Ship Spotters: 5 of the North's biggest, coolest, and oldest boats
By Lynda Wheatley | June 11, 2022
Perhaps Ratty said it best: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Like Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s novel The Wind in the Willows, you can consider Ratty’s advice some sage stuff. Up here, there are countless ways to get on the water, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re at the helm, hitching a ride, or simply watching some behemoth ships glide by; you have a fleet of options.
Freighters Up Close (Manistee)
Do you gape at the sheer size and majestic power of Great Lakes freighters from afar? Prepare to get up close if you park yourself just about anywhere on downtown Manistee’s Riverwalk. The 1.5-mile boardwalk skirts alongside the channel linking Lake Michigan to the deep-water port of Lake Manistee. That channel, however, is only about 100 feet wide, and you’ll see just how narrow that is as freighters, some up to 70 feet wide and six stories tall, glide through, seemingly inches from the banks—and the occasional brave kayak or pleasure boat.
Though most any spot along the Riverwalk is a good one to view the passing freighters, we love watching ships enter the channel’s mouth (access near south Lakeshore Drive) or pass under the river’s two bascule drawbridges: one at Maple Street (conveniently near North Channel Brewing Company) and the other, the U.S. 31 Memorial Bridge at, well … you know. Although freighters in the channel are a more frequent sight in summer than in fall or spring, you can home in on sighting times by downloading the Marine Traffic app.
Get to The Pointer (Harbor Springs)
Ultra-sturdy and able to skim waters as shallow as 6 inches with up to eight men aboard, Pointer boats were the workhorses of the logging industry since Canadian John Cockburn designed the first in the 1850s. His on-point design didn’t change for a century, but the various industries that fell for the boats sure did. Count among them the tourism industry in northern Michigan, which in 1948 brought a 1934-built Pointer to serve as a water taxi across Little Traverse Bay in Harbor Springs. Crafted from white oak and mahogany, with chic and soft blue seats and curtained side windows, the vessel suited its intended passengers—the wealthy summer residents of the exclusive Harbor Point peninsula and guests of the then-thriving Harbor Point Hotel.
Unfortunately, following the razing of the hotel in 1962, the Pointer was retired, sold several times, and forgotten in an area barn until its then-owner’s death prompted its rediscovery in 1988. Locals Marvin Dudley and Stafford Smith purchased the boat that year and, after painstaking processes to restore the boat and bring it up to modern-day U.S. Coast Guard specs, have recaptured the Pointer’s vintage glory. You can find it gleaming under the sun at its original in-town landing, now the home of Stafford’s Pier Restaurant.
Although not USCG-licensed to cross Little Traverse Bay, it can take up to 12 passengers ($32 per ticket) around the estates of Harbor Point and Wequetonsing—never more than ¼ mile offshore—on daily 1-hour, narrated tours. Bonus: You can pre-order food from the Pier Restaurant if you’d like to have lunch or dinner on the water while you tour. Nab tickets at staffordspier.com or in person at Stafford’s Pier Restaurant, 102 E Bay St., Harbor Springs.
Pirates of the Bay-ribbean (Suttons Bay & Traverse City)
It wouldn’t be right to write about ships Up North without including two of our most famous: the Tall Ship Manitou and the Inland Seas Schooner. Both replicas of old schooners that used to sail the Great Lakes and Atlantic centuries ago, these multi-sail ships give passengers of all ages options to help the professional crew raise anchor, hoist sails, or even steer the ship.
Aboard the 77-foot Inland Seas, education is most often the central focus, with hands-on science programs literally and figuratively dipping into the Great Lakes so passengers can study fish, underwater micro-organisms, and insects using real scientific equipment. But both ships offer specialty cruises of all kinds. Family favorites on the 114-foot Manitou tend to be the midday Moomers ice cream cruises and entertainment nights, while dinner or cocktail-inclusive brunches are best left to adults. Inland Seas most often sails out of Suttons Bay but does offer some cruises from Discovery Pier on West Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, the Tall Ship Manitou’s home port. Learn more at schoolship.org and tallshipsailing.com.
Semper Paratus, Rescue Wannabes (South Haven)
We usually don’t recommend hitching a ride on a U.S. Coast Guard rescue boat because that’d probably mean putting yourself in a situation that requires one. But if you’re willing to head a wee bit south this summer, you and any kid age 4 and up can ride in a real-deal USCG Motor Lifeboat. This 1941-built boat, tagged Motor Lifeboat 36460, is not only a powerful seafaring champ, but also a celebrity; it appeared in Disney’s 2016 film The Finest Hours, which chronicles (part of) one of the most daring rescues in Coast Guard history, when four brave Coasties risked their lives to save mariners—amid 70-foot waves and in a raging blizzard—from one of two 500-foot oil tankers that had broken in half 20 miles from Cape Cod in February 1952.
A ride aboard this action-movie star is only $20 per person for a 30-minute cruise, but if that isn’t enough to draw you down to its home port in South Haven, maybe this is: That home port is home to the Michigan Maritime Museum, where boat geeks of all kinds will find an entire fleet of replica and historic vessels. You’ll find the genteel Lindy Lou, a replica Truscott River Launch touring boat; Merry Time, a gleaming mahogany Chris-Craft Cadet, circa 1929; and the nearly 100-year-old (and still wicked fast) Bernida, a Universal Rule R Class Sloop and thoroughbred racing yacht that won the inaugural Bayview-Port Huron Mackinac Race in the summer of 1925, again in ’27, and—after a few lost decades in a Frankfort barn—got cleaned up in 2010 and came back to win the Bayview-Port Huron to Mackinac Race in 2012.
One quick warning, Captain: Due to construction at the Maritime Heritage Center, much of the museum campus is closed but scheduled to open soon; some exhibits and events are already on the schedule, and all on-water experiences are available. michiganmaritimemuseum.org
Yacht Rock (Northport)
Live the dream—an extra-large one—aboard your own 60-foot yacht. With four bedrooms (eight beds), four baths, full kitchen, living room, and three furnished decks, you won’t need to leave this floating oasis, but there are plenty of reasons to. One, it’s docked in Northport, a quaint village with fabulous boutiques, eateries, antiques, galleries, and hiking and biking opportunities. Two, its position at the top of Grand Traverse Bay means stupendous star gazing (and maybe northern lights too). And three, every stay includes eight rounds at the 9-hole Northport Creek Golf Course, just a 5-minute golf cart trip from the marina. Oh yeah, and the golf cart is included in your stay, too. Sleeps up to 10, $950 (average) per night. Find it by searching property number 2331612 at VRBO.com.