Our Recipe for Crossing Lake Michigan

"Long voyages - any voyages - in a small sailing craft are most complex operations when they are carried out properly, in a seamanlike manner. The idea of escaping the problems of life by sailing away is a fable.
-Tristan Jones from Yarns, 1983.

The above point is well taken and quickly understood once the shoreline disappears. You'd better have your ship together and know how to react to any "problems of life" rather instinctively when running to a safe harbor isn't an option. While crossing Lake Michigan (or any of the Great Lakes) isn't quite the same as a bluewater ocean passage, there are some similarities in how you prepare and the safety equipment you should carry. Since I get a lot questions here on the blog about crossing Lake Michigan and keeping young children safe on such a passage, I thought I'd share our recipe for safety on a crossing. On our ~72 nautical mile crossing of Lake Michigan this summer, we used the following safety gear:

1) Whistles: Both Erin and I each kept a whistle on a lanyard during the night portion of the crossing. If someone were to fall overboard, it would be very difficult to locate said person in the blackness of night. Someone in the water, if conscious, could use the whistle to signal the boat either in darkness or swells large enough to hide a bobbing person. They could also be used to rouse off-watch crew in the cabin if the on-watch crew were too pre-occupied with sailing the boat to go below.

2) Type II inflatable PFD's: While I would hope I don't have to remind anyone that PFD's are an absolute must for sailing, wearing them at all times when not in the cabin on an open water passage is critical. Again, if someone falls overboard, their only hope for survival is to be picked up by the boat which they fell of off. There's no relying on a swim to shore or a passing boat for rescue, so you'd better be sure you can float long enough to be rescued by your own crew. And you'd better be able to float if you're knocked unconscious during your fall overboard.

Happy to be wearing a PFD!
3) Tether, harness, and jacklines: These go hand-in-hand with PFD's. Ideally, if you're using a tether, harness and jacklines correctly, the PFD will never be needed since you'll be attached to the boat and unable to go overboard. Our rule on passage is that anyone going on deck must be tethered, including the kids, even in calm daytime conditions. 

Notice the harness and tethers (blue strap)
4) Radar reflector: The effectiveness of radar reflectors is an often debated topic on sailing forums, but we prefer to err on the side of safety and use one even if it may only marginally increase our radar footprint. Our radar reflector is an Echomaster Deluxe from Davis Instruments that we hang in the raincatcher position from one of the flag lines on our spreaders. 

5) High quality LED flashlights: If you're on passage at night, you're going to need light to check the rigging, sails, and occasionally the water. We use Inova X03 LED flashlights from NiteIze and keep them tethered to our PFD for easy access. These are ultra high quality lithium powered LED lights that provide 200 lumens of light output and feature a waterproof design. If you're look for a quality LED flashlight, I highly recommend an Inova.

6) Multi-tool: A Leatherman or other such multi-tool is invaluable, even when not on passage. We each keep a multi-tool in a pouch on our foul-weather bibs. This keeps the tool within easy reach for times when a knife blade is needed, such as cutting a tether or sheet in an emergency.

7) Redundant navigation/communication equipment: We carry two identical Garmin GPSMap 76 handhelds and an iPad2 running Navionics, ShipFinder HD, and SailMaster. We also keep a floating, waterproof handheld VHF handy in the cockpit in case the fixed mount VHF fails or is unreachable. We do not have radar installed on our boat, partly because they're expensive and partly because they use a lot of electricity. With the weather forecasting available from NOAA on VHF and the weather radar available on an iPhone/iPad, we feel like a radar wouldn't add much to our shipboard weather station. As for collision avoidance, radar would assist at night or in fog, but we generally avoid sailing in both situations and use a radar reflector, AIS apps, and prudent seamanship when we do. If we made frequent offshore passages or start to sail more at night, a radar would likely be added to our priority upgrades list.

8) Spares kit: We carry spares for just about everything replaceable on our engine (plugs, wires, impeller, contact kit) and many spares for rigging including shackles, clevis pins, blocks, line, etc. We also have a spare bilge pump that it is ready to install with the connection of two wires.  Speaking of bilge pumps, our boat has one automatic electric pump and a second Whale Gusher manual pump mounted in the cockpit for emergencies.

9) Ditch bag: Our ditch bag is basically a water tight dry bag filled with energy bars, bottled water, a flashlight, flares, solar blanket, a mirror, a small first aid kit, and one of the back-up GPS units mentioned above. If we ever have to abandon ship, this bag comes with us.

10) Life raft: We don't have a lift raft and wouldn't invest in one for the kind of sailing we do. However, we consider our rigid hull inflatable dinghy that we tow as an emergency life raft if something catastrophic were to happen. Again, having quick access to a knife blade to cut the bridle in an emergency is important. If we frequently made long offshore passages or planned a long ocean cruise, we'd invest in a canister life raft.

Checking our gear the night before a passage
I'm sure there are items we carry that I've forgotten to mention, but hopefully this list helps others who are considering long passages. Conversely, feel free to add a comment below or send an email if you'd like to suggest another item or tell us about something you carry for offshore passages.


  1. What is your optimal shove off time?

    1. Obviously, a weather window is the most important factor. But seasonally speaking, anytime between June and September would work. In terms of what time to shove off during any 24 hour period, I prefer early morning sometime before sunrise. This gives us a good head start on the day and plenty of day light in the afternoon/early evening to make landfall. I also enjoy heightened senses during a few hours of nighttime sailing before the sun rises. So optimal for us is somewhere between 3-4am.


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