717 Miles by PWC on the Great Lakes

Two adventuresome PWC owners took their trusty seahorses around Michigan in 4 days.

Exactly 10 years ago we ran a report about two boaters who took their PWCs across three of the Great Lakes. The risks were enormous, but they overcame some problems and made it. Since that time, both Yamaha and Sea-Doo have built PWCs expressly for “touring.” Further, advancements in PWCs have come a long way in the last 10 years.

While most owners don’t take more than a long day-trip, increasingly some millennials are finding that a well-equipped PWC can be an easy rider and they are looking for a nautical Route 66. A BoatTEST.com member recently told us he was planning a 200-mile voyage and needed to carry extra fuel aboard. We wish him well and good luck.

You don’t have to have a 95’ Hargrave to cruise the Great Lakes – all you need is a PWC! Read along as we tell you of how two friends, riding their aging PWCs, rode across two of the biggest lakes in North America, finished in one piece and could still walk! But it all didn’t go like clockwork. There were problems, gremlins and a mysterious leak in one of the hulls.

The Machines

Joel was riding a 2 cycle 2003 Polaris Genesis PWC and Mike had a 4 cycle 2004 Yamaha FX HO Waverunner.

The Men

Joel McCutchen, a twenty something real estate entrepreneur, had been riding PWCs since he was 12 and had crossed Lake Erie before by following the islands north of Kelleys but had never taken on the longer open water crossing to Detroit. Mike Velten, a fifty-something engineering manager, had a lot of experience with motorsports but was new to water sports. Mike would soon get a lot more experience in the water.

The Plan

It didn’t take long for them to figure out that Joel’s family cottage near Marblehead, Ohio and his in-laws cottage near Milwaukee, Wisconsin are connected by water. A lot of water, including open water crossings of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie! The winter of 2007/2008 was spent mapping a route, planning stops and working out the logistics. The final plan for the GLO Tour (Great Lakes Odyssey) called for towing the two PWCs to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, spending a day with Joel’s in-laws and launching into Lake Michigan Sunday morning August 3rd, 2008. Joel’s father, Jeff, agreed to bring the trailer back to their final destination of Marblehead, Ohio.

Joel McCutchen (l), Jeff McCutchen (not on trip) and Mike Velten.

Nav and Safety Gear

Massive amounts of sunscreen were applied, GPS' and radios were checked and the boats were dumped into the Port Washington, Wisconsin Marina. They both had marine radios with the new digital distress feature that can send their GPS coordinates to the Coast Guard and Mike had a satellite-based 406mhz personal locator beacon (PLB). Both had identical Garmin GPS units with marine maps and waypoints for the trip. The orange SAR rated PFDs completed the picture of a serious adventure.

80 Miles Across Lake Michigan

Sunday morning at 8 AM they were at the Port Washington, Wisconsin launch ramp with a contingent of excited and somewhat worried family and friends to see them off. Jeff gave a little speech explaining that today, August 3rd, 2008, was the 516th anniversary of Christopher Columbus setting sail to the new world. Joel, on his Polaris, finally caught up and they went about setting their first waypoint, Pentwater Marina on the east side of Lake Michigan -- just under 80 miles away.

The next two hours and fifty minutes were some of the best of the week. The sun was out and the waves were very cooperative. They averaged almost 30 mph crossing Lake Michigan and arrived at Pentwater to a welcome by Mike’s wife and some friends that live at nearby Silver Lake. They took Monday off for some relaxation and to once again check over their intended route.

Day #2

Tuesday morning at 8:30 AM they left Pentwater Marina and headed north along the Michigan coast line. Again the water and weather were perfect and the scenery was awesome. Sand dunes and clear green water made the morning run to Frankfort Marina an easy ride. After refueling and getting some food they were off heading north again to Charlevoix. The marina there had a Caribbean feel with expensive homes, docks and boats.

Mike Velten going along Michigan’s west coast.

As the tour continued north in the late afternoon the waves started to grow and the haze kept them out of sight of land perhaps longer than during the Lake Michigan crossing. As they approached the north end of Michigan, anticipating a turn to the east towards Mackinaw City, problem two struck.

Problem #2

Temperance Island had shown as one of a chain of several islands running from the Michigan mainland out into the lake. Their plan had been to split the chain just west of Temperance Island but low water in Lake Michigan had reduced the water depth to under a foot. Theoretically a PWC, on plane, could make it if it didn’t suck in any rocks. Joel, the braver of the two, proved this to be true and cut a zigzag path through the shoals and came out on the north side of the island chain victorious. He claims he never touched a rock.

Prudence on Holiday

Mike, the more sensible partner, had two choices. He could continue west out into the lake to the end of the island chain, or risk his boat in the rocks trying to follow Joel. It was late in the day and they had a lot more water to cover before they got to Cheboygan where they would spend the night.

Buoyed by Joel’s success, Mike started through the rocky shoals, on plane using the Joel-zigzag approach. As the water got lower and lower, he felt a few rocks tap the hull and released the throttle. The boat immediately settled on the rocks and he shut off the motor. Mike spent the next 20 minutes “walking” his boat around the shoals in 6 inches of water, waiting for the occasional wave to lift the boat high enough to push it through the next opening. Joel in the meantime entertained himself by taking pictures and videos of Mike’s predicament.

The Yamaha on the rocks in Lake Michigan.

Bridge Ho!

It was around 5 PM when the tour got back in action and they were immediately rewarded by the sight of the majestic Mackinac Bridge on the horizon about 20 miles ahead. The next and last stop for the day was the Cheboygan River.

A lock in the Cheboygan River.

Problem #3

Mike’s cell phone had died in a big way along the way. Not a low battery or anything easy like that but a fatal return to factory problem. One cell phone down might not be that bad, but a few minutes later Joel realized he had left his phone that morning at Silver Lake. No communications for the rest of the trip was a high risk, especially crossing Saginaw Bay the next day.

Wednesday morning started early. As they were packing to leave, Joel noticed that there was a lot of water in the bottom of his boat and used the bilge pump to clear it out. They didn’t think a lot about it at the time. Probably just water from all of the waves but Mike’s boat had less than an inch of water.

Six Foot Seas

As they left the smooth water of the Cheboygan River they knew they were in for a payback. Lake Michigan had been kind to them but Lake Huron had other things in mind. The first 50 miles Wednesday morning had the worst waves of the trip and while Joel and Mike had occasionally looked for big waves to jump in Lake Erie, it was an entirely different thing to try and cover 90 miles in 6 foot seas. It took several hours of jumping and submarining to cover the 50 miles to Presquel Island Marina.

Route around the top of lower Michigan.

They lost count of how often they went under a wave, but when they decided to stop early at Presquel for fuel and a rest, Joel again pumped a lot of water from his Polaris while Mike’s Yamaha remained relatively dry. The lake progressively got better as they went south towards Harrisville. Joel again pumped his PWC out at Harrisville before they set out across Saginaw Bay, a good 60 miles to Huron City. The Saginaw Bay was good to them and they made it across with no problems. As they approached Huron City they could see their next stop on the horizon.

Problem #4

The wave pounding earlier in the day had washed the sunscreen from Mike's face and he had an embarrassingly severe burn. They stopped for the night at Harbor Beach, a nice little coastal town that had been hit hard by gas prices. There were a lot of places closed and the hotel where they were staying rarely had weekday guests.

Day #4

Thursday morning they were back at the Harbor Beach Marina around 8 AM. The first stop was Port Huron at the mouth of the St. Clair River. The water was not calm but was much better than the previous morning. The Blue Bridge crosses between the U.S. and Canada and gets its name from the incredible blue water that runs underneath. The current under the bridge was so fast that it was a challenge to take pictures from a PWC. They had to keep the power on under the bridge to keep from getting swept downstream.

Go For the Goal!

They made such good time down the St. Clair River and across Lake St. Clair, that they immediately headed for home at about 1 PM. Mike noted that they would arrive home after a 650-mile voyage. But, a quick trip to the Tackle Box II for dinner in Fremont, Ohio on the Sandusky River would push their mileage above 700 miles! It would be tight completing it before an 8:44 PM sunset. Why not go for it and make it a 250-mile day?

On the Detroit River Joel’s PWC was starting to run poorly. Bad plug? Bad gas? Burnt cylinder? Seaweed in the intake?

The Polaris taking on water mysteriously.

Joel limped into the GBY Gas stop running slow. Fortunately, the GBY Gas Dock and Party Store is the most PWC-friendly fuel stop anywhere and has a padded deck for PWCs to land on for fueling and service. Three or four nice young ladies serviced their boats.

Problem #5

After a call home, they turned their attention to Joel’s boat. When they took the seat off they found the engine almost covered by water. This was most likely why it was running poorly, but why was it full of water? Joel tried to pump the water out but the bilge pump had given its last pump. The lovely ladies at GBY came to his rescue again and turned on the dock pump to empty his boat.

Go or No-Go?

So here they were, facing a 50 mile crossing of Lake Erie with a boat that had a leak of unknown origin and no bilge pump. This was a difficult decision for Mike but not for Joel. They were going home.

The Lake Erie crossing took around two hours and when they met Joel’s dad, the Polaris was sitting noticeably lower in the water. They quickly put Joel’s boat on the trailer, removed the drain plugs, drained about 20 gallons of water back into Lake Erie and then set off for the Tackle Box and a well-deserved – and quick – perch dinner.

The Marblehead, Ohio Lighthouse – almost home.

They were back on the water at 7:45 PM. It would take a fast run to get back before an 8:44 PM sunset. The record for a return from the Tackle Box to the Bay Point Marina now stands at just under 45 minutes and about half way back the odometer rolled over 700 miles. There was a very short celebration with high-fives all around and they roared back across the Sandusky Bay, racing a quickly setting sun.

The final distance at the dock was 717 miles. They juggled trailers and loaded boats by flashlight. When Joel suggested next year they break a thousand miles, Mike’s suggestion was, “Next year we go over and back, 1500 miles from Marblehead to Milwaukee and back!!!”

Post Script

It turns out that the leak in Joel’s boat was a split hose on the speedometer pitot tube. An easy fix once they found it.

Mike’s face fully recovered but it took a couple of peels and a lot of ribbing from his friends.

Trip Details


By Mike Velten.

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