and hundreds of years of commercial, passenger and pleasure boating heritage, Michigan maritime history is on display at several museums around the state. Here’s a look at a few:


Michigan Maritime Museum,
South Haven

The Michigan Maritime Museum is a standout when it comes to U.S. Coast Guard history, but its displays also provide visitors with a detailed look at commercial fishing, military and maritime history. For an interesting experience, stand behind the replica ship’s wheel and watch a big-screen display of real-life conditions Great Lakes rescue crews often encountered during stormy weather.

The museum’s main exhibit is called Lake Michigan’s Call to Duty. It features contributions made by Great Lakes civilians, commercial fishermen, shipbuilders and more during World War II.

Lake Michigan, at that time, was home to one of the biggest pilot training resources, a period when passenger steamers were converted to aircraft carriers that were used to train Navy and Marine Corps fliers near Chicago.

The Michigan Maritime Museum (michiganmaritimemuseum.org) also is home to a regionally renowned research library and a center for boat building and maritime skills. Although open year-round, hours are reduced to weekends only from Nov. 1 to May 15.

In the summer, visitors can book passage on the museum’s tall ship Friends Good Will, the replica of a Great Lakes schooner that played an important role in the War of 1812. The ship is 101 feet long and 56 feet, 5 inches long on deck. While unavailable for tours in the offseason, boaters looking for cold-weather distractions can help with the tall ship’s repairs and maintenance by working in the museum’s heated shop.

A look at the controls of the USS Silversides submarine that can be toured in Muskegon.
A look at the controls of the USS Silversides submarine that can be toured in Muskegon.

USS Silversides Submarine
Museum, Muskegon

At first glance, it might be easy to see the USS Silversides Museum (silversidesmuseum.org) as just another collection of war memorabilia. However, museum guests also can tour the 311-foot Silversides submarine moored right outside. The museum hosts a wealth of information about the sub and its role in the war, and life underwater for its 80-man crew.

Although submarine duty was one of the most dangerous jobs in the military, more than 250,000 men volunteered during World War II, lured by the higher rate of pay after the Great Depression. Of the 25,000 men selected, more than 20% did not return home.

The Silversides’ storied war campaigns include less expected events, such as the need to do an emergency appendectomy while underwater, guided by book and carried out on the wardroom table, and the crew’s run-in with a kangaroo.

Museum visitors become familiar with the Pearl Harbor attack timeline. They can see the inner workings of real torpedoes and peer through a periscope among other fascinating exhibits.

The Silversides Museum and the submarine are open to the public year-round. The museum also offers the submarine and the nearby Coast Guard cutter USCGC McLane for overnight stays to groups of 20 or more.


Great Lakes Maritime Heritage
Center, Alpena

Because of its location near major Great Lakes shipping lanes and the shelter provided by nearby islands, Thunder Bay has a rich history of American and European maritime trade. The area’s abundant fur, lumber, limestone and much more attracted trade ships to the protected harbor.

Nicknamed Shipwreck Alley, the area also is well-known for the naturally preserved shipwrecks scattered across Thunder Bay and Lake Huron. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary alone is home to more than 100 wrecks dating from 1849-1966, including a 296-foot-long steel-hull steamer and a 430-foot ocean-going freighter.

The Maritime Heritage Center (bit.ly/GLHeritageCenter) is the welcome center for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary where visitors can tour a full-size replica of a shipwrecked Great Lakes schooner inside the great hall. Admission is free to the public, and it is open year-round. The facility also houses a scientific research facility, shipwreck artifact gallery and boat-building workshop.

Chuck Warren is a licensed captain and freelance boating writer who lives in Grandville. 

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