Experience Tall Ship Sailing at Traverse City Michigan

Experience Tall Ship Sailing at Traverse City Michigan

Sailing aboard the Manitou Photo: Traverse Tall Ship Company

Posted June 21, 2024

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“Ready about!” Captain Jamie Trost shouted.

“Ready about!” the crew immediately responded. They jumped into action, abandoning conversations with guests, quickly delivering the drinks in their hands, and heading for the 2-inch thick lines (what nonsailors call ropes) controlling the sails.

“Ready forward!” The crew yelled.

“Helms down!” The captain called out.

Slowly, smoothly, the 114-foot schooner Manitou began to turn.

Every summer, the tall ship Manitou plies the clear waters of Grand Traverse Bay, docking at Traverse City, Michigan. Three or four times a day, the ship sets sail with up to 59 passengers for a two-hour cruise. It’s a traditional ship experience. Sails are hoisted through muscle and perseverance. Steering is done with a wheel on the quarter deck. And, the speed of the ride depends on the wind.

Of course, this isn’t the 1800s, so there are a few luxuries traditional sailors could only dream about, such as cold beer and chilled wine, a flushing marine head (toilet), and modern safety equipment, including a motor.

WF Sailing Hoisting the Sails

Crew and Passengers Hoist the Sails Photo: Traverse Tall Ship Company

The Joy of Summertime Cruises

Cruises start Memorial Weekend and run through the end of September. All sailings offer cold drinks for purchase on board. Passengers also enjoy live music, cultural talks, ice cream, or brunch, depending on the cruise. After Labor Day, the ship takes passengers on overnight cruises in Lake Michigan.

The evening sail my husband and I signed up for offered no special entertainment or food — just wind in the sails and the inimitable sense of all but flying across the water. It also provided a chance to see our son, Adam, at work as one of the deckhands.

An Adventure on the Manitou

We arrived for our adventure on the Manitou half an hour before the cruise began. We retrieved a laminated boarding pass from the wooden hut on the pier. Reservations can be made by phone or online. The office hut serves as both a ticket booth and a gift shop.

At 6:30 p.m., one of the deckhands appeared on the raised boarding platform and yelled a greeting to the crowd waiting on the dock. She gave us a short safety talk about life jackets, where to sit, and to please refrain from jumping in the water. She encouraged passengers to help raise the sails, if only because no one gets beer until the sails are up. If you want to take the wheel, you can — but it will cost you a (clean) joke or two.

Ten minutes later, we were all onboard and jostling for seats on wooden deck boxes along the side rails and on the cabin roofs on the main deck. Some of us found seats on the raised quarterdeck, where the steering wheel stood in the back of the boat.

Leaving the dock proved to be an entertaining, well-practiced ballet. The captain called commands to release various dock lines, and the crew repeated the commands back as they freed the ship.

Tall ship sailing Captain Jamie Trost at the wheel. Photo by Traverse Tall Ship Company

Captain Jamie Trost at the wheel. Photo by Traverse Tall Ship Company

Time for the Heave Ho!

Once the Manitou was out in the open water of the bay, Captain Jamie announced it was time to raise the sails. A deckhand asked for volunteers to help — it takes a handful of people to pull down on the halyards, the thick lines (ropes) that hoist the sails. Five passengers and two crew grabbed hold of the main peak halyard.

“Heave!” the deckhand yelled.

“Ho!” the volunteers and crew replied, employing arm muscle and their body weight to drag the rope down.

The mainsheet rose a foot, maybe two. With every “Heave!” and “Ho!” the sails spread higher until the final call rang out across the deck, “That’s well peak!”

The process was repeated on the smaller foresail, in the middle of the ship, and followed by the even smaller headsail near the bow. The Manitou carries a whopping 3,000 square feet of sail, but conditions aren’t always suitable for using the two smaller headsails (there are three) and the uppermost sail, appropriately called the topsail.

Tall Ship Sailing

Passengers help hoist sails on the Manitou. Photo by Traverse Tall Ship Company

Tall Ship Sailing into the Past

The Manitou looks like a ship from the 1880s, but it was built in the 1980s specifically for passenger charters. Wood is everywhere, from the two masts and bowsprit to the cabins and scarred deck. The ropes, or lines as they’re called on a boat, easily pass for hemp, the stuff ropes were made of in the 1800s. It’s easy to imagine what travel on Lake Michigan must have been like 200 years ago.

With the sails unfurled, Captain Jamie shut off the motor. The abrupt quiet was barely noticeable amidst the sound of the wind and the happy chatter of guests. The nearly 100-ton ship is too heavy to be easily tossed around, and seasickness wasn’t a problem. The Manitou cruised along at 6 knots in a brisk 15-knot breeze, heeling (leaning) gently, just barely, to one side.

Embracing the Tall Ship Sailing Experience

On a summer evening, there’s no more relaxing place to be than out on the water, gliding across the bay. If you look closely, you might notice the small electronic navigation screen positioned so that it is hidden from all but whoever is at the wheel. The bathtub-sized emergency life raft capsule and large ice chest on the foredeck do appear out of place. Of course, safety and cold drinks make up for the incongruity.

One of the deckhands came around with a clipboard, taking drink orders for beer, wine, and soft drinks. As the boat and passengers settled into the rhythm of the sail experience — cruise, tack (turn), cruise back, tack again — Captain Jamie handed Adam the wheel and shared a bit of the geologic history of the bay. Lake Michigan, he explained, was carved by glaciers and filled with melted glacial water.

The friendly college-age crew kept us all comfortable and safe as the two hours flew by. We were thrilled with excitement at the ship’s speed (7 knots!) and laughed at knock-knock jokes from passengers taking a turn at the wheel.

Tall Ship Sailing at Sunset

Sunset Sail Photo: Traverse Tall Ship Company

Take in the Headsails

Before we knew it, the dock was in sight and Captain Jamie was calling to the crew, “Take in the headsails!”

“Take in the headsails!” the crew yelled back.

Down came the small, triangular head sail. The foresail followed, then the mainsail. Agile as a squirrel, Adam climbed up to the boom, neatly folding the sail as it dropped. Taking sails down is much easier than raising them.

The wind was blowing toward the dock, so Captain Jamie brought the ship parallel to the dock and let the wind push the boat gently into position. Deckhands tossed the dock lines to staff on the dock. One by one, the passengers thanked the crew and filed off the ship into the twilight.

As we paused for photos in front of the ship, the crew began working to get the boat shipshape for the night. They hustled about the deck, coiling lines and tidying the headsail lying crumpled on the bowsprit. In the morning, a new group of passengers will step aboard, ready to grab the halyards and wait for the command to raise the sails on the Manitou once again: “Heave!”


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