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Love for sail 

We were on Lake St. Clair and knew there was bad weather coming. We'd seen the forecast for afternoon storms before we left the dock in the morning. We were seeing the sky going gray and green in the distance.

We were a few miles into the lake from the Detroit River but were close to shore and the tree-lined yards of Grosse Pointe when organizers of the sailing event decided to cancel the racing and send the boats back to the harbors. They obviously knew something was coming, and it couldn't have been good.

As we sailed toward the river where we docked the boat, we had a clear view of Detroit skyline. Beyond it there were gray clouds building.

"Maybe we should get gear on," one of us said. That's sailor talk for putting on rain coats and pants, called "foul weather gear."

Then, the Renaissance Center disappeared as the black clouds and rain engulfed it. As we headed toward Peche Island and the top of the Detroit River, the front rolled toward us.

We knew we were in for it and we had to be ready. We reefed the main and rolled the jib — sailor speak for reducing the amount of sail area we had up. Less cloth means less for the wind to push and power the boat. With a smaller sail, we'd have more control.

We had a compass down below, so we brought that up on deck. We took a bearing so we knew the heading to steer a course to the river a few miles away. When that wall of rain hit us, we wouldn't be able to see land.

We put up our hoods.

The storm hit. Land disappeared. The wind gusted. The rain pelted the lake so hard it flattened out the waves.

When you're trying to survive on the water like that, all the stresses, complications and problems of normal daily life disappear. You're truly worried about survival or at least preventing injury to yourself or others on board.

But even embracing the gentler aspects of Detroit's fussy waters — eating lunch at Belle Isle, spending a casual evening sailing with Mr. Right Now or casting a fishing line off a Detroit park's edge — offer unparalleled escape.

Tens of thousands of us live here in southeast Michigan just minutes away from an international waterfront that is the envy of other cities. Sure, those smaller lakes in Oakland County are nice, but the Detroit River, the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair connect us to the entire Great Lakes system. That's makes for much more interesting sights, sounds and stories.

We have a busy commercial route that brings about a dozen freighters a day both "upbound" and "downbound" through the city. We have the former Isle aux Cochons (pigs) — renamed Belle Isle — which is basically one big park with a beach, lagoons and harbors. We have shoreside walkways and plans for more greenways along several suburban waterfronts. We have a network of canals on Detroit's east side that begs to be explored by kayak. (Where's mine?)

We have fresh water — sweet water we call it, in contrast to that smelly, salty stuff in the ocean.

Our relationship with the water is not perfect — an awful lot of "coastline" is wasted, there's no municipal marine education or recreation program and waterfront dining is scant — but the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair offer plenty of recreational fun whether you're on the water or near it.

Sailing, motor boating, fishing, rowing, kayaking, those annoying personal watercraft things the bad guys rode in the movie Water World all require some effort, money and maybe skill. But the beaches, parks, walkways and restaurants are all available to everyone. And how about those new giant paddleboat swans on the lagoon at Belle Isle?

When you're on or around the water, it doesn't matter where you work, how much money you make or how clean your house is. You're there to relax, catch fish, get some exercise, spend time with family and friends, win a race or travel to another port. Life has simple purpose.

People are friendlier on the water. How many times do people wave when you pass by in a car? On boats, it's frequent.

Just being around the water has some sort of therapeutic, energizing, uplifting effect beyond the calming sound of gentle waves.

I think it's because our waterways offer opportunity. You can get on a boat in Detroit, head south, cross Lake Erie, travel the Welland Canal, sail across Lake Ontario and ride the St. Lawrence Seaway's strong current to the Atlantic Ocean.

That gets you the world.


To monitor freighters on the Great Lakes: To follow local weather: To find a boating, swimming or water safety class: U.S. Power Squadron,, US Sailing,

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or

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