Two Tacks To Timbuktu
By Ralph Naranjo

The big upside to a domestic escape includes the ease with which you can reach your destination as well as the consistency of the three big Cs - cash, cuisine and communications. The downside of facing the same old sailing experience that you're accustomed to back home is swept away with the transition from saltwater to the freshwater ocean like feel of the Great Lakes.

My wife Lenore and I were amazed at the wide range of sailing options awaiting those who head to the northern part of Lake Michigan. Our bareboat charter alternative ranged from day hopping among friendly marinas next to quaint towns and flower lined villages to out of sight of land passages between landfalls, each with a distinct homespun flair. As usual, we headed for off-the-beaten-path islands that felt remote and oceanic, occasionally encountering steep chop conjured up by the inland sea, but most of the week afforded comfortable sailing conditions and abundant adventure, both ashore and under way.

Bay Breeze Charters kicked off our mini cruise with the professionalism you always hope to find at a charter base. A fleet of well-maintained and properly outfitted boats were lined up in front of their lakeside headquarters, and students in their sailing school were getting a feel for the boats they hoped to soon skipper. The dedicated staff took time to familiarize us with our boat and provided an overview of the navigation and weather conditions that lay ahead. There’s a value added provided by this kind of sailing school and charter business arrangement that benefits both sets of clients. As a certified ASA sailing school, Bay Breeze instructors have developed both their sailing ability and their communication skills. They provide a goldmine of information in their pre-departure briefs and a willingness to share local knowledge. This helped Lenore and me fine tune our itinerary to meet our specific cruising interests and helped us make the best use of the time available.

Co-owner of Bea Breeze Yacht Charters, John Kraft piqued our curiosity with tales about the history of the area. With chart in hand, he traced a track that would keep us off the beaten path and on the road to more isolated anchorages. He pointed out where we’d find interesting hikes ashore and good spots for a refreshing afternoon swim. He also tantalized us with a slice of the region's maritime history, a truly unique story about succession and a mini social revolution that occurred on Beaver Island during the 1800s. The hook was set and the island rose to a must-see status on our list of landfalls. This list had more potentially interesting things to do then time permitted, so we did what we always do while cruising, we weighed our options, watched the weather and headed where that day’s consensus lay. Getting away from a charter base can be a time-consuming endeavor, but thanks to the help of Dee Lawton Smith, a local sailor/businesswoman who picked us up at the airport and expedited a supermarket run, in just a couple of hours after arriving in Traverse City we had the gear and groceries stowed, the pre-brief completed and the dock lines in hand. A clear sky and late morning lake sequel to a sea breeze welcomed us to the sailor friendly waters of Northern Lake Michigan. I was glad to see the familiar user-friendly red-right-return navigation system that led us to deep water and a northerly course out of the western arm of Grand Travis Bay. Red Stripe, a compact and capable Beneteau 323 was our home for the next week and she proved to be an easy and efficient boat to sail. Her 2+2 partial and full battened mainsail had good shape and was easy to reef. The roller furling fractional jib provided only a small amount of overlap but it proved to be a versatile headsail that was quick to furl and simple to handle. All the lines were within easy reach allowing one person to hoist or douse sail as well as trim, reef and steer without leaving the confines of the cockpit. The fuel-miserly two-cylinder diesel turned the light air transits into convenient mile-making runs generating ample electricity along the way for the refer and other electrical needs on board.

Traditional eyeball piloting works well in these waters and those like myself who like to practice the arcane art of fiddling with hand-bearing compass fixes, plotting running fixes and other remnants of the once proud lost art of non-electronic navigation can have a ball. However, the omniscient GPS signal thrives in this area and a handheld GPS is an oracle worth consulting when visibility decreases. The carefully maintained U.S.C.G. buoyage system also helps to make knowing where you are a low anxiety straightforward process. We kicked off the charter with a light air beat up Grand Travis Bay, undecided about where we’d stop for the night. Our game plan was to enjoy the sail and when we had had enough for the day we would pick one of several tempting anchorages at the upper end of the bay. There are very few natural harbors on Lake Michigan but man-made marinas abound as do anchoring alternatives when there’s settled weather. The afternoon unfolded with a veering breeze that increased in velocity allowing us to lay a course toward the open water of the Bay. By evening we ghosted into a calm quiet lee in the northern part of Sutton’s Bay and watched the sun set into a pine-clad forest.

The Beneteau 323 afforded us big-boat accommodations wrapped up in a modest overall length. The galley was user friendly, and whether under way or at anchor it proved to be a function place to prepare meals. A surprisingly spacious head offered a functional shower and the molded pan was deep and kept water from finding its way onto the cabin sole. There's certainly room and berthing for another couple, but two people will find the boat easy to handle as well as conveniently fitted out with what's needed for enjoyable cruising. During the evening we looked over the charts and thumbed through the guidebooks in an attempt to narrow down our itinerary and merge plans with the reality of the weather forecast and the time available. Our ever evolving game plan was to head for Beaver Island, a landfall that John Kraft promised to be an interesting history lesson, then pick our way among some shoals to tuck into uninhabited Garden Island for some hiking and swimming in the cool lake water. If all went as planned we’d then take a long hitch to Harbor Springs and visit a sailing community that’s as active as Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer and sees many of the same race boats.

After a light air 45-mile sail to Beaver Island we dinghied to shore, rented bicycles and set off around the island. Meandering down main street past the boat store and post office, it was obvious that the island had retained a flavor of remoteness -- sort of a Block Island without the crowds. It was a warm postcard day as we peddled along a dirt road by a cluster of homes that fit into their surroundings rather than shoveling them aside. In front of one driveway hung the blade of a weathered oar on which the name “Timbuktu” had been lettered. Lenore and I agreed that the owners had indeed settled far enough away to call their home Timbuktu.

A few months later I’d be sailing off the coast of Western Sahara and would be about as close to the real Timbuktu as I’m likely ever to get. This is the Timbuktu of the spice trade, camel routes and secret alliances in the heart of Africa. I was headed for the Canary Islands and the distance from there to Lake Michigan’s Timbuktu spanned the Atlantic as well as nearly half the width of North America. But distance alone doesn’t necessarily make a cruising experience any better and for the reasons that follow our charter on Lake Michigan was a far more compelling experience.

Beaver Island has a frontier history filled with a cast of characters whose tales sound more like a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not file rather than a profile of middle America. In fact, only in the last few decades could one say that the Island has finally been domesticated and is going through a calm tranquil period with the only skirmishes being waged between pro-development advocates and a vocal crew of preservationists.

In the early 1800s trappers and traders used the island as a base camp, and relationships with local Native American Tribes of the area were more-or-less based on reluctant coexistence. The epicenter of commerce and trade was in a settlement called Whiskey Point, which probably goes a long way in defining the local mindset. But by 1850 the rough and tumble woodsmen had been sent packing by a Mormon cult led by a New York lawyer named James Strang who went west and a bit wacky all at the same time. This “man bites dog” role reversal got some press attention but thanks to the island’s isolated status, Strang and his band of feisty Mormons got a secure foothold on Beaver Island.

The ex-lawyer had adopted some firry evangelical rhetoric, and several years earlier had fallen in step with Mormon leader Joseph Smith. After the latter’s violent death, Strang proclaimed his role as leader of Mormons in the Mid West. Challenged by Brigham Young, Strang told his Wisconsin-based flock that God was sending them to Beaver Island. Once settled in, the church folks began tormenting the local trappers and traders. It was sort of a role reversal, where a pack of librarians run off the Hell’s Angles. In any event, the so-called “War of Whiskey Point” pitted the Bible-belters and their steel canon against the perpetually inebriated rabble. The Mormons won, Stang proclaimed Beaver Island an independent nation, and after pulling some highly suspicious bronze tablet from the ground, he ordained himself King. He added a few more wives to match his newly elevated status and for five or six years he and his theocracy began to turn the woods into a functional farming outpost.

All good things are supposed to come to an end, but on Beaver Island theological transformation happened with a more apocryphal certainty. At least that’s what seems to have occurred when an enraged gang of Mackinac Island residents, still fuming over the unjust treatment of fellow trappers and traders, stormed Beaver Island in 1856 and routed the Mormons. The coup of sorts was aided by two of Strang’s followers who assassinated their leader. Some say it was more to do with bigamy than theology, as statistics indicate that men out numbered women 6 to 1 in the area. Whatever the cause, the succession on Beaver Island now favored Irish Fisherman who quickly replaced the Mormon throng that had been driven west. In short order a colorful Priest named Father Gallagher was the new protector of souls on Beaver Island, and also had enough time and entrepreneurial spirit to own a merchant ship, acquire significant holdings and as an old historical account mentions, “carried on with bachelors.” The population loved the fact that their man of the cloth was also a man of the people, but when the Bishop heard of Gallagher’s fist fighting and the marksmanship that won him a couple of horses, plans were made to remove the popular priest. The locals wouldn’t hear of it, and once again the autonomy and remoteness of Beaver Island favored the locals.

In more recent times, Beaver Island fared with the fish stocks, when catches were up, so was the population living on the island, but the general downward trend caused some to try farming and logging, neither of which held large-scale promise. The tourist industry was dabbled with just after the turn of the century but the rugged and remote island once again didn’t quite fit the bill. Over the ensuing years, its resident population dropped from around 1000 to below 200 and Islanders worried about keeping the school and medical services going. Fortunately, in about 1970 the quest for remote vacation homes and get-away-from-it-all lifestyles began to put Beaver Island back on the map. Carpenters, crafts people and artisans of all kinds saw the new interest in the island as a means to earn a living and remain year round in a creative environ. Today a delicate balance between development and preservation seems to exist and the island folks aren’t hell bent to turn their world into another Bar Harbor, Maine. For me, the nameplate in front of the house on Beaver Island says it all - “Timbuktu” it is, at least for those who still like the idea of a great escape no matter how modest the adventure itself.

Details On The Charter

By the end of the charter, Red Stripe had proven to us that she was both a capable pocket cruiser and a great charter boat. Ironically, the two don’t always go hand-in-hand. A good charter boat needs to be set up somewhat like a textbook that’s easy to read. The Beneteau 323 was fine tuned for stepping aboard and slipping away, and much of the vessel’s success stemmed from its absolute functional simplicity and the intuitive nature of the layout both above and below deck. For example, under sail all the lines for setting sail, trimming and reefing were within easy reach making one-person watch duty a snap. Below decks we concluded that the big boat interior was squeaked not squeezed into place. Our initial enthusiasm for the functional galley and the large head with a comfortable shower grew even stronger as the days went by. The saloon table and opposing settees served a multitude of purposes and sleeping was available in bow and stern cabins. In short, the little sloop was an ideal charter boat for a couple, could accommodate a family of four and would sleep six if all were really good friends.

Another part of the charter’s formula for success was the two-tiered approach to orientation and vessel preparation that had preceded departure. Before we arrived an able crew made sure that the boat was fully functional and they possessed the skills to catch the little things that hadn’t yet reached problematic status and fixed them before they broke. Skip Van Horn and the talented service crew at Bay Breeze Charters had been around sailboats for decades and their pre-cruise prep covered all the bases. In addition to having the boat ready to go they offered Lenore and me navigation and local knowledge inputs that brought us up to speed on the boat, local conditions as well as gave us insights into where we might find the kind of cruising experiences we were look for. If service and professionalism were a graded feature Bay Breeze would deservingly earn an A+ for their operation.

Contact Info Bay Breeze Yacht Charters, 12935 West Bay Shore Drive, Suite 120, Traverse City, MI 49684. Phone (877) 941-0535.