This summer my family and I had the good fortune of taking an 11 day cruise to Door County from our home port in Muskegon, Michigan. While the weather didn't allow us to circumnavigate the entire peninsula during our short cruise window, we did enjoy a couple of excellent Lake Michigan crossings and a bit of time exploring a few Door County ports.
If you plan to take a similar cruise, you'll have to make a few logisitcal decisions. First, you'll need to decide which port to depart from in Michigan and where to arrive in Wisconsin when you cross Lake Michigan. You'll also need to decide which ports to visit in Door County. What follows is a summary of our experience and a few tips for making both decisions.
Crossing Lake Michigan for a Door County Cruise
The options for crossing Lake Michigan are as varied and numerous as the ports on both sides of the big lake. Sailing the rhumb line from your homeport is tempting because a long passage on the first day maximizes your time spent at the destination. But of course a long passage requires larger weather windows and a crew that can handle it. For us, sailing direct from Muskegon to Sturgeon Bay would be about a 103 nautical mile passage. We figured that's just too much for a crew that includes 3 children (including our 5 month old daughter!) on a 28 foot sailboat. Instead, we opted to sail up to Pentwater and anchor out for a night before crossing. After all, Pentwater is one of our favorite local ports and offers a good, albeit deep, anchorage.
|Crossing paths with a freighter|
We chose a shorter route on our return crossing back to Michigan. While Sturgeon Bay to Frankfort is the shortest route acrossed (~46NM), we chose to depart Sturgeon Bay for Portage Lake (52NM). We left Sturgeon Bay at approximately 5am and had building northwest winds for most of the passage. We also encountered much more commercial traffic on this return passage. There were at least three instances where we had to alter our course in mid-lake to avoid large freighters. It's amazing how fast 6 knots feels when you're playing chess with a 1,000 foot long ship. I know my right-of-way regs, but as a prudent captain, I defer to common sense in shipping lanes and keep a sharp lookout, maintain a safe speed, and take action if risk of a collision exists, regardless of right-of-way.
Door County Ports
As I mentioned earlier, I can only comment on a few Door County ports because our weather window forced us to cross back to Michigan sooner than our ideal itinerary would have suggested. In any case, the following are my thoughts and observations about the places we did visit on the Door County peninsula.
Sturgeon Bay: You'll quickly realize you aren't on the Michigan side of Lake Michigan when you raise land in Sturgeon Bay and notice the dunes have been replaced by a rocky shoreline. Sturgeon Bay's channel entrance is straight forward without any major nav hazards. Once clearing the pierhead, it's a long motor up the narrow channel to get to the first bridge (Bay View Bridge). Clearance is about 42 feet, depending on water level, so you'll either be able to just cruise on under like we did, or signal for an opening using your horn and/or VHF. Our air draft is about 36 feet, so going under gave the disconcerting illusion that our mast was going to be sheared off, which of course it wasn't.
|Welcome to Sturgeon Bay|
Perhaps the most intersting aspect of Sturgeon Bay is the shipbuilding history and shipyards that still exist today. As you pass through the next two drawbridges, you'll see working shipyards building both large private yachts and servicing gigantic commercial vessels in dry dock. If I were to visit Sturgeon Bay again, I might consider anchoring in the area southwest of the shipyards behind Dunlap Reef. It's a bit exposed to certain winds, but it's probably the only option if you don't stay at a marina in Sturgeon Bay.
Once inside Green Bay, we quickly remarked how different it was from "our" side of Lake Michigan. Green Bay has many little islands (Chambers Island, Hat Island, Green Island, etc.) that would take at least many full cruising seasons to explore. We also saw many American white pelicans, which are very rare on the Michigan side of the lake. Most were concentrated around little Hat Island. Needless to say, with the islands, pelicans and granite rocky bluffs we definately felt like our long passage had transported us to someplace new to our senses.
Fish Creek: Our next and only other stop in Door County was in Fish Creek. There are two marinas in Fish Creek, but we chose to anchor instead. If you plan to anchor in Fish Creek, be aware that there is not a lot of options. You're basically stuck with anchoring on the northwest edge of the mooring field to avoid shallow water, moored boats, and traffic in and out of the marinas. The location isn't ideal because it is fairly exposed to the open waters of Green Bay and almost any wind that is not out of the south. I'd prefer to be tucked in closer to the base of the bay, inside the mooring field, but the harbormaster won't allow it. There's a small dinghy dock hidden close to shore at the state marina if you choose to go ashore, and you should! The town of Fish Creek leans heavily towards the touristy side but it's very walkable and offers enough shopping and people watching to make you wish you were on passage again. There's an excellent grocery store and really friendly coffee shop called Linger. I also recommend attending a fish boil while you're in Fish Creek, but not necessarily for the food. The boiled whitefish and potatoes are both best when soaked in butter, with the former taking on a bit of a crab taste. The real draw here is watching the boil process behind the restaurant and learning about the history from the cook, who just happens to look a bit like Brett Favre (See the resemblance in the photo below?). We thought the food was pricey, but if you consider the entertainment value as part of the deal you'll feel better about $17 per plate.
|A lesson in fish-boil-ology|
Pros: Unique shoreline, plenty of islands, vacation "feel"
Cons: Not a lot of good anchorages, weedy marinas
Bottomline: Definately worth a visit to experience the high bluffs, lake crossing, and fish boils...but choose your destinations (marinas/anchorages) carefully.