By Marlin Bree

If you talk with most local sailors, the watery Holy Grail they feel most attracted to are the small islands off Wisconsin's northern coast.
Lovingly, they talk of warm summer breezes wafting them about, verdant islands that seem to rise directly out of the blue waters, and about the lifestyle of the cruising sailor where you can leave the anchor of shore far behind and set sail into the relative unknown.

Author onboard his wooden sloop, Persistence.
Photo by Good Age.

One guy summed up its promise this way: Just sail up to the center of Superior, take a hard right, and the next thing you know you'll be in England.
I've known several who have done just that. Superior is big-water boating.

It all starts in the colorful little town of Bayfield, the city dock, and the many boats congregated in the blue waters. This is dedicated sailboat territory, with probably more pleasure craft per square kilometer than anyplace else in the Midwest. It is home to the largest charter fleet in the U.S., and is probably the Midwest's largest boating community. It is also a National Lakeshore, under the general protection of the National Park Service.

Bayfield is no slacker, either. A couple of years ago, the Chicago Tribune declared it the best little town in the Midwest. Translated another way: reserve your lodging early. It's very popular with Chicago tourists as well as Midwest boaters. Often there's no room at the Inn, for months, during peak season.

You can trailer your boat up to Bayfield, or you can charter a sailboat there from a number of chartering organizations. From then on, it's off into the islands for you.

The Apostles. The Apostles are not 12 but 22 islands, covering an area of more than 720 square miles of Lake Superior and offer superb boating adventure and cruising. Leave the shore and in a matter of minutes you can become lost in the islands. Literally. Beyond the Apostles, you enter the open waters of the world's largest freshwater lake, all 31,000 square miles of it.

To boaters, the Apostle Islands area represents a special chance to try out big water skills and perhaps to encounter some waterborne adventure. They can get a taste of boating Lake Superior, but in the relative protection of the islands. You get the wind, but not the seas, for the islands themselves form a natural barrier and provide a favorite playground for boaters.

But there's so much to see and enjoy, many boaters should make a cruising plan in advance so that they can make the most of their visit. The idea is plan ahead and sail smarter in the Apostles.

Getting there: From the Twin Cities, cruise north on Hwy 35 to Duluth, about 160 miles on a fast three-lane freeway. Without a lot of stops, and blessed with iron kidneys, veteran boaters make it in under three hours. Nearing Duluth, turn eastward on Wisconsin Hwy 2, over the Bong Bridge, through the town of Superior, to Hwy 13. This colorful highway is well marked to Bayfield and the Apostle Islands, with magnificent views of Superior as you wind your way northeast along the shoreline. A spectacular overview of the Apostles awaits as you come over the hill to enter the town of Bayfield.

If you drive at dusk, be careful on Wisconsin Hwy 13, where deer come out to browse. One year a boater at Port Superior told me she ran into a deer that had dashed into the road. The accident totally demolished her car.

Tips on what to take: Superior can be both wet and cold, even in the height of summer. Take thermal underwear, sweaters, fleece, and good foul weather gear. Don't chintz on the cheap stuff - it will just let you down when you need it most. A long-billed baseball cap also is useful to keep the sun's glare off your eyes, and in rain, the wet off your face. Take good sunglasses with UV protection and good sunscreen, and a knife. I like a utility tool with several tools besides a blade in a leather belt carrier.

You need NOAA chart of the Apostle Islands, 14973, your GPS, and navigation equipment. It's a wilderness up there after you duck past the first set of islands, so navigation skills with the right information is critical. A Boat Log & Record is useful to keep a record of your time, course, speed, distance and navigation notes as well as GPS data. A helpful cruising guide is Bonnie Dahl's Superior Way, third edition.

Moon over the Apostles. Art by Marlin Bree.

Take everything you need. There are some stores in Bayfield, your last place to provision before the islands, but it's best if you plan ahead and have everything ready. That would include clothing, medical equipment and provisions, toiletries, food, beverages and water. In the wilds of the islands, you can't just pull over to the nearest store and buy what you forgot.

If you are taking your own boat up, be certain your VHF radio works well. The radio is your lifeline for information about weather and your main way to get help afloat. All crew members should be able to operate the VHF and be drilled on its use for an emergency, including Pan and Mayday messages. Coast Guard Bayfield monitors Channel 16, which should be on at all times while underway or at anchor.

Weather: It's not a joke that you can always tell a veteran Superior skipper by the way his or her eyes keep scanning the horizon. Lake Superior is notorious for fast-rising, often vicious storms. It's also mostly home to gorgeous sunshine, beautiful open waters, and Technicolor sunsets.

But there is always the element of unpredictable weather. Boats should have their VHF radios on when underway, tuned to channel 16, for heavy weather warnings. It's also important to check in with NOAA weather forecasts before you start out, and get updates when underway. Even so, big bodies of water like Superior affect the weather, and boater beware that even modern technology can fail to give you an alert.

Once off the north shore, I headed out into the open waters listening to my VHF predicting fair weather and moderate seas and ran straight into the teeth of a northeaster. After a stormy passage with high seas and the appearance of Superior's vaunted Three Sisters (three waves in a row, each bigger than the one before), I limped back to Two Harbors, MN, and turned on my VHF weather. I was startled to hear the same forecast for fair weather, and no mention of storms.

Veteran Apostle Island boaters caught out in Superior's infamous "green storm" of July 4, 1999, reported that they had very little advance warning. One skipper was pushing hard to reach the safety of the Bayfield harbor when he saw the "awful green sky" coming at him. And when the quick-rising storm hit, he said, "I couldn't see the end of my boat."

Think ahead: There are few marinas or harbors of refuge in the Apostles, so if the wind switches and a storm comes up, you will need to know in advance where to find alternative anchorage. If you are chartering a sailboat, check their emergency plans. Many charter companies don't want you to stay overnight at an island dock, but rather to anchor out or return to a marina harbor. This is for safety reasons they say, for if a storm comes up, you may not be able to leave dockside and cause costly damage to your chartered craft.

Safety: When underway, wear a personal floatation device (PFD). Use caution when leaving the safety of the cockpit, and if possible clip in with a safety harness. You and your crew should have a plan for man overboard emergencies and be able to perform them with skill and quickly - that's cold water out there. Wear rubber-soled deck shoes that are built for boaters and can handle wet decks. Keep yourself in shape mentally and physically. If you drink, take along only beer or wine, no hard liquor, and use it in moderation, when at anchor or back at dock - not underway. When you anchor, double anchor.

Smart Cruising - Favorite Islands

Madeline Island. A quick, easy cruise is to Madeline Island, the large island you see off in the distance from Bayfield. It lies a little under four miles away from the mainland, and is one of the oldest places in the U.S., possibly dating back to the 1620s, when the first European visited it, but most certainly dates from when Pierre Radisson came ashore in the 1660s. In its long life starting as a fur trading post and fort, it has been under three flags: British, French, and U.S.

Author onboard his wooden sloop, Persistence.
Photo by Good Age.

Just tying up at the Madeline Island Marina is a special experience, since you enter a small channel and sail past an ancient Chippewa cemetery. You can usually call ahead on VHF Ch. 16 for transient space, and you can appreciate the fine facility and the hospitality of the Madeline Island Yacht Club. It's a beautiful harbor, privately maintained, and I've spent some pleasant days there aboard Persistence. The old town of La Pointe (year-around population 200; tourist season about 3,000) is walking distance away, and you can saunter along the road admiring the island housing, some old boats, and in town, see a rustic, but interesting museum. The town of LaPointe has some good eating and drinking spots, too. Incidentally, Madeline is the only island in the Apostles that is inhabited year around.

Stockton Island. Probably the most popular destination is Stockton Island. There are several reasons for this: it's just a nice cruise from the mainland and it has two docking areas as well as several bays where you can anchor. You can tie up overnight at the island's Presque Isle Bay docks, which is under the supervision of the Park Service. It is a beautiful island harbor, with good protection from heavy weather because of its large concrete breakwaters. But be aware of wildlife: more than one boater has heard heavy footpads on the deck at midnight, only to discover that the Apostles has a goodly number of inquisitive black bears looking for a snack. If you have a cooler in the cockpit, they'll find it, too. Remain calm, and inside.

Raspberry Island: Up the West Channel lies a picturesque island with a colorful lighthouse atop it. Many veteran cruisers like to anchor off the island's southeast corner, which has good holding ground. An interesting visit is the restored 1863 lighthouse, which usually has a park service volunteer in period costume launching forth in a colorful and entertaining look at island and lighthouse life in the mid-1800s. At the southeast corner, there are two docks, but watch for rocks and the shallowing depths.

Sand Island: Furthest out of the islands, at the western edges of the Apostles, lies beautiful Sand Island. You can still see some artifacts of a small fishing village (now gone) and a delightful woodsy trail that will take you to the Sand Island lighthouse. Look out over the Sand Island Shoal, for in its depths is the wreck Sevona, and if you're lucky, the lighthouse keeper will tell you the tale of that awesome shipwreck.

Little Sand Bay: On the eastern end of the mainland, opposite Sand Island, is Little Sand Bay. It has a small, protected harbor, and walking up the shore you'll see a Visitor Information Center and the restored Hokenson Fishery, which was one of the early fishing operations. A guided tour will tell you a lot about how the early fishermen worked, and give you a look at an l937 fishing boat.

Shipwrecks: Two especially interesting wrecks are the Pretoria, and the Lucerne, both indicated on chart 14973 Apostle Islands. The Pretoria lies off Outer Island, in about 50 feet of water, and is the remains of the most colossal wooden vessels ever to have sailed Superior and possibly one of the biggest wooden ships ever built. A northeaster got her. The three-masted schooner Lucerne lies sunken in the waters along Long Island, just east of the Apostles. She was on her last run of the season out of Ashland, WI, but also was caught by a northeaster during a November blow. A lighthouse keeper on the tip of Long Island discovered her ice-covered masts sticking out between churning water, with three ice-covered figures lashed in the rigging.

Boating tips

Heavy weather: Most storms come out of the Southwest, so keep your eyes open and choose your anchorages accordingly when blue clouds start to come up. There are no all-weather anchorages in the islands, and most anchorages have protection from one or two sides. Some chartering organizations do not permit overnight tie-ups at the various piers at island docks.

Chartering services have a reference guide to areas of protection in the Apostles. Basically, what it means is that you need to have an alternative anchoring position planned if you anchor out behind one of the islands. If the wind switches, you will need to raise your anchor and find a more wind-and-sea friendly anchorage. I've heard stories of boaters who found themselves at the wrong anchorage at midnight and had to get up their anchors in rising seas and wind to motor elsewhere. The cruising guidebook, Superior Way, has a good rundown on areas of protection when the wind switches.

Way to go

For a fine weekend, arrive in Bayfield late Thursday night. If you re chartering, you can usually arrange to stay onboard your boat for free. Most charter boats can hold a number of people, so that the bill of several hundred dollars a day (and it goes up from there) can be split among a number of sailors. Remember too, that you won't be paying motel rooms when you charter.

You can start sailing Friday morning. You can sail Saturday and come back in Sunday afternoon, and head home Sunday evening, arriving late. That's a dynamite weekend, and many boaters have done it, with fond memories.

Most Apostle charterers, I'm told, come from the Twin Cities and Chicago.

Reading Matter

Superior Way, by Bonnie Dahl. This is the preferred cruising guide to Lake Superior. Its third edition has waypoints in GPS. $39.95, Lake Superior Port Cities.

In the Teeth of the Northeaster, by Marlin Bree, describes the author's first cruises into the Apostles in his twenty-foot wooden sloop, Persistence, including spending several days on Madeline Island and at Red Cliff. $17.95, Marlor Press.

Call of the North Wind describes the author's visits to Sand and Raspberry Islands, and, his subsequent voyage along the Shipwreck Coast aboard a 35-foot catamaran with Captain Thom Burns and Owner Joe Boland. $16.95, Marlor Press.

Boat Log & Record (third edition), by Marlin Bree, is a useful book to log your cruise plan, important navigation information, and GPS data. $17.95, Marlor Press.

Web Links - Information on the Bayfield area. Search attractions: Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. -- Information on cruising the Apostles, chartering background information, and other useful data.

Marlin Bree is a veteran Apostle Islands cruiser and the author of numerous boating books, including Wake of the Green Storm: A Survivor's Tale. His web site shows pictures of his boat, the Persistence, and tells about his writings and his author activities, including his speaking engagements.