Wednesday, August 14, 2019


We are under way northbound in Lake St. Clair, just abreast of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, as I begin typing. The lake has a bit of a chop but is mostly comfortable, and we intend to be off it entirely by this evening, as tomorrow it is forecast to be untenable. While small in comparison to its neighbors, this is by no means a small lake, and it can get rough. Some call it the littlest Great Lake.

We had a quiet and peaceful night Sunday, after the numerous go-fast boats finally quit for the night. Our tenuous grip on the rocky bottom held fast with 100' of chain. We were directly abreast of the Detroit River Wildlife Refuge, and all evening we saw and heard lots of birds. About 11pm or so, something let out a howl (coyote, I would think) and in the span of a minute or two, hundreds of other voices had joined the chorus. The refuge has just built a new visitor center, fishing pier, and boat dock, but they are not yet open, else I would have tendered over.

Approaching Detroit, with the Renaissance Center center frame beyond the Ambassador Bridge. The ship ahead of us is the Whitefish Bay, who just pulled away from the dock and passed us.

Monday morning we weighed anchor to make the 10:45 opening of the Grosse Ile Parkway bridge, which is hailed on the radio as the "grow zeal free bridge" (the subtleties of French have been lost over time). We then had to putt along slowly to stretch our arrival at the Grosse Ile toll bridge to 11:30. The mainland shoreline from here to Detroit is an odd mix of going concerns, abandoned and decaying infrastructure, and land repurposed into waterfront development.

We left the Trenton channel and in relatively quick succession passed Wyandotte and Ecorse before rejoining the main channel at the Ecorse channel junction. Although we are not required to do so, I cleared in with Sarnia Traffic on channel 12. Just as we were coming up on the River Rouge outlet (leading to Dearborn), an enormous freighter, the Whitefish Bay, announced on that same channel that they were leaving the dock on the Canadian side, and we had to move over to the American side of the channel to make room, costing us a half knot or so. Overall we had about 1.5 knots against us.

Sunset over the Detroit Wildlife Refuge from our anchorage.

After passing downtown Detroit to port (and downtown Windsor, Ontario to starboard) we arrived at the William G. Milliken State Park and Harbor, with its very robust decorative lighthouse. We plowed through a little hump of silt at the entrance and tied alongside the first T-head (map). There is actually a designated federal anchorage in the river just outside this harbor, but there's no good place to land a tender, and it's a deep anchorage. At $1.25 per foot we were happy to have a secure dock for Tuesday's forecast high winds.

We made passing arrangements with the tall ship Bluenose, who seemed confused about whistle signals.

As luck would have it, a Grand Banks that had been gaining on us out on the river came in right behind us, and they turned out to also be loopers, the first we've seen in these parts. I was happy to meet Matt, Jen, and their son Felix aboard Long Way Home. We did not get a chance to spend any time with them, as they had a previous commitment with family across the river, but there is a good chance we'll run into them further along.

The RenCen. Instantly familiar.

With most of the afternoon ahead of me, I set out on the e-Bike to explore the neighborhood. I started by heading west along the very nice new Detroit River Walk to the Renaissance Center, locally known as the RenCen, a mixed-use facility that is now the world headquarters of General Motors. I've never been here before, but walking in the door I was instantly in familiar surroundings.

A big part of that is because architect John Portman (of soaring hotel atrium fame) used essentially the same blueprints, but on a smaller scale, for the Bonaventure hotel complex in Los Angeles, right down to the elliptical cantilevered conversation pods. I've spent more than my fair share of time in the Bonaventure (and many other Portman hotels). Like its smaller west coast cousin, the RenCen also hosts a hotel, the Detroit Marriott, which occupies the center tower.

Looking south through the "Wintergarden" area of the RenCen. Center-frame across the river is Ceasar's casino in Windsor, Ontario. Yes, Canada is due south of Detroit, no matter what the Journey song said.

The other familiar memory called up for me here was of the General Motors building in Manhattan, which I visited a number of times in my youth. There, too, huge swaths of the first floor were given over to an all-marques GM new-car showroom. The cars here, other than the ones on the rotating center turntable, are all unlocked for visitors to have a test-fit. In addition to actual cars, a life-size, 3,800-lb replica of a Silverado pickup is made entirely of Lego bricks, and is incredibly detailed.

Lego Silverado.

In the RenCen I also found a half dozen restaurants, a food court, a few shops, and a station for the People Mover. I did not have time to explore more of downtown, but instead I rode back past the marina to the Warehouse District to scope out a couple of our walkable dining options. Before I left the RenCen I noted the Mariner's Church across the street, and beside it the entrance to the tunnel to Windsor, where, for $5 (US or CDN) one can take a bus across for a visit.

A number of tall ships have been cruising downriver, likely returning from another tall ship event. In addition to Bluenose we again saw the Nao Santa Maria, and this, the Appledore IV, whom we see regularly in NY and Key West.

By dinner time, the forecast for rain had been pushed back to 9pm, and we walked a few blocks east to the Atwater Brewing Company for dinner. They had a large selection of their own brews on draft, and we found all three that we sampled very good.

The retail arcade in The Guardian Building.

Yesterday I again took the e-Bike out for some exploration. I rode all the way to the end of the River Walk, where the remains of the Joe Louis Arena are being slowly dismantled. From there I rode through Hart Plaza, which seems like it ought to be a vibrant public space but was, rather, little more than a homeless encampment, perhaps emblematic of the study in contrasts that is modern Detroit.

Looking over the main lobby in the Guardian Building.

From Hart Plaza I made the short ride to the historic Guardian Building, just to see the splendid and well-kept 30's-era lobby areas, before riding around Campus Martius Park, the nominal center of the city. From there I rode out Woodward Avenue, the main drag, all the way to the complex of new sports stadia on the edge of downtown, just past the theater district. I ended my tour back at the RenCen, where for 75 cents I hopped on the People Mover and made the full loop, just for the view.

The James Scott fountain on Belle Isle. My photo could not do it justice.

After a quick late lunch stop at the boat I rode out to Belle Isle. The entire island is a park, and as an urban park, it rivals Central Park, larger in size and also designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (who also designed the layout of the national mall and one of my alma maters). By rights it ought to be an urban gem, like its distant cousins in New York and DC, but Detroit's financial troubles doomed it to a shadowy ghost of its former grandeur. It has been leased to the state and is now operated as a state park. I circled the entire island, stopping at the famed fountain, the "casino," the Conservatory, and just outside the Detroit Yacht Club.

The Casino building at Belle Isle. For the record, I can distinguish between excrement and this decidedly modern clock.

At dinner time we strolled along the River Walk to the RenCen for dinner at the upscale Italian place, Andiamo. New York prices for Detroit quality, but we enjoyed sitting outside overlooking the river and the food was acceptable. I think it's a captive audience, with the Marriott hosting a booming conference business.

The aquarium, conservatory, and formal gardens. Not open on my visit.

A day and a half of exploring and two evenings out was plenty of Detroit, and yesterday evening we stowed the e-Bike after dinner and settled in for a final evening of unlimited air conditioning. Around 9:30 we were both rousted from our seats as a loud crash, a sharp movement, and the immediate sound of engines revving told us we'd been hit. A 35'-ish express cruiser had slammed us with his swim platform as he was trying to dock at the other end of the T-head. Inspection in daylight this morning revealed nothing more than a scuff, but sheesh, people, get some boat-handling lessons.

This morning we dropped lines after inspecting for damage and offloading the last of the trash and recycling. The channel west of Belle Isle would have been our preferred route upriver, but at this water level, clearing the fixed bridge would be dicey. Rather than even hassle with it, I cleared in with Sarnia Traffic and we took the ship channel up the Canadian side, departing it when we reached the lake.

View toward Windsor over Hart Plaza.

Update: We are now anchored in the North Channel of the St. Clair River, across from downtown Algonac, Michigan (map). Our old acquaintance the Picton Castle is tied to the bulkhead downtown across from us. We arrived here via the Middle Channel, which has a 7' bar across the entrance, and I had to stop typing until now. The St. Clair actually has a broad delta in Lake St. Clair, with the bulk of the flow taking the three largest channels. The South Channel is the ship channel, and we wanted to keep clear of that as long as we could. In the morning, we'll take the ship channel all the way to Port Huron.


  1. I loved cruising by Detroit -- the old mammoth industrial facilities were a vivid reminder of when Detroit was the manufacturing powerhouse of America.

    Although your dock near downtown Detroit sounds wonderful, I have to say we very much enjoyed staying at the Detroit Yacht Club. It is an immensely hospitable place, a well-maintained relic of Detroit's salad days. Great restaurant, nice people, fun to walk through and see the huge entertaining spaces.

    1. I enjoyed our stop in Detroit.

      As for the DYC, they turned me away at the gate when I stopped by in my circuit of Belle Isle, YCA club card in hand. So as far as I'm concerned they can pound sand, and will be getting a negative AC review from me.Clearly your experience was different.

      We did not consider them initially as a docking alternative for two reasons. First, we can't get under the bridge, so we'd have had to round Belle Isle and make a round trip back down the channel. And second, we'd have had to take an Uber to visit downtown.

  2. It’s become customary for the winner of the Indycar races on Belle Isle to jump in the fountain.


    1. That event appears to be the only time Belle Isle gets busy. The fact that they can basically close off the entire park speaks to how underutilized it is. Shame, as it is a wonderful park, but here again is the duality that is modern Detroit.


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