On a drive across the Mackinac Bridge, you’re suspended above a watery kiss, as lakes Michigan and Huron meet under a web of cables and concrete. But floating beneath the iconic structure, you become inextricably part of the kiss. Wind in the sails. Unsalted spray in the air. Traffic humming overhead. Every time Bill Boehm tells of his encounter with Big Mac, goosebumps form on his skin.
“I had these dreams and visions of things I would do on the Great Lakes. The biggest one was taking my boat under the Mackinac Bridge,” Bill says. He pauses and shares a truth learned over many months and nautical miles: “Almost nobody understands how big these bodies of water are.”
When Bill retired, he and his wife, Deb, committed 10 years to sailing the Great Lakes. Their journey has been one of romance and discovery—a love triangle between a man, a woman and a 40-foot Island Packet named La Tasse. The trip has revealed the vastness of the waters that form the contours of the upper Midwest. It has unveiled wild shores, forgotten villages and hidden harbors. And it has proved these five lakes can win over anyone. “I was deathly afraid of water,” Deb says. “And claustrophobic.” Yet she’s logged 8,672 miles on our freshwater seas since 2008.
The azure waters of Fish Creek Harbor in Door County, Wisconsin, draw road-trippers, as well as boaters like Bill and Deb Boehm.
Love at First Sail
At 9,500-some miles, the shorelines of the Great Lakes exceed the combined length of the east and west coasts of the continental U.S. They’ve long drawn freighters to ports like Sturgeon Bay in Wisconsin, hikers to Minnesota’s rugged North Shore of Lake Superior and honeymooners to Niagara Falls. Then there are sailing couples like Bill and Deb. Ask about Michigan, Erie or Ontario (they’ve fully circumnavigated all three), and they rattle off precise personalities.
“The west side islands are a real playground. East side has less-refined character and sex appeal,” Bill says of Lake Erie. “Lake Michigan is big and sophisticated, with awesome harbors. Even the names, like Leland and Charlevoix, are exciting and exotic.”
As Deb recalls, Lake Michigan gripped them 30 years ago, the moment Bill grabbed the wheel on a sailboat with friends. “It was like prom night. I could see it in his eyes,” Deb says. “He fell in love.” Within six months, they bought Breakaway, an entry-level Catalina for $8,000. Then came weekends on Brookville Lake in Indiana, one hour from home in Cincinnati. Deb took swimming lessons at age 40—a Christmas gift for Bill. And Bill retired early from Kroger Company with a wild idea: “Let’s take 10 years to sail the Great Lakes.”
Last year, they celebrated the decade mark and their 45th wedding anniversary. They can tell you not only where to find the best fish boil on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula (White Gull Inn), but about the fine curves of these waters. They know how the lakes breathe, lulling you to sleep in the berth with each inhale and exhale.
Bill and Deb Boehm.
Gone with the Wind
Niels Jensen, another sailor and a past commodore of the Great Lakes Cruising Club, calls sailboats “the cabin on the lake.” Except when you tire of the view, you can raise anchor and follow the wind to a better one.
For Bill, that might be the Bay of Quinte in Lake Ontario or the remote towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. An avid reader and history buff, he can name the Civil War-era schooners that hauled lumber and pig iron from Michigan’s Big Bay de Noc. The bay isn’t bustling today, but at Fayette Historic Townsite, you can visit the original smelting building from the region’s heyday and dock overnight.
Deb prefers the buzz of big-city ports like Milwaukee or Cleveland. At each harbor, the boat feels like home, with herb baskets placed on the bow of La Tasse. Deb waters them with a coffeepot and plucks leaves for eggs scrambled in the cabin, often while Bill takes a shift at the helm. Door County is her favorite area on the lakes. But joining a wine club there is the closest they’ve come to being regulars. “All five lakes are so totally different,” Deb says. “We just like to explore.”
For them, the expanse of the water brings its own reward. After a trip—up to 80 nautical miles some days—they can eye the mere inches of blue map charted and feel the greatness of the lakes. They’ve now seen all five and every connecting waterway.
Niels, who semiretired in 2013, has traded his native Denmark for the lighthouses, sea caves and old-town charm on Superior’s Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. “People ask if I’m going to sail around the world or whatnot. They don’t understand I’m in a very exotic place 4,000 miles from where I grew up,” he says.
Technology has created new ways for people to plunge (or ease) into boat life. Rather than wait for retirement, Doug and Pam Jackson of Columbus, Ohio, work remotely each summer from their catamaran, Bleu Lagoon. Julie Thorndycraft and Daniel DeWeese sold their Minneapolis home in 2015. They spend warm months on Gaviidae, then house-sit for people found online while waiting for the lakes to thaw. “We are true nomads,” Julie says. But they’ve made community through the Great Lakes Cruising Club. At events like the club’s annual Rendezvous, they meet “buddy boats” and plan group trips.
Bill and Deb meet fellow boaters at Sturgeon Bay’s CenterPointe Marina during the 2017 Great Lakes Cruising Club Rendezvous.
Pam Jackson tends to herbs on the deck of her catamaran at a marina in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
You, Me and the Sea
Bill and Deb’s voyage has never been a social affair. They joined the Cruising Club for charts and maps and only attended their first Rendezvous last year—a final feather to cap their 10th year on the lakes. For them, boat time is a commitment to each other and the water.
The lakes rock them by moonlight. Morning sun rouses them, gold beams piercing through portholes. But the tenor can shift with one thunderhead. Sleeping submerged in a cabin was a challenge for Deb, but windows and a roomier boat remedied that. Steering gives her a sense of control and helped her make peace with water (though she still avoids splashing into it).
Aboard La Tasse, Bill and Deb depart Wisconsin’s Egg Harbor for Sturgeon Bay.
Listening to the other person and the lake is key, Bill explains. He’s huddled beneath La Tasse’s canopy, safe in Door County’s Egg Harbor during an afternoon downpour. It’s the last stretch of their final big summer trip. Thanks to vigilant weather briefings (at least two a day), they arrive with time to stroll to the market after clear-sky cruising from Fish Creek in the early morning.
That night, the flicker of an oil lamp catches tears in Bill’s eyes while he tells the story of the blue pikes. Lee Murdock, Bill’s favorite songwriter and the balladeer of the Great Lakes, sings about how the fish species vanished after industrial pollution half a century ago. Explaining their plight, Bill keeps interrupting himself singing his favorite lines: “Once this Great Lake with blue pike it did teem.” He rummages below the bow of La Tasse for the CD while Deb coaxes him to get to the point. He surfaces to make a toast to the pike. “As humans, we don’t understand how fragile this resource is,” he says. “We need to understand what a jewel these bodies of water are.” He declares that blue pikes will return before his sailing days are over. At 71, it’s not too late for one more promise to the lakes.
Travel by Sail
Inspired by Bill and Deb’s excellent adventure? Here’s how you can get your feet wet.
Tall Ship Windy Chicago Volunteer to help raise the sails or sit back and savor the skyline views. The four-masted schooner sets out from Navy Pier for themed cruises.
Traverse Tall Ship Company Traverse City, Michigan Take a two-hour cruise or book a night in a floating bed-and-breakfast schooner.
Amicus Adventure Sailing Duluth, Minnesota On Lake Superior, choose from family-friendly day sails, a group overnight voyage, heavy-weather sailing or an excursion around Isle Royale.
Great Lakes Sailing Company Traverse City, Michigan Sign up for lessons in basic sailing and intermediate cruising.
Dauntless Sailing School Indianapolis Experiences range from a six-session beginner class on Geist Reservoir in the northern suburbs to immersive trips on the Great Lakes or even to the Caribbean.
Sail Door County Sister Bay, Wisconsin Schedule day-trips and charters where you can bring your own drinks and picnic for the ride.
Stockton State Park Marina Dadeville, Missouri The marina hosts two-day sailing lessons, including an on-the-water practical exam.
Ninnescah Sailing Association Wichita Enroll in classes on Cheney Reservoir, known as the windiest lake in the Lower 48. (The lake hosts national sailing championships.)
Door County's Fish Creek Harbor doubles the view of the stars and moon.