Livin' Lakeside In Metro Detroit
There's the constant clink of metal against the mast, and water slapping against the hull of the boat. Gulls are cawing in the distance. Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" comes from one end while Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" cuts in from the other.
Life on the dock is just different. It smells different, it sounds different, it moves different. Hell, even the clothes are different.
Though Metro Detroit is most definitely a car town, there's a sizable portion of the population that would gladly scrap their four wheels for no wheels, their garage for a well, and the road for the open water.
Some of us here in Southeast Michigan forget about the water. We forget about the 32 miles of Detroit River shoreline. We forget about Lake St. Clair, the canals, the boat launches, the sweetness of the open sea... er, lake.
Drive along Jefferson, from Eleven Mile Road to Grosse Isle, and the number of marinas and harbors rival the dealerships in some areas. From the Nautical Mile
in St. Clair Shores to where the Detroit River opens up to Lake Erie, a whole lifestyle exists that is foreign to many of us landlubbers.
"I used to live out in Oakland County and there's a lot of stressed out people out there," says Gary Bonaventure, former commodore of the Wyandotte Yacht Club
. (WYC) "They see a light turn green and they start honkin'. Here, we're more relaxed."
A commodore runs the club's board meetings and all the financial details. There is also a vice commodore, who runs the physical club itself, and the rear commodore who takes care of everything outside of the club (landscaping, dock maintenance, etc.).
Bonaventure owns a Crownline
boat, keeps it in a well at the WYC. He's wearing sunglasses, leaning on a post near the edge of the water, and talks to you as if he's known you forever.
Nearby, the rear commodore of the WYC is deep in his boat. His name is Al but he won't give his last name. There's some commotion and a few mumbled profanities coming from inside. He pokes his head up as he hears Bonaventure's voice: "Come (to the club) on a Friday night," he says. "You'll see why we boat. We're party people."
The two of them laugh.
The current vice commodore, Mike Edwards, walks up. His cheeks are flushed from what could be too much sun. "A tree just fell on my shed," he says. "You know that storm we had last week. Well, a tree fell on my shed. I had the insurance guy out there. Eh, what are ya gonna do."
That's a boater.
Al jumps back into his boat. Bonaventure disappears.
"Some people camp, you know?" Edwards says. "I just don't see it. I go camping and I say, 'That tree's been there this whole time?' It's the same tree. It doesn't move. I think that's crazy. I don't see it. Nothing moves like when you're on the water. And if a person likes a little fun, if they like a little toddy once in a while, then they'll like boating."
You might think of anglers when you think of boats. Someone with a trawling motor, a reel and rod, a little hat with homemade ties in it. Well, that's not the cash.
"Al's boat has never seen a fish," Bonaventure says.
Edwards says 90 percent of the boaters at the yacht club aren't fishermen. Most of the boats are for cruising the river, sleeping off a few drinks from the yacht club, and just plain old relaxing.
"I sleep on my boat a lot, the wife and I," says JD Watkins, a member of the WYC and a lifelong boater. "We spent the weekend on the boat. That little rock puts us to sleep."
Watkins says he remembers the first time he was out on a boat. It was with his granddad, out on Belleville Lake. They dropped the boat off at a place called Dones Livery. "I've never found anything I like better than boating," he says. Adding, after a slight pause: "Except maybe girls."
It's pretty safe to say Wyandotte is a boat town. Forty miles north, up river, as they say, you'll find another boat town. It's called St. Clair Shores.
"I've been boating all my life," says John Frazer.
Frazer lives off of one of the canals here. He parks his boat right behind his house. He's never lived more than a few blocks from the water except when he was in college. Boating, he says, is in his blood. "My dad bought his first boat when I was one year old," he says. "And I've been boating ever since. It's just what I do with my time. It's a way of life for me."
Frazer has a 32-foot Trojan. It's a combo cruising and fishing boat. And when he's not, well, he's still on the boat doing something.
"It's always five o'clock someplace or beer-thirty, right John?" Says Ed Cates, a fellow boater and Jefferson Yacht Club
member. He continues: "There's a lot of camaraderie here, among us boaters, on the water. We're friendly people."
Cates owns a 30-foot Sea Ray
. He's a cruiser, not a fisherman. He's spent two-and-a-half weeks out on the water and has boated all the way to Florida from the marina right there in St. Clair Shores.
There are wooden anchors, painted white, on some of the houses there. There's a strip of Jefferson called the Nautical Mile, complete with aquatic themed restaurants and bars, boat dealerships, public boat launches, and private marinas. It almost has the feel of a resort town. The only thing missing is the palm trees. But the canals are a special sight. Like suburban roads parked with cars, houses are butted up against canals that bring boats in right off the lake. You'll see cruiser boats, fishing boats, jet skis, paddleboats. You can smell the water (and not in a bad way). On the roads, you're more liable to hear a boat motor and sloshing water than peeling tires.
There's a sense of freedom to boaters. A feeling of rebellion in a way. As if roads and street signs and stop lights are just too controlling for them.
"That's why I like boating," Watkins says as he points out toward Lake Erie, down river, between Canada and the USA. "There's nothing to stop us. No street signs, no stop lights, just the water and the horizon."
"You can get anywhere from right here," Edwards says. "Anywhere."
Butch Bielawski has been working at the Wyandotte Municipal Boat Launch
and bait store on and off since 1986. He's a fisherman. He owned a boat for 35 years. Two years ago his hip was replaced. He hasn't boated since.
"Do I miss it?" He asks almost disdainfully. "Yes. I was a fisherman. For me, it's sacrilege to get on the boat, in the water, and not fish. Living here in Wyandotte all my life, the water becomes a part of you."
As he finishes that sentence an elderly black man comes in, sits at one of the stools at the counter.
"They catchin'?" He asks.
"Yeah," Bielawski says.
"No. Jiggin'. And bottom bouncers."
He turns back to me: "The fishermen are fishermen and the pleasure boaters are pleasure boaters. But, we're boaters, so there's camaraderie."
On a boat a rope is called a line. The bedroom is called a berth. Left is port, right is starboard. The kitchen is a galley. The bathroom is called the head. Dock life has a different feel. It's a different lifestyle. And it's entirely part of Southeast Michigan.
"I've never been anywhere better than the Great Lakes," Watkins says.
That's a boater.
Terry Parris Jr. got his sea legs a long time ago. He is a freelance writer and regular
contributor to Concentrate,
Metromode and Model D.
His previous article was Birmingham's Second Story
All Photos by Dave Lewinski