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Great Loop Cruise - Page 2

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The Greatest Loop

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The Journey Within — Page 2

By Peter A. Janssen
Photography by George Sass Sr.

Inside the well-protected harbor, we tied up at Snug Harbor Marina and, if I were in the star-awarding business, I would give them at least five out of five: The marina’s immaculate, run by great people (it’s a family business), with a large laundry behind the office, and a two-minute walk to the lovely downtown area. There’s even a well-equipped nautical store on the main street where you can kill at least half an hour looking around and talking with Donna Kolinger, whose family has owned it for generations. That evening we sat in the director’s chairs in the cockpit, enjoying a glass of wine and the sense of satisfaction that comes from cruising amid extremely pleasant surroundings. 

Leaving Pentwater the next morning (the wind was down so I didn’t have any further angst about clearing the breakwater), we passed some high and striking sand dunes and headed down Lake Michigan to Saugatuck on a beautiful summer day. This was a 16-knot, picture-perfect cruising day on a benign Lake Michigan; seas never got much more than a foot. You enter Saugatuck also by a breakwater, but a generous one, and then you wind your way a few miles up the Kalamazoo River to the town itself on Lake Kalamazoo. In preparation for our 86-mile trip across the lake to Chicago the next day, we fueled up again and then docked at the Coral Gables marina, pretty much in the heart of town. Saugatuck was larger than our previous stops, but it has an attractive, old-money, summer-resort atmosphere, plus an active art community. It’s the kind of place you could easily spend a long weekend, a week, or an entire summer.

Petunias - Photography by George Sass Sr.

We left Saugatuck at 6:45 the next morning, initially running at 16.1 knots and burning 15.1 gph in one-foot seas. Soon, however, the lake reverted to its meaner self, the wind picked up to 25 knots with much higher gusts, and the waves came in trains from the southwest, just off our bow. We dialed back and settled in. But even in these conditions the boat performed well; we were continually grateful for a well-designed hull, not to mention the smooth, quiet, and smoke-free Cummins QSB 5.9 diesel. By early afternoon, still more than 21 miles out, we picked up the Chicago skyline, a welcome sight. Oddly, the lake had been almost empty of other traffic, which didn’t particularly bother me, but the sight of our destination even far in the distance was reassuring.

We pulled into Burnham Harbor, south of McCormick Place, to top off our fuel tank, and then headed a few miles north for the Chicago Yacht Club in Monroe Harbor where we were to be guests of Lou Sandoval of Karma Yacht Sales, the local Beneteau dealer. Lou had two days of special events on the docket (the first devoted to Beneteau and our boat and the second to a yacht technology day at the club). 

For the next two days in Chicago the living was easy. By this time the boat was truly our home, and we enjoyed showing it off. The master stateroom forward is exceptional; there’s stowage everywhere—in a huge bin under the bed (which lifts on struts), in a hanging locker, in cabinets and drawers on both sides. The master berth is large enough for two adults and the feeling of space and light is more appropriate for a 40-footer than the 34-foot Beneteau. The guest stateroom, on the other hand, is definitely the stepchild of this layout, with very little stowage or moving-around space. It’s fine for one person using the upper berth where an opening port provides ventilation at head level, with the lower berth for bags and gear and stowage. But two adults would be cramped, and probably would be more comfortable sleeping on the convertible sofa in the salon and using the guest cabin for stowage. Still, it is a 34-foot boat.

The Chicago Yacht Club is right in the heart of town, just past the colorful new Millennium Park and off Lake Shore Drive. A bike and jogging path goes along the shore, and it was often filled with lines of kids on Segways, moving along single-file. We busied ourselves getting ready for the second half of our trip, primarily by dropping the mast—a relatively easy process, taking us about half an hour—so we could get under the low bridges to come after we left the city.

On the third morning we were off, starting the second half of our adventure, heading down the Illinois River to the Mississippi and St. Louis. With small-craft warnings still harassing the lake, we entered the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, just up from Monroe Harbor and south of the famous Navy Pier, in an early morning mist. We had to wait less than five minutes to get into the first lock, where there was only one other boat, and then eventually the canal opened up into downtown Chicago. The sky was a looming dark gray and the tops of the skyscrapers were hidden in the mist, but the ensuing 15-minute ride through the heart of Chicago was worth the entire trip. How often do you have a chance to cruise through the middle of a major American city? 

Unfortunately, the city highlights ended all too soon, and we were confined to a relatively foul-smelling, narrow commercial canal with lots of abandoned warehouses and old factories lining the sides. The beautiful clean, clear blue waters of Lake Michigan, some of the most inviting cruising grounds in the United States, were well behind us. Instead, we were dealing with low railroad and highway bridges that often required a half-hour wait to open (even on a Sunday morning) and tugs and barges that required our full attention. After 20 miles or so we approached a yellow-and-red sign on the right side of the canal that seemed to bring home our changed circumstances. “High Risk of Electric Shock,” it announced. “No Swimming.” This was because the water there contains an electric current to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan and, indeed, dozens of electrified carp were floating belly up in the fetid water—not exactly an aesthetic highlight of the trip.

We also were entering the “12 miles of hell” part of the canal, a narrow, no-wake zone which serves as a staging area for all the commercial barge and tugboat traffic going to, and coming from, Chicago. Fortunately, there was little traffic on this Sunday morning but still, passing half a dozen tows that were transiting the canal required total concentration; there is very little room for error. 

Finally, a mile or so below the Lockport Lock and Dam (the entire structure creaks and groans disconcertingly as the water level drops 40 feet), the Des Plaines River came in from the north and the waterway turned into a normal river, with lush green trees and summer homes dotting the shorelines. 

We had a total of four locks under our belts before we tied up for the evening at Spring Brook Marina in Seneca, Illinois, a large, clean, well-run marina and yacht sales operation. That night we collapsed early. The combination of the Sanitary and Ship Canal, the locks, the summer heat, and the tows had done us in. Some of the tows were small, but some were enormous, with barges assembled two and sometimes three abreast and stretching ten or 12 ahead. Coming at you, they look like huge warehouses turned on their sides; the tugboats are aft, pushing the barges, and at a distance it’s hard to tell how many barges are heading your way or how fast they’re going (not very). At least when you catch up with one going in your direction, you first see the superstructure of the tugboat itself; you know what you’re looking at.