Home and Away

The Downey Family aboard s/v Clarity, sail from Muskegon to Ludington, August 28, 2014

The Downey Family aboard s/v Clarity, sail from Muskegon to Ludington, August 28, 2014

Four weeks ago today, we were making final preparations for our trip, getting the condo in order for a month away and provisioning the boat accordingly.

Three weeks ago today, we sailed from Ludington to Frankfort. Two weeks ago, we dug around Beaver Island in a GeoTracker before an evening sail to Charlevoix. And a week ago, we made it to Pentwater just before the rain descended again.

Aaron sailed Clarity back to Chicago on a 14-hour solo crossing from Holland this past Wednesday, and I drove the three-and-a-half hours back with Claire. We will be here next week. And the next. And the next. I am already mourning the end of our trip.

I remember when we returned to Chicago last year after our month-long cruise, it was an odd transition back to our “normal” routine. But after some challenging times out on Lake Michigan, it was partially a welcome one, if only to recharge. And we still had the rest of summer in Chicago to look forward to, which is pretty amazing in itself.

We started this year’s journey two months later than last year’s. A polar vortex descended on us halfway through, not to mention that a lot of shops and restaurants in the port towns reduced their hours or shut down completely after Labor Day. It all made this feel like the end of the sailing season, not just the end of our trip, though the Chicago marinas stay open through Halloween.

This year, I truly didn’t want the trip to end. Sure, the weather wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t experience any of the boat issues we had last year, and since this wasn’t our first rodeo, we worked even better as a team.

One of the things I try and explain when people ask, “So how was the trip?” is, when you’re gone for three to four weeks, it almost ceases to be a trip and just becomes your lifestyle. The Downey family settled into life at sea fairly early on in our travels. Aaron worked, I worked, we traveled from one place to the next, Claire was a learning sponge as we explored new places as a family.

And that’s the other part that I miss dearly when these trips come to a close – the time together as a family that isn’t relegated to just weekday evenings and weekends. It’s an absolute luxury – not just because I know Claire benefits greatly from interacting with both of us, but because Aaron and I get to show her even more how we respect each other, depend on each other, work together, and cherish our family.

We still have quite a few more weeks to live part-time on Clarity at 31st Street Harbor, but I know the only thing that will get me through another brutal Chicago winter is planning for next year’s adventures: getting a dinghy so we can anchor out rather than always docking in marinas; getting solar panels to generate our own power; cleaning out our water tanks, which we have yet to use because I’ve been spoiled with on-shore water; putting in a swim platform with an outdoor shower; and many other projects that may come to fruition and may not, depending on budget and priorities.

We’ve talked about starting earlier next year and going longer, exploring the Wisconsin coast instead, sailing up to Door County and digging around the peninsula, crossing over to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula….

When you get a taste of something extraordinary, it’s never enough.


**Many thanks to our dear friends, Dawn and Jack Draper, who took this and other amazing photos of Clarity as they sailed alongside us on their boat, 9-to-5, from Muskegon to Ludington.

November Sails in September

Mother Nature and Lake Michigan have not been particularly friendly to us this week, as we’ve been slowly but surely making our way south.

Cold, dreary, rainy, foggy – all those attributes you look for in a lovely September sail! It’s been highs in the 50s during the day and lows in the 40s at night. As I wore the same pair of pants three days in a row because my other pair was already in the laundry, I learned that I didn’t pack appropriately. And investing in foul weather gear might be a good idea before next year’s cruise. Helly Hanson, do you also make sets for toddlers?

After a bear of a day sailing to Frankfort, we had the same conditions all the way to Ludington the next day, and then we got socked in for two days as the wind howled and the waters got angry. The middle of the lake saw 18-footers on Wednesday. Tucked in safe in sound at Harbor View Marina, we enjoyed the library and the cozy fireplace, though we were bummed that the hot tub was closed for the season.

On Thursday, Aaron’s mother, Penny, and her husband, Brian, visited us with the best gifts we could hope for – jars of homemade chili, cornbread muffins and freshly baked chocolate cupcakes. We dug around town with a stop at the library (one of the best around for kids), ate some ice cream at House of Flavors and shared dinner on the boat before they headed home.

Friday, we caught a window before more storms set in and sailed to Pentwater. Our friends Jack and Dawn drove up to join us for dinner at the yacht club, and then we joined them at Muskegon Yacht Club, their home port, the next day after a six-hour sail. Hours of chats, laughs around a bonfire – they’ve become fast friends that I know will be friends for years.

Then today, it was on to Holland. I was looking forward to an easier sail – the last two had been rough, as the lake hadn’t calmed down after the cold front settled in. All of the forecasts called for waves of 1 to 2 feet, and the sun started shining just as we cast lines. Finally, a calm, sunny sail! Well, as can happen, the forecasts were wrong, and as soon as we were halfway through the channel and headed out to the lake, it got lumpy. We sailed 2- to 4-foot waves with 10- to 15-knots of wind the whole way down.

And a miracle occurred. I didn’t feel sick. In fact, I loved it! For the first time, I was able to fully enjoy sailing in those conditions, the jib out, us hauling down the lake, riding the waves at a 15-degree heel. It seems that my exposure to longer sails in waves has helped me curb my symptoms. Maybe if we lived full-time on our boat year round, I’d get to a point where I don’t get seasick at all :).

We sailed, rather than motored, up the channel to Lake Macatawa – something we did on the way in to the last two ports, and something that just felt good to do, seeing as we’re a sailboat. We got the boat settled at Anchorage Marina, Claire took a swim in the heated pool and we all collapsed in our spaghetti. And it dawned on me that today was our last full family sail day. If only we could do this forever…


Days of Detours

Well, the last two days were not our finest.

After we finally made a break for it and got out of Beaver Island Friday evening, we spent a lovely Saturday in beautiful Charlevoix. Family and friends came to visit, we dug through town, browsing the shops and tasting the latest local fare. Claire took a dip in the splash pad, I did some laundry… Back to “the usual” for cruising life.

With a need to finally turn this boat south and start heading back to the big city, we had plans to make it to South Manitou Island yesterday and anchor out, and put in a long day today, too.

I’ll be honest – yesterday I was not at my best. Claire woke up on the wrong side of the bed – no nap the day before, part of the cause – and was particularly crabby. And in order to make full days on the water enjoyable for all (which they definitely can be), Aaron and I have to be creative to keep Claire entertained. For whatever reason, I just didn’t have it in me, and when the waves started building about an hour after we crossed the bridge, nobody was happy, including the captain.

The wind was right on our nose, which meant no sailing, and it also meant we were bashing into the waves, which kicked up to four feet. At that point, we’re not a sailboat anymore – we’re a really, really slow powerboat. After a few hours, we cried uncle and headed for Northport, just inside Grand Traverse Bay.

We had visited Northport during a week-long charter five or six years ago, and I didn’t have fond memories of it. But Aaron remembered that they had put $500k into renovating the marina and coastline recently, and a friend had told us they were making great efforts to revitalize the town.

It’s now one of our favorite stops of the cruise. The marina was quaint and cute, with clean facilities and a little beach and park nearby. A hop, skip and a jump to town and we were browsing a beer, wine and gift shop that opened just three weeks ago in the old train depot, and the outdoor fireplace of the Northport Brewing Company invited us farther into town.

After sharing some flights of the local brews and some easy conversation with some fellow boaters, we happened on Tucker’s just down the main street. We treated ourselves to some pizza and bowling, and they treated us like a million bucks – the owner even had his wife at home just down the road pop out of the shower to bring us socks!

Another beautiful sunset and a lively chat with another lovely boating couple on the way back to town, and we were re-energized, prepared to really give it our all the next day.

Today started out well enough – sunny and bright, relatively warm, and calm seas in the bay. We had even made it off the dock before 9 a.m. – a first for the cruise! But early on, we couldn’t keep the main sail full – the wind was back on our nose – so down came the sails, with the engine on full blast. And then, the waves picked up again.

And they kept coming, and coming, and coming – a steady three to four feet, with an occasional five. Anyone who’s sailed the Great Lakes knows that the period between the waves here is extremely small (compared to waves on the ocean). From 2 p.m. on, it was as though we were skiing the moguls with out boat, and making terrible time to boot.

Unfortunately, we were too far past Leland to turn around and just head in, and knew we had quite a few hours to go before Frankfort. At that point, you just have to suck it up and keep going. I felt seasick, but managed to keep it at bay – I’m getting better at this with more time on the water. Claire did get seasick once, but then she was back to her giggly self.

Yet, even on days like today, there’s so much to be thankful for. As fussy as Claire was yesterday morning, she was a dream today, happy as a clam, even through the worst of the waves. Her happiness helped me keep things in check; I learn from her every day.

And though it was a rough ride, Clarity (and Aaron) got us to Frankfort safe and sound before dusk, the engine purring like a kitten the whole way (albeit a very loud kitten).

Tomorrow, we’ll spend a few hours letting Claire stretch her legs on land before taking to the seas again. I can only hope they’ll be a bit more forgiving.

Beautiful Beaver Island

This is our third morning on Beaver Island, and I have mixed feelings about this remote place. We’ve experienced some of our most memorable moments of the trip here – and it seems, the island doesn’t want us to leave!

We planned to stay just one full day, setting sail again on Wednesday morning. But Beaver has enveloped us in a bear hug of intermittent torrential downpours, winds of up to 50 knots, waves up to 11 feet out on the lake, and waves big enough in the harbor to splash up over our stern. All of the boats in the municipal marina here, including Clarity, become like bucking broncos during the storm peaks, trying to break free of their lines. Aaron’s diligently been checking and adjusting them to make sure we safely stay put.

While the extra days here have thrown a small wrench in our cruising plans, they have allowed us to truly experience this place – and it’s more than worth the time. After a bustling Labor Day weekend in touristy beach towns, we arrived in Beaver Island on Tuesday early evening – a day after the season closes here. And it’s a ghost town. Shops are closed. Restaurants are closed. Museums are closed. And there are only a handful of souls around.

But, what the Island lacks in population it makes up for in community. And though the islanders may seem quiet and reserved, if you strike up a conversation, they’re more than happy to chat with you. Claire, Aaron and I stopped in the St. James Boat Shop (which happened to be open), where they spend hundreds of hours crafting cherry stand-up paddleboards, canoes, dingys and more, and struck up a wonderful conversation with one of the owners. A year-round resident, her children are a few of the 68 students that attend the Beaver Creek Community School. High school graduating classes are often just three or four students.

I mentioned hoping to visit the Marine Museum across the street. “If it’s closed, let me know,” she said. “I’ll call the owner for you.” The owner of the Toy Museum a bit further down was a personal friend, too, and just a phone call away.

Based on a recommendation from a good friend, we popped in the Beaver Island Fish Market, where they catch, smoke and sell local catch. Unfortunately, the owner who had operated the place for decades passed away a month prior. But the current operator, a humble and tall drink of water still in his fishing gear from the morning, offered us samples of his cajun lake trout, genuinely asking our opinion. Our taste buds told us he’s doing just fine so far.

Those stops were all in St. James Harbor, the tiny town on the northern tip of the island where, we had to pause while a wild turkey and her three babies crossed the road. After checking the radar and realizing that we would be here awhile, Aaron and I followed the local bartender’s advice and rented a Geo Tracker from the marina down the road. In a few lucky weather windows between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, we drove all over the island, deer watching along gravel roads, climbing dunes, hiking through dense forests and relishing in an unforgettable sunset barbecue and campfire on the northern coast, with unparalleled views of Whisky, Squaw and Garden Islands to the north, and the Upper Peninsula on the horizon. (Did you know Beaver Island is one in a cluster of seven islands?!) I highly recommend that you do this if you’re ever in town. And buy the $5 map – it’s worth it.

Aaron and I also both had work deadlines while in town. He spent hours in the Shamrock Bar and Restaurant up the road, scarfing their WiFi to write proposals, while I spent a few evenings hunkered down on the boat, finishing up edits to a report for a client.

All signs point to the weather clearing out by midday today, and the waves should follow by this evening. I’m still trying to convince Aaron that a moonlit sail is in order, but either way, we should be casting lines by tomorrow late morning. Time to go, though I’m going to miss this place.

Labor Day in Leland

Gorgeous coastline, a cute little town, a picturesque river with a waterfall, and Fishtown! Leland’s one you won’t want to miss if you’re up north in the Leelanau Peninsula.

After visiting Point Betsie Lighthouse on Sunday morning, we cast lines from Frankfort and made the sail up to Leland. It was chilly and overcast for much of the trip, but the Sleeping Bear Dunes were breathtaking all the same, and my excitement built when the Manitous came into focus.

The sun finally burned through the clouds mid-afternoon, just as we readied the boat for our slip in Leland Township Harbor. And the coastline became infinitely more beautiful.

We spent the rest of Sunday and all of Monday digging around town. We popped in the shops on Main Street, took a tour of Fishtown (complete with seafood chowder at The Cove), did a wine tasting, got stuck in a rainstorm at the beach, and paddleboarded up the Leland River to Lake Leelanau.

And of course, watched two breathtaking sunsets.

After a fairly busy holiday weekend in port with lots of tourists around, we sail for Beaver Island tomorrow, which I’m sure will be the opposite. Our northernmost port on this trip, it’s a relatively remote one – I don’t even know if there’s a coffee shop!! – but neither of us has ever been there, and we’re looking forward to some quiet time to dig around and just, be….