Cruising Lake Erie

Lake Erie

Cruising options along the U.S. and Canadian coastlines abound

By David Brown

August 4, 2000

It lies crouched like an animal on the North American continent along the 42nd parallel. This paradoxical lake alternately sleeps quietly in the sun and then rouses itself with a hiss and bared claws and teeth. It is called Lake Erie, but if you go back far enough you'll find that to the Native Americans it was the Lake of the Cat.

The people who occupied what are now portions of Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York called themselves the "People of the Cat" ... the Erie. These fierce warriors of the Iroquois Nation opposed European exploration of their lake to such an extent that French explorers didn't even know it existed for 50 years after Champlain's discovery of Lake Huron.

Looking at the map, you might think that southernmost Lake Erie would have been one of the first Great Lakes to be explored by the French. Thanks to Erie warriors, the exact opposite was the case.

Today, anyone who has explored Lake Erie knows that it still harbors the fierce spirit of The People of the Cat. Quick storms often alternate with dead calms. Lake Erie gives up nothing without a struggle. Perhaps this is why cruising here is so rewarding. You have to earn each new port or quiet anchorage.

An accident of geography puts the log axis of Lake Erie along the prevailing westerlies. This has major implications when planning a cruise under sail. East or west passages can require considerable running (going east) or beating (going west). North and south courses are more often comfortable reaches.

Many experienced Lake Erie sailors cruise from one end to the other by alternating U.S. and Canadian overnight stops. Passages are often reaches with less tiresome beating. There's also the benefit of expanding the variety of overnight stops along the way.

Lake Erie divides naturally into three regions: the western end with its islands, the wide central region and the narrowing eastern end. Without a doubt, the lake's best-known cruising grounds lie around the islands. A second major cruising area extends along the Canadian shoreline at the eastern end.

For a moment, let's imagine the icebox is chilled nicely, the stores are well packed and we are ready to cast off on a ideal Lake Erie cruise.

The Western End

Detroit River into Lake Erie

Water from Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron reaches Lake Erie down the Detroit River. Just off the mouth at the Detroit River is a ship watcher's delight. It's not unusual to see four or six giant ore freighters or "salty" foreign cargo ships either approaching the river from the lake or leaving the river for Toledo, Cleveland or Buffalo.

We'll enter the big lake here in the morning, but for tonight we'll seek a quiet anchorage a few miles upstream in the Detroit River. Just above the Boblo Island amusement park (Bois Blanc Island) there is a wishbone-shaped squib of land with its closed end pointing upstream. Known as Crystal Bay, this is a favorite anchorage for cruising sailors.

During the day Crystal Bay is filled with water-skiers, family picnics and even a floating hamburger stand. Activity comes to a halt at sundown and nights here are quiet and peaceful.

My favorite place to drop the hook is close to the east arm near the second tower of the Amherstburg Reach range lights. From this spot we can watch the Boblo steamboats as they ferry happy Detroiters home from the island amusement park.

We'll get the anchor down early enough to do some exploring in the dinghy. Before long we discover the west wall of our wishbone anchorage is actually made up of two earthen banks with a channel of clear water between. It's quiet in here, almost tropical. Look down, you can see fish swimming 15 or 20 feet beneath the boat!

In the morning we duck out the Hole-In-The-Wall for a leisurely trip down the Sugar Island channel. Since the winds are obligingly from the west, we are able to sail between Sugar and Hickory Islands off the southern tip of Grosse Ile. This is strictly a pleasure boat channel, so we don't have to worry about the big ships downbound on the nearby Livingston Channel.

The biggest city at the western end of Lake Erie is Toledo, Ohio with its riverfront development. Should we visit Toledo or not? After all, it will take a full day to get into the Maumee River, wait for the railroad bridge and then motor upstream. If it were a perfect sailing day we might pass, but the wind has gone from light to non-existent. Fate has decided that we're going to have to motor, so going to Portside makes sense.

A railroad bridge hinders sailboat passage upstream almost at the mouth of the Maumee. Like most railroad bridges, it has regular hours when it is supposed to open, but don't count on it. Luck is with us, however and we're soon on our way to Toledo's downtown waterfront with its collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment.

The Erie Islands

The Erie Islands

We depart Portside early in the morning with a sprightly west wind ready to fill our 'chute. The 20-odd miles from the Toledo Harbor Light to the islands becomes a downhill ride under a sky filled with puffy cumulus. Off West Sister Island one of the crew with an historical bent reminds us of the great sea battle that

Our boat is sailing through the same water where Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry defeated an entire British fleet during the War of 1812. In a stroke Perry broke the British power in the upper Great Lakes and insured that places like Toledo, Detroit and Mackinac Island would live under the Stars and Stripes.

Anyone who has raced in the annual Inter-Lake Yachting Association regatta is familiar with the Lake Erie islands. Each morning for three days in early August the fleet of 300 boats does battle around Green, Rattlesnake, Starve and Ballast Islands. In the afternoons crews come ashore on South Bass Island to enjoy the offerings of Put-in-Bay.

Put-in-Bay is actually a collective noun referring to two places. One is a very real bay protected on one side by South Bass and the north by tiny Gibraltar Island. The other is a delightful small village that is the hub of life on South Bass Island. Few people bother to make any distinction between the bay and the town. When sailors speak of "The Bay," they are referring to a general location that includes the anchorage, the town and perhaps even South Bass Island.

We drop the hook in the designated anchorage, trying to gain as much lee as possible from South Bass. Private anchor buoys dot the anchorage and a few are in use. We avoid them, trusting our own ground tackle.

Our anchor digs into historic ground. Commodore anchored his fleet in Put-in-Bay prior to the Battle of Lake Erie in September, 1813. After defeating the British fleet, Perry brought his ships back here to lick their wounds and bury the dead.

In a few minutes the outboard on the dinghy is warmed up and we're zipping across Put-in-Bay. It's been a long time since lunch and the crew finds itself engaged in a heated discussion over where to eat dinner. Some favor one of the famous pizzas from the Frosty Bar while others opt for shrimp and sea food on The Boardwalk.

The Put-in-Bay dinghy landing is located just west of the village marina. It's really just a stretch of rocky beach with no other possible use. On the way in we pass the Sonny-S ferryboat making one of its many trips between The Boardwalk and the Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island.

Ashore, the crew agrees to disagree about dinner. Later, we agree to get together at the Round House bar for a glass or two. Full darkness finds us back in the cockpit discussing the day's events. Suddenly, Perry's Monument blazes into light. The entire 352-feet of its height are illuminated nightly throughout the summer months.

In truth, Put-in-Bay is not my favorite Lake Erie island anchorage. I'm more inclined to seek out quiet spots far from the bright lights, gin mills and pizza parlors. On another cruise I'll show you a good spot off North Bass Island or perhaps we'll visit North Bay on Kelleys (no apostrophe in Kelleys) Island.

This morning, a strong southwest breeze is building one of Lake Erie's famous chops. The waves are almost "square" in shape with no possibility of finding a comfortable ride. These short, choppy waves also have a way of throwing spray into the cockpit. The uniform of the morning is foul weather jackets over bathing suits. As the day warms, bathing suits will be enough.

Given the wind and waves, the logical next destination is Sandusky Bay about 14 miles to our southwest. Along the way we'll be able to pick up a bit of lee from South Bass Island and the Catawba and Marblehead peninsulas. With a bit of luck we can carry plenty of wind yet ride in calmer water.

Several camera buffs in the crew ask the helmsman pass as close to Marblehead Point as possible. They are anxious to photograph Marblehead Light, the oldest working lighthouse on the Great Lakes. The tower dates back to the 1820s. It was scheduled for extinction but was saved by heroic local efforts. The lighthouse grounds are now an Ohio State Park and at intervals throughout the summer the public is allowed to climb the tower and view the lake from the lantern.

Sandusky Bay

Sandusky Bay

Photographs done, we fall off and head for the Sandusky Bay entrance channel. It is possible to sail directly from the Marblehead Light into the bay, but only with a high degree of local knowledge. A sand bar grows out of Bay Point on the Marblehead peninsula. This bar grows, shrinks and changes shape throughout the season as it seeks out deep draft sailboats.

Sandusky Bay is shallow, very shallow. Since this is our first visit of the season, we'll stay within the marked shipping channels. The entrance to the bay is also always rough with powerboat wakes. Sailing in light air can be nearly impossible until you are well into the bay itself.


Cedar Point

What was that? It sounded like a cannon. And, what's that ... a steam engine whistle?

Yes on both counts. We're sailing past the Cedar Point Amusement Park where pirates attack riverboats (which explains the cannon fire) and passengers ride real steam trains (likewise the whistles). This is a "must" stop for anyone with children and not a bad place for adults to relax.

Cedar Point operates one of the most complete transient marinas on Lake Erie. Naturally, a facility that good is popular and overnight dockage is always at a premium. A short walk from the docks are two excellent restaurants. The Marina Steak House serves everything from light lunches to full dinners. A bit farther away is the Bay Harbor Inn where preparing seafood has been raised to a high art.

We're going past Cedar Point, however. Our goal is down the "Straight Channel" (as it's marked on the chart) into downtown Sandusky. Battery Park Marina is the jewel in Sandusky's downtown redevelopment. A multi-million dollar renovation has resulted in

Carl, the dockmaster, helps us find overnight accommodations and the crew fights for space in the head to wash up. Tonight, we dine ashore at Damon's Restaurant located on the second floor of the marina building. The enticing smell of barbecued ribs and

From our table overlooking the marina we can see Johnson Island across the bay. This island was the site of a Civil War prisoner of war camp housing captured Confederate officers. Only the camp cemetery remains along with a memorial to the men buried here.

Rondeau Bay

Rondeau Bay

Next morning we're up early enough to beat the M.V. Pelee Islander out of Sandusky Bay. This white ferry with its characteristic green trim turns northwest to pass south of Kelleys Island on its way to Pelee Island and the Canadian mainland. It would be fun to follow in its wake, but the northwest winds are against that.

We're also heading for Canada today, but our destination will be Rondeau Bay located roughly in the middle of Lake Erie's northern shoreline. The navigator informs us we have at least 16 hours of sailing ahead of us to cover the 70-odd miles. If the summer haze doesn't clear (which seldom happens), we'll probably be out of sight of land for much of the passage.

Things turn out pretty much as expected. Kelleys and Pelee Islands disappear off our port quarter and we find ourselves alone on a sparkling green lake. Then, seven hours after passing the Sandusky entrance sea buoy we're suddenly in a traffic jam. Land is nowhere in sight, but ships — big ships — seem to be congregating on us.

Actually, we're not the subject of anyone's interest. The ships are simply following the mandated east and westbound shipping lanes. Because we're crossing the lanes at nearly right angles, it appears every commercial ship on Lake Erie is heading straight for us. However, it's a big lake and we're able to keep a half mile of water between us and these steel whales.

Rondeau Bay is actually more of an inland lake cut off from the main body of water by an overgrown sandbar. Erieau, a small fishing village is located just inside the entrance. Cottages ring the mainland side of the bay, but the overgrown sandbar is a Provincial Park.

Over the years Erieau has been by turns a major coal receiving port, a fishing village and a resort community. Vestiges of each incarnation are still visible, although sport fishing and boating are rapidly becoming the dominant activity. We find an excellent

The bay itself is rather shallow. It can be explored, but only with extreme caution. A night could be spent "on the hook" here since the bay is well protected from lake storms. Whether you tie up at the marina or anchor out, visiting Rondeau Bay is always a quiet experience. Not much happens here and that's probably its

This harbor also seems to attract a collection of cruising sailors. Gamming in one cockpit or another is another of the attractions of Rondeau Bay. Sometimes, when the conversations are particularly entertaining, more sleep is lost here than in more lively Put-In-Bay.

Presque Isle Bay

Presque Isle Bay

Northwest winds seem to be dogging this trip. In the morning it's obvious that the easiest course to sail would be back to Sandusky. Our goal, however, is to explore as much of Lake Erie as possible. It appears that today we're going to spend a lot of time tending the 'chute.

The navigator does some quick calculations. Our next planned port is Erie, Pennsylvania some 100 miles to the southeast. "We'll be 22 hours at sea," he cheerfully announces. That means we'll be setting watches for the first time on this voyage. Our well- seasoned sea cook spends the last few minutes in port rummaging for meals that will be easy to cook at sea.

We depart Rondeau Bay with the wind over our port quarter and the 'chute drawing full. During the first watch the helmsman questions our navigator, "What are these black dots and lines on the chart?" They turn out to be natural gas wells drilled into the lake bottom and the associated piping to get the gas back to the Canadian mainland.

We see nothing above the surface as we sail through the gas well area. The well drilling equipment has done its work and moved on. All of the piping and valves lie on the lake bottom well below our fin keel.

The men of the second watch have the task of once again crossing the shipping channels. Today, the traffic seems to be almost all salt water cargo ships. We only spot one of the traditional "straight decker" Great Lakes ore freighters.

Breakfast the next morning finds us off Presque Isle at Erie, Pennsylvania. Presque Isle is an enlarged, mirror image of the sandbar which forms Rondeau Bay. Being larger, it is fully wooded. Otherwise, the similarities are striking. Presque Isle is also a public park and it also encloses what amounts to an inland lake.

The city of Erie grew up on the shores of Presque Isle Bay. Downtown is still somewhat focused on the City Pier where overnight passenger liners once docked. We could tie up here as well, but there is no protection and the nearby marinas provide better dockage. There are also several anchorage areas marked on the chart.

We elect to tie up at one of the downtown marinas in order to go ashore. Our goal is to visit the newly re-built Niagara, Commodore Perry's second flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie. A few timbers in this ship go back to 1813, but most of it is new construction carefully done to authentic plans. The ship was re-launched last fall (1988) in time for the 175th anniversary of the battle.

The Niagara was originally built here in Presque Isle Bay when the city of Erie was little more than a collection of taverns and rough-hewn homes in the wilderness. A short cab ride from the City Pier finds us at the Dickson Tavern. This building housed U.S. naval officers during the construction of his fleet. It is now a museum honoring Commodore Perry and his men.

On the way back to the boat we notice what appears to be the bow of a clipper ship sitting in a small public park. It is the bow of a ship, but not a clipper. This piece of fancy ironwork was once part of the U.S.S. Wolverine, the U.S. Navy's first all-iron ship. We learn the ship was prefabricated in Pittsburgh and shipped to Erie in pieces where it was put together and launched in 1843.

Long Point and Port Dover

Long Point Lake Erie

Our navigator has suddenly developed a craving for a foot-long hot dog. There is no possible cure other than to set our bow for Port Dover on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. This small town is famous for two things: It is the world's largest freshwater fishing port and it's home to the world's best foot-long hot dogs. Everybody has to be famous for something.

Despite his abiding hot dog hunger, our navigator is quite serious about his business today. The reason is infamous Long Point, the graveyard of Lake Erie. This moving sand spit has been the scene of more strandings and shipwrecks than any other piece of real estate along the lake. Dozens of ships and hundreds of sailors have died here.

Long Point is dangerous because it's long and low. Even a mild storm can obscure the point just enough that it can't be seen until your keel grates in the clutching sand. The Canadians long ago built a lighthouse near the tip of the point and it is this landmark that we seek. For some reason the binoculars are extremely popular today.

Much of Long Point and the bay it protects (Long Point Bay, naturally) are a gunkholer's paradise for shoal draft boats. Our deep keel prevents exploration, but we note that while some of the point is a Provincial Park much of it is still privately owned. Even some of the park lands are off limits to land exploration as the government wants to maintain the wilderness character of Long Point.

It doesn't take more than a glance to determine that Port Dover makes its living from fishing. The harbor is filled with net boats and processing facilities. We elect to avoid the commercial portion of the harbor by motoring through the highway lift bridge to the Port Dover Yacht Club which welcomes affiliated yachtsmen.

Our navigator finds his foot-long hot dog, but the rest of us seek out some of the freshest perch and walleye ever put in a skillet. After dinner we're surprised to discover that Shakespeare makes his summer home in Port Dover. Some of the crew ask for seats on the aisle while others head for entertainment of a more modern beat.

Port Dover is a summer vacation destination for the nearby cities of Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario. As a result, there are plenty of attractions from summer theater to sandy beaches and fast food stands.

Over The Falls

Niagra Falls

"Well, boys," our navigator announces as we prepare our bunks for a night's sleep, "tomorrow we go over Niagara Falls." For a moment we miss his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Then, we force him to explain. "We're going through the Welland Canal tomorrow. It will take us over the Niagara Escarpment that provides the cliffs for Niagara Falls."

We're up before dawn in order to get to the Welland's small boat reporting dock before 8:00 a.m. All during our passage from Port Dover to Port Colborne we see the lights of freighters either entering or leaving the Welland. This is one of the busiest stretches of water on Lake Erie for commercial shipping.

Our Lake Erie cruise officially ends when we enter the Port Colborne harbor. From here we'll motor through the Welland before beginning our exploration of Lake Ontario ... but that's another story.

 Story Featured on by David Brown

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