Looking to go boating on Lake St. Clair? Here's the history and highlights.

Pete Beauregard has a special place in his heart for Lake St. Clair. But, perhaps that's to be expected of a Southeast Michigan guy who's made a career out of helping folks get on the water.

Beauregard is the president of Colony Marine, a family-owned boat sales and marina operator company that's been doing business in Metro Detroit for more than half a century. And, as he sees it, recreational boating in the region has a lot going for it.

"I don't think that there's another place in the world that can boast what this area's got as far as the number of marinas, as far as the number of yacht clubs in the area, the canal homes," says Beauregard. "It's a lifestyle that this area is really known for."

The businessman attributes Southeast Michigan's boating fever in part to Lake St. Clair's prime location; it's smack dab in the middle of Lake Huron and Lake Erie, granting access to the wider Great Lakes and the waters surrounding the Eastern seaboard. Beyond that, he feels the area's climate naturally encourages people's interest.

"Folks that boat in Florida, they get it year round and the novelty kind of wears off. Whereas here in Michigan with the four seasons, [when] you're sitting in the house all winter long you've got cabin fever," says Beauregard. "So every spring, that passion comes back with a vengeance!"

Deep Waters

Recreational boating has a deep history in Southeast Michigan, one that Beauregard's business has definitely helped to shape. Colony Marine is SoutheastOriginal Colony Marine dealership Michigan's largest boat dealer, with several  locations offering a wide range of models and sizes of boats all the way up to 75-footers. The company also operates three marinas—two in Algonac and one in St. Clair Shores—featuring a total of more than 950 boat slips.

Beuregard's grandfather launched the business with his father in 1958, using the proceeds from the sale of their shares in a St. Clair Shores harbor to buy a Chris-Craft boat dealership. Their business was originally known as Colony Chris-Craft, but as more boat brands were added to their inventory, the company simply became Colony Marine. Over the years, the business expanded, becoming so successful that it eventually bought the Algonac Harbour Club, the site of the original Chris-Craft factory.  

The significance of that isn't lost on Beauregard, who notes that Chris Craft's role in recreational boat manufacturing is comparable to the one Ford played in the early automotive industry. 

Chris-Craft was a major innovator in recreational boating manufacturing, playing a role 

"The major manufacturers in the industry, they all started right here in Michigan," he says. "Chris-Craft started in Algonac. Sea Ray that became the giant in the industry through the '70s, '80s,  and '90s started in Oxford. Four Winns started in Cadillac. Michigan and Lake St. Clair itself is really where the whole pleasure boating industry started and being part of that is pretty cool!"

Party on Lake St. Clair.Making a Splash

There's no doubt that boating is a big deal in Southeast Michigan these days. In fact, Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb County, are the top three counties for boat registrations right now in the state of Michigan.

While Macomb might technically come third on that list, Nicki Polan, executive director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association (MBIA), believes that many of those who are registered in those counties are probably keeping their boats at Macomb County marinas.  

Known for its access to the region's waterways, Macomb is home to more than 16,000 boat slips, most of which are concentrated in Harrison Township, St. Clair Shores, Chesterfield Township, and New Baltimore. Beyond that, boating is alsoThe Nautical Mile in St. Clair Shores deeply ingrained into daily life in Macomb and other communities surrounding the lake.  

"If you drive along the lake, you see restaurants, ship stores, service companies, fueling stations, and convenience stores, all geared toward boating and boaters," says Polan. The Nautical Mile [in St. Clair Shores] is a great example of a community that is super focused on boating but you will see this all along the coast all the way up to Algonac and probably on the Canadian side as well."

As for the kinds of boats found on Lake St. Clair, Polan believes cruisers and fishing vessels like bass boats, center console boats and other aluminum and fiberglass boats are probably the most common, though pontoon boats have been growing more popular in recent years. Because the lake is big and the winds there can be very strong, she cautions those using smaller boats to be careful and appraised of the weather before they head out.  

In addition to the cultural significance of boating in the region, the pastime also carries a sizable economic punch. Michigan is the third largest marine market in the entire country. And recreational boating, specifically, has a $7.8 billion annual impact on the state's economy, generated by a combination of manufacturers, boat dealers, marinas, and other businesses. Similarly the industry offers a bunch of well-paying in-demand career opportunities in fields like marine technology, marketing, finance, sales and service. Those interested in a career on the water can enroll in a five-week Marine Tech training program at Macomb Community College, that the MBIA helped launch. 

For those looking into getting into recreational boating, the National Marine Manufacturers Association has created the website DiscoverBoating.com, which offers a wealth of information about purchasing a boat and getting on the water. Local dealers are another important resource for helping consumers find the boat that is right for them.

The MBIA also sponsors three annual boat shows: the Detroit Boat Show, Novi Boat Show and the in--the-water Progressive Metro Boat Show. These shows provide a convenient one-stop-shopping option to buy a boat and also offer opportunities for education and networking.

This year's Metro Boat show will be taking place Sept. 16-19 at Lake St. Clair Metro Park. Polan encourages anyone who's interested in boating to stop by and check it out. 

"This is a beautiful outdoor, in-water boat show where you can see boating of all types on land and in-water,"  she says. "It is a great opportunity to meet with marine businesses, learn about new products and services, plan your boating excursions, and have some fun."

All kinds of boats can be found on Lake St. Clair.
Getting on the Water

For those who don't own a watercraft (or have a friend with one), there are still some options they can take advantage of to experience the rush of taking a boat on Lake St. Clair. One of the best ways to get a feeling for it is to charter a boat for a day. 

Charter operations are businesses that rent our sailing and motorized water vessels for a period of time. Chartered boats come in all shapes and sizes and people rent them for a variety of purposes. The online boat rental and yacht charter marketplace site Sailo estimates renting a yacht in the Detroit area can cost anywhere from $250 for a somewhat budget-friendly day excursion to up to $6,500 for a trip on a luxury liner. Prices for other types of vessels vary.

H20 Limos is a local charter that's been in business for 15 years now. According toH20 Limos owner Christopher Kourtakis, the company gets all kinds of different clients. 

"It's a bit of everything," he says. "I do weekday rentals, and I had a bunch of older guys that used to fish once or twice a week. The majority of the rentals are families. ONe family has been renting for five years, they drop anchor with the kids,  fix dinner, and have a great day on the lake."

Kourtakis, who used to work for a boat manufacturer, got the idea for his business after a friend asked to borrow his company boat for a bachelor party. He kept getting follow-up requests, so he decided to launch his own charter, renting boats at first until he had enough capital to buy his own vessels. Today H20 Limos has three boats: a 27-foot Boston Whaler for smaller excursions; a 51-foot Sea Ray that can host a party of up to 12 people; and a 65-foot Nolan that can accommodate up to 70 passengers and is often used for corporate outings. Each of them are crewed by Kourtakis himself or one of his three other captains. 

At times when the boats aren't rented out, H20 Limos also sponsors events like wine tastings and cigar parties. The company also offers a variety of training and boat safety classes. Having run the charter for over a decade-and-a-half Kourtakis couldn't be happier with the work his company is doing.

For more consistent access to boats, there's also the Freedom Boat Club, a national membership-based club with more than 300 franchises all over the country. Lake St. Clair franchise, which opened in 2016, operates three marinas, based in St. Clair Shores, Harrison Township, and the city of Detroit. 

To join, members pay a one-time entrance fee and then a monthly fee for as long as they want to be a part of the club. Those interested in joining don't even have to be that familiar with watercraft, as the club trains members in everything they need to know about operating about and navigating waterways from licensed captains. 

Jared Irwin, manager of the Southeast Michigan clubs describes the business model as a cross between a country club and a time-share property.

"You have access to brand new boats whenever you want to go tubing, fishing, snorkeling, hang out in the bay and go restaurant-hopping, whatever you want to do," he says. "You reserve the boats and you can do it all day from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. You can do it all over the country as well." 

Members have a variety of different types of boats they can choose to reserve, including Tritoons, Center Console, and RInkers. They also get reciprocal access to 285 other Freedom Boat Club  locations in the United States, Canada, and France. Though it's worth noting that COVID-restrictions are still in place, which may limit access to international ports. And for those who might fret about maintenance, storage, and insurance, all those things are all covered through  the monthly membership fee. 

"The best part about being in the club is the hassle-free experience we provide," says Irwin. "You know that you're going to go boating and enjoy the water." 

Lake St. Clair famed fishing waters attract people from all over.

'Circling the Lake'

When it comes to spreading the word about boating on Lake St. Clair, Steve Remias is something of an expert. He's the chairman of the Lake St. Clair Tourism Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the lake and protecting its natural assets. Founded a little over a decade ago, the initiative worked with Macomb County to  install "Circle The Lake Tour" signs around the lake's shoreline and maintains the tourlakestclair.org website.

From Remias' perspective tourism on Lake St. Clair had been on the upswing for many years, and despite the pandemic, it's in a pretty good spot right now.

"Tourism from a [wider] regional standpoint obviously slowed down a bit with COVID," he says. "But boating use, lake use, marina use, I would say it's at an all time high. Families were looking for something they could still, so retail boat sales took off."

While general tourism from other parts of Michigan and the Great Lakes States may have relaxed a little, there has been increased interest, especially internationally, from the pro-fishing community. In 2018, Lake St. Clair ranked at the top of the list for all-species fishing and fourth place for bass specifically in a Bassmaster Magazine poll of 100 best fishing lakes in the United States. It's also been a consistent location for major bass tournaments over the last decade.

Another draw to the lake are the various events that take place throughout the year, which include uninhibited on-the-lake parties like the Jobbie Nooner and more athletically inclined get-togethers like Sprint and Splash, a running/kayaking/paddleboarding event held at Lake St. Clair Metropark. The Lake St. Clair Tourism Initiative has an interactive events section on its website. The nonprofit is also working on a new app that will help users find events and other noteworthy attractions on the lake, which should be available this August..

As for highlights on the water, Remias suggests checking out the views along the shores of Detroit and Harsens Island, St. Clair Shores Nautical Mile. He's hesitant to provide a thorough checklist, however, remarking that discovering what the lake has to offer is really one of its greatest delights.

"I almost don't want to say, 'Here is your itinerary,"because if you just decide to travel around and have fun, you're going to experience something memorable," he says. "Explore Lake St. Clair, you will not regret it!"

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
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Read more articles by David Sands.