The Times Of Our Boating Lives

By Sandy Steele
Photos: Sandy and Cliff Steele

A string of small boats, and America's inland lakes, brought this family some of their most treasured memories of time spent together.

That old saying, "Time flies when you're having fun," is how I look back on the 50 years of boating memories shared by my husband Cliff, myself, and our children Scott and Tina. We're both retired now, and our memories are like old friends who are always close to our hearts, and they're as clear as when we first experienced them. Boating for us started back in 1963, when Cliff and I were first dating. Cliff's hobby of building model boats had helped fuel his love for boating, as had his many summers spent on the lake near Tomahawk, Wisconsin, with his mom and dad. He'd always dreamed of having his own boat when he got older. I came from a non-boating family in Lombard, Illinois. The only water my sister and I were close to was the local swimming pool.

The Love Affair Begins

One day in 1963, during the early days of our courtship, Cliff saw an ad in the paper announcing that the company West Bend was selling off its 40-hp electric-start Golden Shark outboard motors. The following day he proudly bought one for $250. What a deal! The only problem? He didn't have a boat to put it on. Cliff pondered how he could acquire a boat without spending a lot of money. Then he saw another ad, this time in Popular Mechanics, for a Glen-L boat kit, and he promptly mailed away for the catalog. There he picked out Tuffy, a 121/2-footer that we built together that spring. Cliff found a trailer that a farmer was selling for $35, complete with a good coating of chicken poop. Even though the chickens were pretty upset to see that old trailer go, we were thrilled. A little elbow grease and new paint job were all it needed, and it worked perfectly for Tuffy.

A young Cliff Steele in his boat TuffyCliff Steele in Tuffy.

On the day of the launch on the Fox River, in Crystal Lake, we were giddy with excitement, and then when Tuffy floated, we yelled for joy. That was my very first boat ride. Cliff had installed a grab bar on the passenger side, for which I didn't fully realize the need until he put the throttle down. Tuffy was flat-bottomed and sat low, so low you could hang your arm over the side and trail it in the water. When she went over a wake or hit rough water, you really got bounced around. The chicken bar became my new best friend. Tuffy didn't come with a windshield, so at full speed, the skin on our faces was pretty much pasted back. It reminded me of days riding our motorcycle, but despite the rough ride and some bugs in my teeth, I was totally smitten by day's end.

My love for boating began. Cliff and our friend Warner taught me how to waterski behind Tuffy. As I slipped into the water of the Fox River, my feet touched the bottom of the riverbed and sank into a foot of muck. Cliff put Tuffy in gear, and to my surprise, I actually stood up! I'll never forget the feeling of flying I had that first time, racing across the water on skis.

Sandy Steele at age 19Sandy, at 19, on their honeymoon in 1964.

Cliff and I were married in May 1964. He was 22, I was 19, and we had an apartment in Addison, Illinois, that wasn't close to any lakes or rivers. Eager to go boating, we took Tuffy on our first camping trip to Devil's Lake, Wisconsin. We'd borrowed a tent big enough to put our car in and a couple of blow-up mattresses. We brought a card table, chairs, and food for a week, but forgot the line we needed to tie the tent down. That was when we found a new use for our ski rope.

I'd been told by a coworker at Northern Illinois Gas Company that the best place to go boating was Lake Cumberland, in Kentucky. Because of his rave reviews, we took Tuffy down there in 1965. As we drove toward the state park, we stopped at an overlook and were awestruck by its beauty. We spent the week cruising around the lake and camped under open skies. We came down again the following year and ended up trading in our beloved homemade Tuffy for a 16-foot Winner V-hull with a Chrysler 105 outboard. The new boat looked huge in comparison. That deal not only gave us a really great ski boat that we had for 10 years; we also began an enduring friendship with Lestie and Flora Phelps, the owners of Phelps Marine, where we bought it.

In 1967, Cliff's job with Eastman Kodak transferred him up to Rockford, Illinois, with the beautiful Rock River, where we'd go boating and waterskiing every weekend. Once, we decided to check out the Mississippi River at Savannah, Illinois, an hour away. We didn't have a chart but assumed the river wouldn't be hard to navigate. Wrong! We quickly found out what a "wing dam" was when our prop came to a grinding halt on a rock bar perpendicular to the riverbank. These rock bars were constructed to help maintain good water flow through the river's navigational channel. It was a hard lesson to learn, but we never forgot it. From then on, we always carried our Mississippi chart book with us and kept a constant eye out for those sneaky wing dams.

Adding To The Crew

As our family grew with Scott, then Tina, we'd leave our boat at a marina on Lake Cumberland and stay at Lure Lodge, in the state park. One year, we spotted a new 21-foot Chrysler cuddy cabin with room for sleeping — perfect for our growing family. After much thought and counting of pennies, in March 1976 we sold our 16-foot Winner and bought 4 Togetherness. It had a V-berth forward and two lay-down seats in the back. It was like camping out, but with the flexibility of finding our own anchorage.

Sandy sits on top of the Sleeping Bear DunesSandy sits on top of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

We did weekend trips on the Mississippi, and a trip down to Lake Cumberland and out on Lake Michigan. Cliff hooked up a small fridge under one of the seats but later found that it took a big toll on our battery life. After three years in 21 feet, we needed a bigger boat with galley and standup head if we wanted to get all four of us down in the cabin at night. In 1979, we found our fourth and final boat, Four's Enough, a 25-foot Bayliner aft-cabin — small enough to trailer, but with everything we were looking for.

Cruising Down Memory Lane

We became involved with the Rockford Power Squadron and ended up going on some wonderful cruises with them to the remote Apostle Islands, in Lake Superior; to the beautiful Picture Rock, along Lake Superior's southern shoreline on the way to Sault Ste. Marie; from Hessel, Michigan, to the Mackinaw Bridge; then on to the secluded North Channel of northern Lake Huron and Isle Royale, an island 70 miles out in Lake Superior. I remember frying up fresh fish on Isle oyale while Cliff was cruising along the shore at sunset. On all these trips, we'd anchor out at different coves or bays, build a campfire, and gaze in wonder at spectacular sunsets and the northern lights.

Sandy Steele with her daughter TinaSandy and daughter Tina enjoy their time by the water.

In 1980 we crossed Lake Michigan at Sturgeon Bay and motored over to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, the Manitou Islands, and all the way up to Harbor Springs and Beaver Island, exploring beautiful Door County, Wisconsin, and the wonderful towns on the way. We went to upper Lake Green Bay and Big Bay De Noc and found the ghost town of Fayette, with its beautiful snail-shell harbor. We put our boat in at Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, 11 miles south of Lock and Dam 9 on the Mississippi River, and motored up to Lock and Dam 1 at Minneapolis-St. Paul. We brought a solar-shower bag filled with water because the Mississippi was too dirty to use! We crossed Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Ludington, exploring the ports of Pentwater, White Hall, Muskegon, Grand Haven (our favorite), and Saugatuck.

25-foot Bayliner on trailerFour's Enough on her trailer, ready to be pulled by trusty "Ollie the Oldsmobile," which the Steele family had for 23 years.

We have great memories from those times, such as when the kids brought their pet chameleons along, only to lose one. A visitor on our boat screamed when she found it. Another time we went off route trailering our boat and ended up in the middle of a parade. There are simpler memories, too: a flat tire on our trailer in the middle of a heavy Milwaukee rainstorm, renting bikes in Sister Bay, and eating blue-moon ice cream, finding Bing cherries and having a pit-spitting contest with the kids, or just telling stories and making s'mores over a campfire.

About 25 years ago, Cliff and I were anchored in a cove just off the main channel of the Mississippi when we heard a calliope playing in the distance. The music was coming from the beautiful steamboat Julia Belle Swain as she slowly made her way down the river. Years later, I did a painting of that vessel, trying to re-create the feeling of that summer evening. Later still, we finally got to take a cruise on that glorious steamboat, and I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it.

Painting of the Julia Belle Swain steamboatJulia Belle Swain was the last boat built by the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works of Dubuque, Iowa in 1971.

A couple of shelter dogs accompanied us over the years. Our first, Tramp, a cocker mix, loved the water. If we were on a dock, she'd just run and jump in. Freckles, our last dog, wasn't a water dog, but despite her wobbly sea legs and stressed-out look, her total devotion to us helped her endure our boat trips.

Boating with our kids was such a special time in our lives. On one trip in Michigan, we spent the afternoon walking a beach just outside Northport looking for Petoskey stones, the fossilized coral that's the designated state stone. I remember how excited Scott and Tina were when they found one. When we got back to our cabin, we sat around the table and polished the stones. That evening, we anchored in a sheltered bay, and I remember making linguine noodles and clams, which tasted so good, out there in the middle of nowhere. We could see the moon coming up through the hatch and feel the cool night air coming in our porthole. Scott and Tina had to look at their Petoskey stones one last time before drifting off to sleep. As we settled into the aft cabin under a canopy of stars, I thought, "This is the best," and it really was. And still is. 

Sandy and Cliff Steele live near Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.

— Published: December 2016

Coming Full Circle

A few years back, our old age and rickety limbs forced us to sell Four's Enough, our 25-foot Bayliner, to a young pastor, his wife, and two daughters. Recently they wrote us saying it was time to sell her. A retired friend of ours, also an avid boater, suggested, "Why don't you buy her back?"

We had a new pontoon boat, I countered, and besides, where would we store her? Plus, I'd be unable to board her without assistance. Our friend waved off our concerns and offered to store her for free in a barn on his property. He also said he'd love to be boat partners with us. Sandy and I teared up at the thought. Would we once again be able to relive all those wonderful years?

Astounded at the like-new condition of the boat, both inside and out, we signed the closing papers and shed tears of joy. We hitched her up to the same truck we previously towed her with, our 20-year-old Dodge, to bring her home.

Sandy and I may never be able to go boating on her in the robust way we did in years past, but anytime our boat partner goes, he invites us to come along. We're planning an extensive boating trip on the Ohio River — a half-day tow from East Kentucky. How lucky we feel to be able to revive some of the glory days of our past.

— Cliff Steele


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