Come Sail Away


by Loren Rhoads

We didn’t get shown to our room so much as directed to it. The crewman walked us to the hatch. A very steep ladder led down to a small vestibule with a sink and a mirror. Four doors led off of it to the cabins.

“Always go down facing the ladder,” Adam directed. “And remember, it’s a few steps farther down than you think.”

My daughter Sorrell went first.  I followed cautiously and Adam handed our overnight case down to me. Our cabin stood in the front of the ship on the port side. It was large enough that both of us could stand inside at the same time, but we probably couldn’t have gotten dressed simultaneously.

IMG_3793“I get the top bunk,” Sorrell cheered as she scrambled up to check it out.

Ever since we’d sailed on the Manitou a couple of summers ago — and I discovered it also served as a floating bed and breakfast — I’d wanted to spend the night on it. Now that we were checking in, I had to swallow my claustrophobia: the bunks didn’t have enough headspace that my 10-year-old could sit up. They were narrower than a twin bed and not quite rectangular, since the mattresses had been trimmed to fit against the curve of the hull.

As people walked around the deck overhead, the ship rocked ever so slightly. I tucked our luggage beneath the bunks, hung up our coats, and got Sorrell’s doll Taylor tucked in to her bunk. By then, the bright little room seemed to have shrunk. “Let’s go back on deck,” I suggested.

The “tall ship” Manitou is a modern replica of an 1800s cargo schooner, complete with two masts and six sails. She is 114 long overall and 21 feet wide and has enough deck-space for 59 passengers to sit down at the same time. She sleeps 24 total, some of whom are crewmembers who live onboard during the summer season. The area where our cabin was could sleep eight.

Manitou is an Algonquin word that means God or Great Spirit. Michigan itself in an Algonquin word meaning big lake. Traverse Bay, where the Manitou sails, is a long bay off of Lake Michigan, largest of the Great Lakes. If the state of Michigan is shaped like a mitten, then Traverse Bay runs alongside the ring finger.

The passengers started to arrive for the sunset sail. The crew gave a safety talk, then invited everyone aboard. I got my parents settled close to the gangplank so that Mom didn’t have to walk far with her cane.

Passengers were invited to help hoist the sails. Sorrell jumped up to haul away on the lines, alongside people twice or more her age. She’s so used to being the only kid anywhere that she doesn’t seem to notice any more.

After a picnic dinner of chicken wraps, pasta salad, and enormous chocolate chip cookies, Sorrell followed me back to the captain at the wheel. “Last time we sailed with you,” I said, “you let Sorrell sail for a while. Could she do it again?”

IMG_3775Captain Dave flashed a bright smile. “You want to take the wheel?” Sorrell nodded, suddenly shy.

The captain gave her a quick lesson on port and starboard and the spokes of the wheel being points, then stepped back to let Sorrell take over.  He told her to aim for a big white house, miles away on the shore. Sorrell stood up straighter, eyes fixed on her reference point. She adjusted the course gently as the wind nudged us out of true.

“I think you’ve got it,” Captain Dave said. “I’m going to get something to drink.” He walked off, disappearing below deck into the galley.

“Wait,” one of the passengers gasped, “where’s he going?”

“He must really trust you,” I told Sorrell. The ship was large and easily visible on the unruffled waters of the bay. Sorrell wasn’t going to run down a sailboarder or run aground on a sandbar. It’s undoubtedly more difficult to capsize a big sailboat than the little Sunfish I learned to sail in, but I kept that thought to myself.

Before long, Captain Dave reappeared with a bottle of Gatorade.

I left Sorrell to go back to check on my parents. They wouldn’t be staying aboard the ship with us. My mom was three weeks away from a hip replacement and could never have gotten down the ladder to the cabins, but my dad was sorry to miss out on the adventure.

When I looked back, Sorrell had made friends with the only other girl onboard.  They were chatting casually as they steered the ship.

I treated myself to a half-bottle of wine from the bartender and relaxed. I’d worried about being cold, but I was comfortable in a t-shirt as the sun sank toward the west.  The ship was large enough that it skimmed over the water, smooth as flying. My parents snuggled against each other. Sorrell pulled her cap low over her eyes and watched the shoreline. Sometimes, as a mom and a daughter, you do things right.


Sorrell got to sail the ship through its turn at the halfway point of our cruise. The captain directed her as the crew shifted the sails so we could head back to shore. The change of direction was so gradual that we’d been heading north again for a while before my mom said, “I think we’ve started back.”

Before long, we’d tied up again. My parents joined the queue back to the parking lot and their car. Sorrell said goodbye to her new friend, then brought a magazine and her American Girl doll up from our cabin as I photographed the sunset.

Moonrise over the Manitou
Moonrise over the Manitou

We sat up with one of the other couples sleeping over. The previous night, the entire ship had been chartered, but tonight only six guests joined the crew. The full moon rose. A loon called across the water. I’d never heard a loon before. I could not have felt more peaceful.

Lights out was scheduled for 11, so Sorrell and I went to get ready for bed after 10. The sink outside out cabin had running water, but the toilet – up on deck – had a complicated system of pumping that Sorrell couldn’t work alone. We crowded into the “head” together, keeping one eye on the mosquitos clustered around the room’s dim blue bulb. Back down in our cabin, I sat on my bunk while she undressed, then we snuggled in and I read a chapter in the book we’ve been reading together. By the time we turned out our reading lights, I was too tired to worry about claustrophobia or seasickness any more.

I dropped off to sleep immediately. Scarcely 20 minutes later, Sorrell called me awake to say her stomach felt funny. I handed her the washbasin from the tiny night table, but she couldn’t sit up in her bunk to hold it on her lap.

I mentally ran through the things she’d eaten all day, but nothing had been questionable. I wondered if she was seasick belatedly. I’d felt the ship moving earlier, but I couldn’t feel it now. I didn’t know what to do. It was nearly midnight. My parents were off – with their car – sleeping in a hotel room in Traverse City. This didn’t seem serious enough to wake them to come get us.

I read the directions on the Bonine my mom had left us. It was meant for people 12 and older, but Sorrell was two weeks shy of 11, nearly 100 pounds, and almost as tall as I am. I gave her half a dosage and sat up for an hour, to make sure she was okay. So much for being the perfect mom.


Morning came early with the arrival of the crew. They mopped the decks and polished the brass and generally tidied up the already immaculate ship.   I curled up in my bunk with my notebook and listened to Sorrell sleep.

When I came on deck to retrieve a cup of coffee at 7, the other overnighters were enthusing about the sunrise. Captain Dave announced that breakfast would soon be ready, so I came back down to wake Sorrell. She was groggy from the drug and introspective, but she joined us for a feast in the galley.

The ship’s onboard cook laid out a lavish spread of scrambled eggs with veggies, fried potatoes, fruit salad, and pastries. We sat with the captain, who told us about the other cruises the Manitou makes: ice cream sails and wine tastings during the summer, then longer cruises in the fall to visit the islands of Lake Michigan or look at the stars. Despite the challenges we’d had, I thought I might love to settle into shipboard rhythm for longer than overnight.

All too soon, though, it was time to pack up and prepare to meet my parents again. Sorrell wanted to hold me to my promise to swim in the lake. I had another change to redeem myself as a good mom.

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