Door County Cruisin'

There are several Great Lakes cruising destinations that are truly world class. Lake Huron's North Channel, Lake Superior's Apostle Islands, and Lake Michigan's Door County Peninsula are three of the most well known, both in the region and in the larger cruising community as a whole.

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. (Note - For more details, see this post: Our Recipe for Crossing Lake Michigan)

Crossing paths with a freighter
We departed Pentwater at about 3am for our 74NM (85 statute miles) passage to Sturgeon Bay. After a bit of motoring and avoiding commercial traffic by using ShipFinder HD on the iPad between Little and Big Point Sable, we had the sails up and the autopilot set for the remainder of the 14 hour passage. Winds were moderate (10-15kts) out of the south and mostly on our beam or port quarter so the sailing was generally very nice. We didn't see any traffic in the open lake except for a larger powerboat that passed nearby heading west at about mid-lake. As is to be expected, winds and waves picked up in the middle of the lake because of the long fetch. I presume this is typical for most lake crossings. The afternoon became a bit hazy and we didn't sight the Wisconsin shoreline until we were within a couple of miles of landfall. We were out of sight of land for about 9 hours, which was very cool and very daunting if you thought about it too much. Being over 35 nautical miles from land made me feel small just like standing at the edge of the ocean or peering through a telescope at the craters on the moon did when I was a child.

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
We stayed one night at the Quarterdeck Marina on the south side of the Sturgeon Bay channel. The marina is clean and well kept with a newer clubhouse, showers and very large pool. The staff was also friendly and helpful. Having said that, we likely wouldn't stay there again as the marina basin is extremely weedy (as is much of Sturgeon Bay). We ended up having to don a mask and snorkel multiple times on this cruise to clear weeds from our prop and strut. On our way back through Sturgeon Bay, we stayed at CenterPointe Marina and found their dockage and facilities to be top notch with a price to match. Most of the slips were still weedy, though not as clogged as at Quarterdeck.

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
So, to summarize Door County cruising...

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.

4 comments:

  1. Great post Kevin. I have been reading your blog for a couple of years and find it very helpful. I am sailing out of Muskegon, MI with my family in a 25 footer. I would like to get into cruising and have been dreaming of trips to Beaver Island or Door County for a while. Have you ever thought about a post about a checklist for weekend or more family cruising? Keep em coming!

    David

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    1. David - Thanks for the feedback. Both Door County and Beaver Island are excellent cruising destinations. Beaver Island in particular offers great history and natural features to explore. I do have a post or two planned for later this fall that will focus on family cruising tips. Have you read my "Cruising with Kids" post on the "Techniques" page?

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  2. Your claim that Door County his limited anchorages only means you didn't stay long enough. A little farther north of Fish Creek would lead you to discover Nicolet Bay and Horseshoe Island, 2 such places to drop anchor that would protect you from any wind. Chambers Island is good only if the wind is from the south. However, if you went to Washington Island there are several anchorages that are worthwhile. The little harbor at the north end of Detroit Island, which projects into Detroit Harbor at the south end of the island afforded me great protection in a 100 mph storm in 1981. Come back and check out the north end of Green Bay including the ghost town of Fayette which has good holding ground and the little harbor just north of that. Very quiet and secluded.

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    1. I agree, we didn't get nearly as far north on his trip as we had hoped. Nearly all of the anchorages you mention we're on our itinerary, so maybe we'll get to check them out on a return visit. Fish Creek and south seemed to have limited anchorages nonetheless. Thanks for your feedback!

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