Sailing adventures are part of effort to preserve Great Lakes

The schoolship Utopia is shown sailing near its home port of Suttons Bay on northern Lake Michigan. (Photo courtesy of the Inland Seas Education Association)

By Gregg Bruff
What happens when you sign up for a 350-mile sailing adventure and there is no wind? And what if the 76-foot schooner and crew of 10 need to transit to Duluth in a week?
I learned the answers to these questions and a lot more recently as I volunteered for a four-day crew position at the beginning of August aboard the Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) “schoolship” Utopia. The ISEA is a non-profit organization that works to inspire curiosity, passion and stewardship of the Great Lakes through experiential learning activities aboard their traditionally rigged, tall-ship schooners.
Utopia had recently participated in the Tall Ships Festival in Green Bay where hundreds of visitors toured above and below deck. Utopia then made her way to Escanaba for two days of aquatic ecology programming that my wife Mimi and I facilitated on behalf of Clear Lake Education Center. In Escanaba, some 145 youth and adults participated in two-hour, hands-on programs aboard Utopia aimed at creating Great Lakes stewards. Escanaba Kiwanis, Rotary and Delta Community Foundation generously supported the program series.
Utopia departed Escanaba on a Saturday morning after being delayed by diesel engine water pump issues – after all, she is 73 years old and has been around the world twice. The wood and steel schooner was designed by Fred Peterson and built at the Peterson Shipyards in Sturgeon, Wis., in 1946. In 2016 Utopia was donated by Ellsworth Peterson to Inland Seas to become a second science program platform. For the past three years she has undergone extensive restoration to her previous glory. Below deck, her rich heritage shone with bronze portholes, marble appointments on the brass cabin lamps and seemingly acres of rich dark mahogany.
From Escanaba, we headed south on Lake Michigan past St. Martin’s Island, then east, with the Beaver Island group on our starboard bow. Large thunderstorms and wind “on the nose” required us to keep the twin Detroit Diesel engines howling below deck. During night watch the crew clipped their personal floatation devices to lifelines running along the deck “just in case.” On watch, the crew enjoyed a dark night sky with Jupiter shining brightly among the constellation Scorpius, and the Great Square of Pegasus rising in the east. Sleeping for three hours at a time on a boat pounding, rocking and rolling headlong into waves is an interesting experience. At the 3 a.m. watch change we passed under the brightly lit Mackinac Bridge: what a sight! Though our 73-foot, 6-inch mast had plenty of clearance, it didn’t look like it from where we stood on deck.
Utopia was an entirely new opportunity for several of the crew. Our Captain, Stephanie Watkins, docked the schooner for the first time in Detour; it was a stellar performance. After a brief layover there, we headed up the St. Mary’s River passing 1000-foot lakers (freighters) in the narrow channel. After spending the night docked in St. Ignace, we took on water and diesel fuel and headed into the Poe Lock for the ride 25 feet up to the level of Lake Superior. Unexpected currents from below the hull added a few tense moments as our stern banged into the lock wall. Fortunately, only a small metal base supporting the stern light was damaged.
From the Sault we made our way out into Whitefish Bay and up to Whitefish Point where a huge thunderstorm encouraged us to dock at this harbor of refuge, and again, another sterling docking performance by captain and crew. Just as we got Utopia tied up, bolts of lightning danced around us and a fierce squall pinned the boat to the steel piling wall. As the storm briefly raged all off-duty hands enjoyed celebrating our safe arrival with a glass of red wine and chocolate squares.
The next morning was foggy and windless as we made our way west past the old U.S. Lifesaving Service Stations at Vermillion, the Two-Hearted River and Deer Park along with U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat stations at Whitefish Point, Grand Marais and eventually Munising’s Sand Point. We imagined USLSS watchmen walking the lonely beach in all kinds of weather, looking for shipwrecks.
Watches were divided into three- or four-hour stints. During that time we took turns being at the helm, standing forward bow watch, resting, or taking engine readings, bilge levels, atmospheric pressure, location charting, wind speed, and other ship status reports. Each day I was at the helm was a new challenge. With my hands on the solid mahogany wheel, I was responsible for piloting the 50-ton, 76-foot-long ship with an 18-foot beam through a maze of buoys and narrow channels, and past huge lakers. At different times I found myself negotiating a course through a small sailboat regatta in fog (sounding the horn every two minutes), encountering waves rocking the bow, and the solitude of fickle wind pushing the bow around.
Cruising past the Pictured Rocks cliffs where I worked for 25 years with the National Park Service was a high point. I saw the low sunlight reflecting off Spray Falls and numerous water seeps in the porous multicolored sandstone. Rafts of rental kayaks dotted the lake surface and cruise boats came and went along the cliffs.
Sadly, the journey came to an end in Munising where an energetic group of friends gathered to welcome me off the boat. Two of my sailing mentors from years ago were there to help celebrate my graduation from navigating my own 27-foot sloop to the impressive 76-foot schooner Utopia. We arrived in Munising on schedule, and the Utopia sailed onward to Duluth where it arrived on time to participate in the tall ships festival there.
I extend a huge thank you to the staff of ISEA whose programs help thousands of people a year know and love the Great Lakes. Thanks to the nine other Utopia crew members who patiently taught and guided me on this grand adventure. And a special thanks to my wife, Mimi Klotz, who supported my dream of voyaging on a large sailboat.
For more information on the Inland Seas Education Association visit
(Gregg Bruff is a former National Park Service ranger at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore where he served as the chief of heritage education for 25 years. He retired in 2013 after 37 years of federal service. He and his wife Mimi enjoy sailing their 27-foot, Bermuda-rigged sloop, the Arcturus, whenever they have an opportunity. An accomplished artist working in oil, Gregg’s painting of Two Lakers was featured on the January 2019 cover of Marquette Monthly. He, Mimi and Sadie the beagle reside in Escanaba.)

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