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.

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.

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….

Frankfort: A Day in Photos

On Saturday, for the first time this trip, we spent the day in port, and it was a beautiful one.

Despite a forecast of high 60s and rain for much of the day, the clouds lifted by 10 a.m. We perused the farmers market just a few steps from our slip, where a strapping young lad working one of the stalls gave Claire a sunflower as big as her head.

We dug around town, trying out the coffee shops (I love Petals and Perks!) and making big teddy bear friends at The Bookstore. We even went for a stunning beach walk along the sand cliffs just north of the channel. All of the fun wore Claire out so much that she actually napped – a miracle in itself!

While she snoozed, Mark and Nikki, a lovely couple who also live in Oak Park and sail (they own a boat and Mark races with Aaron on Turning Point), met us on Clarity and then drove the three of us out to Landmark, their 40-acre playground about a 30-minute drive inland. The property includes inviting log cabins, a vineyard and a masterful red barn that everyone gathers around to eat and chat.

It was a relaxing evening of great company, with plenty of dirt for Claire to dig around in, trees to hide behind and caterpillars to befriend. She even went on her first dates – yep, that’s dates, plural. Two men in one night – Nikki’s nephews. Claire’s gonna be a heartbreaker.

We drove back to Clarity, got Claire down and collapsed. This morning, we took a quick trip to Point Betsie lighthouse before setting sail for Leland! More on that later. Here, some Frankfort snapshots.


An Amazing Milestone

We are currently tucked away in our slip in Frankfort, listening to the waves lap against the stern, and I am amazed at what we have accomplished.

Clarity is now in uncharted territory!

Last year when we took our month-long trip, we made it as far as Manistee at the end of two weeks before turning the boat around to head back to Chicago. It was our first family cruise and we had had a number of mechanical issues that plagued us all along the way. Manistee felt like as far as we could push.

In less than a week, we’ve made it a full port further north than we managed in two weeks last year. I am so proud of us.

The evening we got into the Muskegon Yacht Club, we reconnected with a wonderful couple we had met there last year – salt-of-the-earth, good people. They were sailing up to Ludington the next day, which was our next stop, so we spent the nine-hour sail yesterday racing each other up the coastline and throwing jokes back and forth over the radio. It was a memorable sail, followed by a memorable evening in port, telling stories and drinking too much tequila. It was as if we had known them for years.

Based on the weather forecast, we planned to spend today in port, but halfway through the morning, there was a break in the rain and the forecast and waves looked decent. Our friends headed south to Pentwater and we headed north, intending to go to Manistee. The first part of the sail was a bit rough, with moderate waves, but once we rounded Big Sable Point, the lake laid down a bit and we were on a better point of sail with following seas.

As we were getting close to turning on the blinker and heading in to Manistee, Aaron jokingly said, “You’re going to hate me for telling you this, but Frankfort is only about three hours farther.” Claire was happy as a clam, the conditions were great, we were flying along between 7 and 8.5 knots boat speed downwind, and it was only 1:30 p.m. We thought, what the heck?! Let’s do it!

Five hours later, Clarity was tied off at the dock, Aaron was getting things settled and Claire and Kermit were smiling and swinging at the playground right next to the municipal marina. (I just love that kind of city planning.)

Already, this trip has made me so in awe of what we can accomplish – and have fun doing it! And, it has made me even more in love with my family.

Tomorrow, a day in port (for sure).