They’ve stolen our treasure chest and are heading out into the high seas! (Ahem, make that Lake Michigan.) It’s a good thing that before we cast anchor, my three nephews—always up for an adventure—have been told how to sight and capture a pirate ship. Halyards clang and sails billow in the wind as several other boys and girls help tighten the jib.

We, the heroes aboard Friends Good Will, a replica of a sloop built in 1810, are giving chase, determined to capture the pirates and recover our stolen goods. Before that happens, a rousing sword fight ensues. It’s all part of the 90-minute Pirate Chaser Sails put on by South Haven’s Michigan Maritime Museum for buccaneers ages four and up. Oh, and did we mention sword lessons are part of the experience?

“Kids—and their parents—love it,” says Ashley Deming, director of education and administration for the museum, adding that all those interested can take rudimentary lessons in sword fighting. Chasing pirates is just one of the many on-the-water expeditions aboard a variety of watercraft operated by the museum, including a Hollywood import.

In the movie “The Finest Hours,” actor Chris Pine and his crew navigated USCG motor lifeboat 36460 through 40- to 60-foot waves off the coast of Cape Cod in order to save a foundering vessel. Don’t worry, seas like that won’t be an issue when 36460 heads out into Lake Michigan from the museum’s dock on the Black River. Visitors can sit in the same captain’s chair as Pine, and experience the excitement of the open waters.

Cruising Along

Consider this: the four Great Lakes that surround Michigan have a surface area of nearly 87,000 square miles. That translates into lots of wet space for water adventures, so leave the beach behind and get out on a big lake to experience the vastness of the inland seas on a choice of family-friendly excursions that are fun or educational, relaxing or thrilling.

Lose sight of land on a Lake Michigan crossing aboard a choice of two passenger/vehicle ferries. The modern Lake Express, launched in 2004, connects Milwaukee with Muskegon, Michigan, in about two-and-a-half hours, while the steamship S.S. Badger has been carrying rail cars, autos and travelers across the lake since 1953, and travels between Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan, in four hours. Recently named a National Historic Landmark, the massive Badger is celebrating its 65th anniversary with special two-hour shoreline cruises on select summer dates.

Both ships have lounges, cafés and a few activities for whiling away the travel time, but the real attraction is relaxing on the outdoor deck and admiring the expanse of the Great Lake.,

What’s for Dinner?

Families with older kids might enjoy participating in Michigan Catch & Cook, a statewide program for guests aboard fishing charters on lakes Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior. Boat passengers can enjoy their fresh catch almost as soon as they disembark—without having to do any of the cleaning or cooking themselves.

“Many people enjoy fishing but don’t have time to prepare the fish or they’re not going home anytime soon,” says Jerry Link, owner of Originator Sport Fishing Charters in St. Joseph. He runs charters on Lake Michigan and the St. Joseph River, and filets and cleans clients’ fish, bags it up and calls one of the local restaurants who participate in Catch & Cook to let them know it’s coming. Depending upon the restaurant and how many customers they have that night, the charter passengers can decide how they want their catch prepared. It’s a great way to encourage sport fishing and allow people the satisfaction of savoring their very own catch.

Six Kid-Friendly Boat Jaunts to Try

Children will love to learn on the open water during these family-friendly cruises.

“It’s not unusual for the captain to ask kids to steer,” says Scott Ellis, director of marketing for BaySail, the Bay City nonprofit that offers a variety of cruises for both fun and education aboard the schooners Appledore IV and Appledore V. Tall ship outings on Lake Huron include the Celestial Excursion to study the night sky, and an ecology sail that explores the watershed. “It’s a way of connecting kids and their families to the water and showing them the amazing biodiversity and ecosystems of our river, bay and Great Lake.”

The Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) out of Suttons Bay features hands-on learning activities aboard Inland Seas, a traditionally-rigged tall ship schooner. It’s an opportunity for kids to hone their math, science, technology and engineering skills while having a good time.

Like sailing on a trampoline, the fast-moving 47-footlong, 29-foot-wide Nauti-Cat zips across West Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City. The 10 a.m. Kids Cruise is a 90-minute party with fun activities and snacks aboard the largest commercial sailing catamaran on the Great Lakes.

Also sailing out of Traverse City, the tall ship Manitou is a replica of the century coasting cargo schooners common on the Great Lakes in the 19th century. The two-hour afternoon Moomers Ice Cream Sail trips feature scoops of the locally-made treat, and on Wednesday evening picnic cruises, all ages join in toe-tapping to the lively maritime tunes of Song of the Lakes.

Imagine the thrill of not only sailing Lake Michigan aboard the sleek new sailboat Nancy Anne, but learning the basics of steering, tacking and jibing under the guidance of captain Pat Nowak, a veteran Great Lakes sailor (and former schoolteacher). The two-and-a-half-hour cruises out of Holland are recommended for ages eight and up.

Kids learn the term “locking through” when traversing the Soo Locks on a sightseeing tour at Sault Ste. Marie. Leaving Lake Huron, boats must enter the locks to be raised 21 feet to meet the level of Lake Superior; the process is reversed on the return trip. Part of the thrill is the chance to cruise alongside giant lake and oceangoing freighters during the two-hour trip.

This article originally appeared in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.

No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.


Ever since she started her own newspaper at age eight, Jane Simon Ammeson has loved to write. She writes about food, travel and history, and is the author of 14 books, including "How to Murder Your Wealthy Lovers and Get Away With It."