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A Tall Ship Adventure on the Great Lakes

The wide-open water. The fresh, clean air. The sun on your face. The sails overhead, trapping the wind that alone moves this tremendous vessel across the deep, blue lake. Your own, relaxing tall ship journey on the Midwest's version of the high seas awaits.

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  • 1
    The Manitou sailing in Grand Traverse Bay.
  • 2
    Captain Dave McGinnis at the helm.
  • 3
    One crew member lowers the head sails.
  • 4
    More than half a mile of line running between ship and mast.
  • 5
    Shadows of crew climbing the rigging.
  • 6
    The Manitou's bow juts out into Grand Traverse Bay.
  • 7
    Rope, called line by captain and crew.
  • 8
    A passenger on the docked schooner enjoys the view.
  • 9
    This brass bell is used to call the ship's overnight guests to breakfast.
  • 10
    A bird's-eye view from the foremast of the tall ship.
  • 11
    Three crew members strike the headsail.
  • 12
    The Manitou sailing at dusk.

The Spirit of the Sea

The massive steel hull shoves aside sparkling wave crests, and giant polished masts point skyward. Overhead, more than 3,000 square feet of heavy canvas sails are pulled so taut they barely billow with captured wind. Ultimately, this journey will be determined by the whims of that wind, but Captain Dave McGinnis knows how to harness its power to navigate the 82-ton two-masted schooner Manitou through the blue waters of Grand Traverse Bay.

"You have to work with what Mother Nature sends your way," he explains.

At the start of the two-hour cruise, many of the 30-some passengers who boarded at Traverse City, Michigan, raised the mainsail. In unison, they heaved its white-gray rope--that's line in sailorspeak--when the crew ordered, "Haul away!" Now, they relax and enjoy the view: the low-lying Traverse City skyline, the homes and trees along the peninsulas, and water meeting sky at bay's mouth. The 114-foot ship moves at a leisurely speed--4.3 knots, about 5 mph--making it easy to walk about the shiny wood-plank deck, which releases a slight scent of sun-warmed wood. Maybe there's a hint of wet line, too. Line wraps around the thousand-pound boom, and when the giant sail moves, it creaks, twisting against wood.

Despite the sunny 70 degrees, the crisp lake wind raises goose bumps on arms, tangles hair and turns cheeks rosy red. Sometimes, a light mist sprays over the deck's edge, though the ride is sedate. A mother explains to her young son, who expected more speed from such an impressive pirate ship look-alike: "It's a sailboat. They don't go fast. It's a nice, relaxing ride." He seems satisfied with this, content to sit under the sails and watch the three-person crew work.

"Stand by to tack!" orders Captain Dave. "Stand by to tack!" the crew affirms, freeing and maneuvering lines so the sails flap noisily to the ship's other side. Lines are pulled taut and fastened in figure-eight loops around wooden pins, and the ship shifts direction. Between orders to tack, haul away and harden up the main, the crew moves about, free to answer questions from passengers, who sit on deck boxes holding life jackets and the housing for cabins below.

Some have opted to spend the night on board. They'll climb down ladders to these cabins, typical of a 19th-century schooner, with bunks and barely room for two to stand side by side. They'll fall asleep to the rocking of the docked boat and wake for coffee at sunrise on the dew-covered deck, followed by breakfast cooked on the ship's wood-burning stove.

But now, Captain Dave offers the wheel to passengers who take turns gripping the polished cherry spokes, turning them at captain's orders: one spoke port, three spokes starboard, seeing how the subtle movement slowly and eventually takes hold. The bow heaves slightly up, rocks down and points across the lake toward shore.

As the vague fuzziness of the shoreline starts to offer details, Captain Dave shouts, "Stand by to strike the headsl's!" He gives a thumbs-down, and the crew deftly drop the forward, triangular sails, then work their way aft, where the bigger sails require more control. For the two last and largest, one crew member climbs to the huge boom's end and straddles it. As the other two slowly let out line, she guides the sail, folding it accordion-style. With nothing left to catch the wind, the ship drifts.

Captain Dave starts the engine to pull the ship swiftly to shore, and its mechanical shuddering contrasts with the quiet ship sounds of moments ago. The engine signals the trip's end, and the sun lowering behind a ridge of trees, mirrored in the water, makes it a beautiful one, befitting a relaxing tall ship journey on this great blue lake.

Reviewed July 2004.

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