Traditional sailing vessels, also known as tall ships, were common on the Great Lakes until they were displaced by steam-powered vessels in the late 1800s. An estimated 25,000 schooners ferried passengers and cargo between Midwestern freshwater ports. Although the last operational schooners were decommissioned in the 1930s, quite a few Michigan tall ship sailing opportunities still exist.
Replicas of the original vessels, such as the 114-foot schooner Manitou, sail from many Michigan ports. Aside from auxiliary engines, navigation equipment and Coast Guard safety gear, the ships have largely remained true to their roots and many accurately represent Great Lakes maritime history.
“It’s a passion,” said Traverse City Tall Ship Company owner and Captain Dave McGinnis. “We are the latest link in a long chain of people who want to keep the history in play.”
For Ashley Deming, director of education and administration at South Haven’s Michigan Maritime Museum, the best part of her involvement with the organization’s 101-foot sloop Friends Good Will is the ability to bring history to life for the passengers and for the crew.
“With Friends Good Will,” Deming said, “we can step aboard history and really know what it was like to live, sail and work on a tall ship operating on the Great Lakes.”
Many tall ship companies offer two- or three-hour day sails, sightseeing cruises and sunset sailing trips. However, visitors also will find a variety of specialty sailing adventures such as wine tasting trips, ice cream cruises and rides with local musicians playing on the deck. Tall ships also can be chartered for weddings, conferences and other activities.
Today’s tall ship captains are willing to share their experiences with curious kids and interested adults alike. Below are the tall ships that ply the waters on the Lake Michigan, Superior and Huron coasts.
Sailing from Fifth Street in downtown Bay City on the waters of Saginaw Bay, the 85-foot steel-hulled schooner Appledore IV is the only tall ship on the Lake Huron coast offering traditional sail training and environmental education programs. Operated by the not-for-profit group BaySail, Appledore IV provides third- through 12th-graders with hands-on education focused on stewardship of the Great Lakes and the Saginaw watershed.
Along with day sails, BaySail hosts a wide variety of specialty cruises, such as late-night Celestial Excursions for sky watchers and an Independence Day VIP Fireworks Festival cruise that includes dinner, live entertainment and the best seat in the house for the annual fireworks show. baysailbaycity.org
Traverse City Tall Ship Company’s 114-foot schooner Manitou is one of the largest traditional sailing vessels on the Great Lakes today. Built in New Hampshire and finished in Vermont before sailing to Traverse City, Manitou is a replica of an original 18th-century Great Lakes merchant schooner.
The vessel is used each spring as an educational platform to teach third- through 12th-grade students about the environmental threats to the Great Lakes. Manitou offers classic day sails and also is available for three- and four-day Windjammer cruises in Grand Traverse Bay. Manitou also serves as a floating bed and breakfast, where guests can choose to sleep on deck and will enjoy a homemade breakfast cooked on her wood-burning stove, “Cleo.” tallshipsailing.com
FRIENDS GOOD WILL
Visitors to the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven also can cruise aboard the Friends Good Will, the 101-foot replica of a merchant vessel built in Michigan in 1810. The ship’s volunteer crew appears in period dress to complete the historical experience during day and sunset sails and has been known to repel attacks during Pirate Chaser cruises. Passengers can even witness her 6-pound pivot cannon fire from the ship’s deck.
“With Friends Good Will, we can step aboard history and really know what it was like to live, sail and work on a tall ship operating on the Great Lakes.”
— Ashley Deming
Also used to teach traditional seamanship, passengers can participate in the ship’s operation while underway and learn about subjects that include knot tying, sail handling and safety drills. Conveniently, the seamanship course also qualifies graduates to volunteer aboard the ship. Friends Good Will also offers classic day sails. michiganmaritimemuseum.org/friendsgoodwill
The role of these vessels has changed dramatically, but their importance has not. The original vessels may have been replaced with newer replicas, but the tall ships that sit proudly at several of Michigan’s lakefront docks still play an important part in Great Lakes maritime history.
Chuck Warren is a freelance boating writer and licensed captain who lives in Grandville. He’s worked around boats for 40 years.