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Boating in Wisconsin | The Allure and Adventure of Sailing the Great Lakes

sailboat on the great lakes

Here in Northeast Wisconsin, we know standing on the shores of Lake Michigan and staring out at endless water can produce the exact same feelings of serenity and wonder as any beach on the East or West Coasts.

In fact, there are plenty of things about the Great Lakes that make them better than the ocean. No sharks. No hurricanes. No salt residue on your body after swimming. Those are just a few of the pluses that come to mind.

The Great Lakes also offer an amazing experience for those who love to sail. If you’ve never cruised along the shores of the Door Peninsula, or taken a sailboat out on Lake Superior around the Apostle Islands, sailing enthusiasts in Wisconsin will tell you you’re missing out.

De Pere native, Jake Danen, who now lives in Door County and co-owns the Nicolet Beach Camp Store at Peninsula State Park in Fish Creek is one of those people.

“I always joke that I was born in April and on a boat by June,” he says.

Both Jake’s father and grandfather were self-taught sailors who passed on the tradition. Jake and his dad built their own sailboat when he was just 10 years old, and after high school, he decided to make a career out of sailing. Jake moved to Door County where he says his self-taught ability improved with access to Great Lakes sailing experts in that area.

“I had all of this wealth of knowledge around me from the sailing community in Door County, and that’s really when I honed my skills,” he says. Jake got a license allowing him to take passengers out on the lake with a 27-foot catamaran. He says he would make as many as six trips a day.

jake sailing in Wisconsin

Jake has also sailed on the Gulf of Mexico and notes some distinct differences between sailing on the ocean and Lake Michigan. Taking a sailboat out around Wisconsin can present unique opportunities for adventure. He explains that waves are spaced further apart on the ocean, while it can be a bit choppier on the lake. In general, the situation on the water in the Great Lakes is more likely to change without much notice.

“A squall coming through can change things quickly on Lake Michigan, but because there’s so much water to move in the ocean, change happens more slowly,” Jake says. “There certainly is an element of challenge on the Great Lakes that you don’t get on the ocean.”

If it’s the thrill of adventure you’re seeking, speed isn’t the only factor you should consider. While most recreational sailboats won’t go much faster than 6 miles an hour, Jake says you’ll get a completely different rush than riding in a speedboat.

“You actually feel like you’re flying through the water,” he says “The relativity of it is crazy. It can feel like you’re going really fast, and just knowing that you’re doing that with nothing but the natural power of the wind is incredible.”

Jake also points out the unique landscapes around the Door Peninsula, which is part of the Niagara Escarpment. In particular, he loves cruising on the bayside where glaciers have carved out the shoreline. You may have hiked along this area, but viewing it from the water provides a breathtaking perspective.

“As you sail through Door County, you see these beautiful bluffs rising out of the water, and there’s a ton of natural history there,” Jake says. “The noise of the water passing the hull, the sound of the breeze in the sails, all of that is so organic. I think that’s one of the biggest draws. It grips you.”

Get Started Sailing on the Great Lakes

For many people, the idea of buying a sailboat and taking it out on the water is a big step. However, you don’t need to be a lifelong sailor like Jake to participate in this pastime.

Lori Schwartz and Mark Hanson have been taking their 1982 Catalina 25 sailboat, which they’ve named “Slow Ride,” out on the Bay of Green Bay for the last few years. Lori grew up with a family that enjoyed sailing, and she’s loved returning to the water.

“It’s great to sail on the Bay because it is big water, but you’re always close to land,” Lori explains. “Also, the Bay is very sandy which is nice if you happen to hit bottom, which we have done a few times getting to know the shoreline.”

While it’s a good place to learn and practice sailing, the Bay also offers plenty of places to dock your sailboat and have some fun.

“The best thing about sailing on the Bay is that there are a lot of marinas and destinations you can sail to,” Lori says. “We have even sailed to Hagemeister Park on the Fox River for lunch and have been to many of the marinas like Wave Pointe in Little Sturgeon Bay for the weekend.”

Lori and Mark are part of the local sailing club, Windjammers. Lori says it was a great way for them to get connected with a community of Northeast Wisconsinites who love to sail.

Lori on Wisconsin sailboat

“There are lots of cruising and racing opportunities at the club and we do both,” she says. “Racing makes us hit a mark, so it requires strategy and more energy. Cruising is more laidback and relaxing. We set our sails and our auto-tiller and enjoy the ride. The club is also a great way to meet people, and there is always a seasoned sailor nearby to help with ideas on updating stuff or any issues we might have with our boat.”

The Windjammers Sailing Club has a marina that is maintained by volunteer members. The harbor has slips for 52 boats and there’s room for another 24 sailboats in a drysail area.

For those contemplating applying for a boat loan to finance the purchase of a sailboat, Lori suggests considering what you want to get out of the Great Lakes sailing experience as well as what you might want to do with your new boat.

“There are so many different kinds of sailboats for all sorts of different purposes,” she says. “Our boat has a kitchen, head, and sleeping quarters, but it is a fast boat for its size. So, it’s great for racing and cruising. I would remind people that there is always some yearly maintenance that needs to be done, like keeping the teak clean and the bottom of the boat painted and clean. Also, if you buy a used boat, you will want to do some updating to make it your own, like newer sails, updated electronics, new curtains, the list could go on!”

Lori and Mark plan to get more daring with their sailboat trips as time goes by. Lori says she dreams of retiring some day and sailing through the Great Lakes Waterway all the way to the Atlantic Ocean for an ultimate sailing adventure.

Jake Danen’s advice to those who are interested in sailing on the Great Lakes is to get some lessons first, whether they’re formal or you find an experienced sailor to show you the ropes. He also advises that understanding safety is crucial.

“After that, just enjoy it and realize how special it is that we have access to all this water and the amazing landscape that surrounds it,” he says. Look for Jake the next time you’re camping at Peninsula State Park, he may even give you a few free pointers.

Stop Dreaming and Start Sailing with a Unison Boat Loan

Do you fantasize about heading out on the open water? Did you grow up sailing and want to give your family the same exciting memories? Why wait? Maybe now is the right time to get approved for a boat loan from Unison Credit Union and make those sailboat dreams a reality.

Our Member Advisors will help you examine your financing options and empower you to make the right decision. Stop in at one of our Northeast Wisconsin credit union locations in Kaukauna, Wrightstown, De Pere, Grand Chute, or Little Chute, which are a short drive from Lake Michigan and Lake Winnebago, too.

Watch a Video About Biking and Sailing at Peninsula State Park

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