Agent’s Corner: The Great Lakes are America’s un(der)discovered cruising grounds

Mar 20, 2018 by Deb Radtke

The Agent’s Corner: by Deb Radtke

Five quick facts to get started (five facts because there are five lakes):

  1. If you drained the Great Lakes, they would cover the lower 48 states under about 9 feet of water.
  2. They are home to more than 170 species of fish.
  3. They have more than 3,500 species of plants.
  4. They are bordered by eight states and two nations.
  5. There are 35,000 islands in the five  Great Lakes.

In the early days of American yachting, not everyone played in New England. Instead, the industrialists of the Midwest enjoyed the freshwaters of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron, Lake Erie and the 1,000 Island area leading into Lake Ontario.

Yacht building and service there dates to the 1860s, with the founding of Henry Burger’s first shipyard, Burger Boat Co. in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. It was followed  by the Great Lakes Boatbuilding Co., which later became Henry C. Grebe Co. in Chicago, and Palmer Johnson Shipyard, originally based in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. All built vessels for such recognizable names as Ford, Wrigley and Gamble (as in Proctor and Gamble).

Burger Boat Co. is still in operation in Manitowoc, having recently built well-known yachts such as M/Y Sycara V and the Luis DeBasto-designed 103-foot Northland delivered in 2017.

Not all boats built on the Great Lakes, however, were grand yachts – names such as Lyman, Chris-Craft, and Stanley are recognizable to any classic boat lover.

So how do you get there from Florida? Smaller yachts with less than a 20-foot airdraft (or those that can reduce their airdraft to under 20 feet) can travel via the Erie Canal, which rises 566 feet from the Hudson River to Lake Erie through 35 locks.

Larger vessels cruise through the St. Lawrence river and the St. Lawrence Seaway System. This route goes through the Welland canal, which has eight locks to raise vessels 326 feet from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. Total rise from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior is 601 feet.

The Great Lakes are bordered by two nations, so you do need to be cognizant of whose waters you are cruising in.  But the U.S. and Canada have created a simplified check-in system, the Nexus Pass, that allows a speedy entry at land, sea and air border checks.

With close to 10,000 miles of shoreline that includes metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Detroit, as well as the vast wilderness of Lake Superior’s North Shore and Isle Royale National Park, the five Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario – have So there’s definitely something for everyone.

Debora Radtke is owner of American Yacht Agents (, based in Fort Lauderdale, but still calls the Great Lakes region home. Comments are welcome below.