Saving The Best For Last: Sailor’s Superior Loop Caps Off Challenging Great Lakes Circumnavigation
Trailer Sailor Does it All!

By Cyndi Perkins

On a sunny afternoon in late June, Paul Johnson trailered his 23-foot Precision Albion into the Houghton County Marina parking lot, where he cheerfully and efficiently went about the business of raising the mast and making other preparations to launch at the boat ramp. The Pennsylvania license plate and boat registration numbers piqued my interest. Obviously this sailor was a long way from home. So what drew him to a Lake Superior port on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula?

Come to find out it was the start of a 981-mile circumnavigation of Lake Superior and the “grand finale” to an adventure Paul began in 2002. His goal is to travel around all five Great Lakes. “Mother Superior is my grand finale,” he says. If all goes well, Paul will complete his loop in late August back at Houghton County Marina.

Paul JohnsonJohnson began his challenge on Lake Erie, the Great Lake handiest to his Pittsburgh-area home. “Erie took me two years to finish,” he says. “Since then I’ve been able to complete each lake in one year.” The Erie loop was followed by complete circles of Great Lakes Michigan, Ontario and Huron, the latter of which included a wondrous detour on the heralded North Channel and Georgian Bay. “Killarney was one of my favorite spots,” Paul says. “I also loved the Michigan shore of Lake Michigan: Petoskey, Charlevoix, all the little towns and the sand dunes … in some ways that is an undiscovered resource for many Americans.”

Lake Michigan also presented some of the most dramatic situations Paul has faced during his journey. “I was offshore on Lake Michigan, the winds were blowing me out when I was trying to go into the harbor, I lost a shear pin — whatever. I made it in all right. That’s sailing. You can’t panic, just catch your breath and figure it out. I’ve seen some storms. But I look at the weather, listen to the weather reports and I’ve learned a lot about fetch, wind direction and waves. I’ll take four-footers on the stern but not the bow.”

If weather conditions don’t meet his criteria, Paul doesn’t venture out into open water. Retired from the computer/software industry, the 57-year-old has meticulously plotted his itinerary for the Superior loop on a spreadsheet, factoring in down time, weather days and where he will anchor or tie up each night. The logistics aren’t all that complicated, he explains. The most difficult variable is timing crew pick-ups and departures, particularly when the weather is not being cooperative.

Paul attended sailing school in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as taking courses in offshore cruising and doing some bareboat chartering in tropical locales. He says Albion has performed well. Her swing keel is a plus; with centerboard up she drafts a mere 1'11" that allows for tucking in out of bad weather or getting up close to the action ashore. “The disadvantage is being a lighter boat, but my draft is shallow enough that I can sneak in pretty much anywhere,” he notes. The 6.5 horsepower Honda outboard has come in handy and he has no scruples about using it as necessary. “The beauty of sail is the options to sail and/or motor,” he says, while noting that “getting fuel will be a challenge up on the North Shore.” I also predicted that Superior’s notorious August fog will be a factor. Albion is not equipped with radar. Paul says he’ll simply sit it out if it’s too soupy too see where he’s going.

Paul Johnson with Boat

Paul has done some big sections of his traveling single-handed, most notably crossings of Lake Erie and Michigan. “I won’t do any long legs alone on Superior, though,” he says. Enlisting crew hasn’t been a problem. “As the years go by I have more people volunteering than I can take,” he says. “My wife Shirley usually does at least one leg a season.” Shirley was scheduled for the jaunt from Grand Marais, Minnesota to Thunder Bay, Ontario, including stops at Grand Portage and Isle Royale’s Washington Harbor. Like many sailors, Paul has had many enjoyable encounters with Ontario boaters. “The little private yacht clubs on the Canadian side are great, lots of camaraderie,” he says. I assured him he will find the same courtesy and hospitality among Canadian sailors on “Mother Superior.”

From Thunder Bay he will point Albion’s bow to the Lake’s upper  reaches in Rossport and Marathon and then along the Canadian shore to Otter Island. Scheduled stops include Michipicoten, Wawa and Sinclair islands, Brimley, Sault Ste. Marie, Whitefish Point, Grand Marais, Michigan, Munising, Marquette, Big Bay, and Huron Bay before returning to Houghton.

“It’s been a learning experience —it’s been a wonderful experience,” Paul says. He has no regrets or bad experiences to relate about any portion of his odyssey. “I am an adventurous person and I end up at all kinds of places off the beaten track seeing great places and meeting great people.”

So what’s next for the intrepid adventurer? “I’m not sure what I’ll do as far as sailing. But I also set a goal to ride a bike across the U.S. — I started in Delaware but haven’t finished. So I will probably pick up again where I ended in Pueblo, Colorado.”

You can follow Paul Johnson’s  Lake Superior journey at And if you spot him at a port near you, be sure to say ahoy!

Freelance journalist Cyndi Perkins travels Lake Superior aboard her 32-foot sailboat Chip Ahoy with her husband Scott, Houghton County Harbormaster. The couple has completed two America’s Great Circle Loops and is eagerly planning the next long-term voyage. Comments and questions may be directed to Cyndi at