Is Sailing Lake Michigan Dangerous? (Read This First)

Lake Michigan is the third largest of the Great Lakes of North America, the largest body of interconnected freshwater lakes globally.

These lakes are an extremely popular tourist destination with water sports like sailing, kayaking, fishing, jet skiing, and even wave surfing taking place all year round.

While sailing on a lake may seem like a calmer option than ocean sailing, sailing on Lake Michigan can have its challenges. With a surface area of 22,404 square miles (or 58,026 km2) and an average depth of 279 feet (or 85m), you can experience what the seas are really like, only inland.

When sailing, the shoreline of Lake Michigan can easily drift away from you, and all you will see in any direction is the choppy, blue waters of this amazing Great Lake.

Is Sailing Lake Michigan Dangerous?

Lake Michigan is a unique, world-class sailing destination complete with its own set of dangers and hazards.

It is known for its ever-changing wind and wave conditions that can be challenging. Even when armed with the latest weather forecast, these variable conditions can quickly catch you unawares.

If caught unawares, it’s not uncommon for sailors to be faced with difficulties navigating back to a haven in steep, choppy waves. 

In addition, there are commercial vessels like cargo ships and ferries on Lake Michigan that are much bigger and faster than your sailboat. There is a lot of traffic from other vessels like high-speed motorboats and obstacles like stationary fishing boats in the busy boating season.

The faster vessels all contribute to the choppy waves with the wake they leave behind, making navigation on a small sailboat even more difficult. Pay constant attention to your surroundings at all times, and just like ocean sailing, keep a good watch.

But, if you have some sailing experience, know how to handle your boat, and are prepared for sailing in this type of water, then Lake Michigan is an excellent sailing destination to enjoy with family and friends.

Is Lake Michigan A Good Place To Learn Sailing?

Several sailing schools and yacht clubs around Lake Michigan offer various sailing programs.

The conditions here mean that you will build enough skills and gain enough experience to sail or race a sailboat just about anywhere.

‘Learn to Sail’ programs are organized through yacht clubs and even the municipalities. There are also privately owned sailing schools offering sailing courses at many different certified levels, from beginner to advanced sailing.

Lake Michigan also boasts its very own sailing federation, the LMSRF (Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation). 

The federation supports individual yacht clubs and schools, sailing groups, and individual sailors located in and around Lake Michigan. It also promotes sailing competitions on Lake Michigan for Offshore, One-Design, and Youth sailors.

Lake Michigan has a very active sailing community, so it’s a great place to learn how to sail!

How Big A Boat Do You Need For Lake Michigan?

Generally, boats do not typically need to be very big while sailing on freshwater lakes.

However, boating on the Great Lakes and especially Lake Michigan can be a bit more of a challenge. So while you can sail in small dinghies close to shore, a larger vessel is recommended if you want to go further onto the lake.

In addition, like any sailing, the ideal sailboat size for Lake Michigan will depend on how many people you plan to sail with and how long you want to spend on the water. A comfortable and safe family sailboat for going out on Lake Michigan should be around 27 feet.

Ideally, you’re not looking for anything too big, plus you need a boat with a shallow draft so you can explore the shallower shorelines and bays around the lake.

While you can safely go out on Lake Michigan in smaller boats and dinghies, it is recommended to sail a boat closer to the 20-30ft range in the off-season and even larger during the busy high season.

This is to avoid being tossed around in the choppy waves caused by motorboats and commercial vessels passing by at high speeds.

How Strong Are The Winds On Lake Michigan?

The winds on Lake Michigan can be very unpredictable throughout the year but blow much stronger during the winter months when winter storms are common.

The windiest part of the year lasts from October to April, when you can expect average wind speeds of more than 12 knots. The windiest month of the year in Lake Michigan is January, when you can expect average wind speeds of +15 knots.

Gusts during winter storms have been recorded at over 30 knots, so sailing in the winter months is definitely to be avoided unless you have the relative experience!

The calmer or best time to sail lasts from April to October or the summer months. During this time, you can expect wind speeds of around 8 – 12 knots, but bear in mind summer storms can and do occur.

However, weather forecasts for the area are fairly accurate, so you should avoid these storms if you keep an eye on the weather.

Is Lake Michigan Harder To Sail Than Other Lakes?

Like sailing any body of water, you will need the necessary skills to be safe.

However, sailing or boating on Lake Michigan comes with its own set of challenges. Lake Michigan offers a rare mix of freshwater lake and ocean-style sailing, so you need to be prepared.

The difficulties of sailing on Lake Michigan are caused by many factors. The first is that the lake is vast. It covers an area of more than 22,000 square miles (or 58,000 km2) which allows for a build-up of huge waves when strong winds blow. Plus, its opposite East and West shores run almost parallel, creating steep, choppy waves.

This natural configuration creates water walls, making Lake Michigan difficult to sail during its regular storms.

In addition, there are many currents and rip tides that flow through Lake Michigan, which means it can become extremely tricky to navigate. These currents are caused by the configuration of the shore plus the various outlets and channels, and while Lake Michigan may be a freshwater lake, it is tidal.

These things combined make Lake Michigan harder to sail than other lakes. If you keep an eye on the weather, know what you are doing, and have a well-maintained boat equipped with the required safety gear, you will be able to enjoy many hours of sailing and exploring on Lake Michigan.

What Are The Times To Sail Lake Michigan?

The best sailing season for Lake Michigan runs from mid-April to mid-October, when daytime temperatures can reach 90ºF (or 32ºC) in high summer.

The lake will be busier during this time which increases the chance of choppy waters as motorboats speed past you. Even on the calmest of days, this can make sailing on a small boat surprisingly more precarious.

If you want to miss the crowds, then the in-between seasons of Spring and Autumn are a good time to sail Lake Michigan. In Spring, you can expect warm sunny days and cool nights, and in Autumn, the days will be sunny but cooler and the nights chillier as you get later into the season.

Plus, in the Fall, you have the bonus of seeing the trees in their full Autumn colors before the leaves fall as the cold northern hemisphere winter approaches.

It is still possible to sail out of season during the winter months. However, you will need to carefully check the weather forecasts and dress warmly to make it possible to sail most of the year around.

That’s if you can find a boat that hasn’t been hauled out for the winter months and the lake has not frozen over during the coldest time of the year!


11 Sailor Tips for Sailing Lake Michigan (with Distances)

How Large of a Boat Do I Need for Lake Michigan?

Lake Michigan Sail Racing Federation

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