Capt. Mike Witters has had the same conversation countless times during the past 10 years. That’s how many summers he’s spent as captain aboard the 90-foot Stephens Trilogy out of Petoskey, Michigan, a city of fewer than 10,000 in the northern part of the state. Looking at a map, Petoskey is where the tip of the ring finger would be inside the mitten-shape of Michigan.
“I can’t tell you how many charter guests have told me it’s crazy that the Great Lakes are so unknown,” he says. “They say they’ve been to New England or Maine a thousand times, and this is new and just as beautiful. They can’t believe there aren’t more charter boats running around. It’s a great, unknown wonderland.”
Capt. Graham Barnes of the 84-foot Palmer Johnson Captivator says the same thing: “If all of your cruising is in the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, then you need to come up for a summer to Lake Michigan. It’s a beautiful spot. People don’t know what they’re missing.”
That’s an awful lot of ignorance about the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth. The Great Lakes comprise more than 80,000 square miles. As a matter of context, the whole of the Bahamas is not even 7 percent of that size.
While hundreds upon hundreds of crewed charter yachts are available each summer in the Bahamas, New England and the Mediterranean, fewer than a half-dozen are typically advertised in the freshwater paradise that is the Great Lakes. That’s because of all the effort it takes to get there, either snaking your way up the rivers of America’s Heartland or taking the long way around Nova Scotia and heading west across the St. Lawrence Seaway. After all of that effort, you have a charter season that’s only three, or maybe 3½, months long — if you get lucky with the weather. And your boat is in a place where so few other crewed yachts are based that people — guests and brokers alike — rarely think of you as an actual charter option.
“I think the thing is that Chicago has a really cold winter,” Barnes says. “You’ve got people up there who can afford a boat, and they say, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Bahamas.’ And the people in other parts of the country don’t know that Lake Michigan does have a summer. It was gorgeous this year, with 92- and 93-degree weather for 10 days on end.”