A Circumnavigation with Two Girls and a Tree Named Makeba

"At the end of your life, you're not going to remember all the knick-knacks and gadgets you had around you ... you're going to remember how far you could see when you looked out on the horizon. 
-Amy Lukas

Have you seen the t-shirt that says "You can't buy happiness, but you can buy a boat and that's just about the same thing"?

Best friends Amy Lukas and Mary Catterlin would argue that you don't even have to buy the boat. Instead, you can build one from a single cottonwood tree and sail it on a 1,200 mile 93 day circumnavigation of Lake Michigan that's filled with happiness.

I suppose it started with Mary wanting to own a boat but not being able to afford one. So naturally she decided to make one. A downed cottonwood tree provided the materials. She then spent three years carving the hull out of the tree trunk and creating her very own dugout canoe. Makeba (mah-KAY-buh) was born. With Amy's help, outriggers and a sailing rig from a Sunfish were added. At a mere 11 feet in length, Makeba was a small vessel for a grand adventure.

In 2012, Amy and Mary set off paddling and sailing their way around the shoreline of Lake Michigan and learning about the big lake and friendship in ways that few will ever experience. Along the way they met interesting people, overcame obstacles and accomplished the goal they set for themselves. I saw Amy and Mary present about their adventure at the State of Lake Michigan Conference last fall and immediately knew their story was perfect for SailFarLiveFree.com.

What follows is an interview I did with Amy and Mary. If you want more details about their adventure, check out their website. Better yet, watch their documentary or buy their book, Lake Michigan in a Dugout.

What did your time sailing and paddling around Lake Michigan teach you about the Great Lakes and living in close connection to the water?

Amy: Lake Michigan is beautiful at all times of the year, not just from Memorial Day to Labor Day. From the warm glassy water in July, to the wild waves of September, you can find beauty and a sense of wonder on the water regardless of the season. Finding yourself on top of a monstrous dune or on a completely empty stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline is something magical. Being by the water day in and day out is calming. We are extremely fortunate to call part of Lake Michigan home. It was really inspiring to see how much people love their portion of the lake - it gives me hope that all sections of our Great Lakes are being advocated for by those who have a connection to the water. The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world, and to think that they are right in our backyard to explore is...amazing! If people are exposed to the Great Lakes, they will inevitably fall in love with them (how could they not?) and will have a stake in protecting these precious areas for years to come.

Similarly, what did the time together teach you about friendship?

Amy: One of the most frequent remarks that comes our way after hearing about our adventure is, "I just can't believe that you're still friends!" So I guess we've learned that it's difficult to find friends that you go on extended trips with successfully. I couldn't imagine it turning out any other way; we were back to going on mini adventures the day we got off Lake Michigan. Some friends end up being more like family, and Mary is definitely like a sister to me. Our personalities just mesh well together and we're usually giggling at something silly. Humor helps in friendships, as well as in most situations we find ourselves in throughout life.

Mary: I believe we each learned and better appreciated how lucky we are to get along so well for so long. With such similar interests, goals, and attitudes we were able to share this experience and many others with, I think, greater meaning. It's wonderful to be able to share so much with a good friend, be it struggles and achievements alike.

Cruising sailors often give dreamers the advice of "Just go...Don't wait!" when asked how to make it happen or how to afford a sailing adventure. So, how did you make your adventure a reality, both financially and emotionally? Maybe you can talk about some of the trade-offs that were required to make it happen.

Mary: I had no idea how to build a boat, but I took on the project wholeheartedly, knowing that the process was part of the adventure. Commitment and patience gave me a great focus in what I wanted in life and allowed me to more easily take on one obstacle after another. Overthinking a project can make it too daunting if you try and put every problem ahead of you before even taking that first step. I say, just figure it out as you go and don't stop going.

Amy: We had both just graduated from university, with no major commitments line up, so it really was a great time to "just go." Sure we had to put aside some job opportunities, but we both wanted to go for this adventure more than any conventional job anyways. We were very DIY, freestyling everything (see: Makeba) so we made things work. We did set up a crowd funding page on Indiegogo to get our story out there and to gather some support and donations for our trip. We weren't hoping to raise much, but did need some help with funds for some of the more expensive gear that we didn't already own. Reaching out to several companies for sponsorship, as well as family and friends for borrowed items, put our adventure within reach.

What do you wish you would have known before starting the circumnavigation?

Amy: How quickly it would end. At times, the loop seemed to drag and it felt like we were making no progress at all. I wish we would have slowed down our thoughts during those moments especially to really take in the lake, the people, and the journey we were on. Before we knew it, we were less than 100 miles from home and then it was over in a flash. We cherished every moment; I just wish our lake was bigger so that we would have had even more days to explore and travel along the shoreline.

Mary: I don't know if I would have wanted to know more beforehand - especially since we were successful. Naivety and open mindedness have been some our greatest strengths against new challenges. Of course we did our research and planned as much as possible before setting off, but I think our lack of experience in long expeditions gave us a small advantage. No discouraging experience could stop us from trying to achieve our dream.

Have you gained new perspectives about living simply? If so, what are they?

Amy: We had to pack and unpack, thinking about to take and not take. And in the end, it wouldn't have mattered much about whether or not we took an extra shirt or extra camera battery. Those are all little details that blur the bigger picture. At the end of your life, you're not going to remember all the knick-knacks and gadgets you had around you, you're going to remember the way that your stomach hurt from laughing so hard about forgetting to zip the tent, you're going to remember the instant you connected with someone who you now must have known in some past life, and you're going to remember how far you could see when you looked out on the horizon. I think we both already had ideas about how little you need to make a happy life. Living out of an eleven foot boat for 93 days really put the "living simply" perspective to the test though. And it's true, you can be the happiest you've ever been in a tiny boat on the water with your best friend.

Thank you to Amy and Mary for agreeing to this interview and sharing a small part of your story! By the way, if you liked Amy and Mary's story, you'll probably also like Katie and Jessie's story, another sailing adventure from a female duo originating in the Great Lakes.


  1. An amazing story. John

    1. Totally agree. Thanks for reading, John.

  2. Fascinating story! It's so hard to believe that out of that tree came this beautiful boat.

    Cheers - Ellen

    1. Some see firewood, others an adventure waiting to happen.

  3. Love this post for so many reasons. It is so real and vulnerable, it is pure beauty. You've made awesome points here, Thank to you for sharing this with us, Keep up the great work.


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