Put-in: Various (See below)
Distance: 10 – 12 miles
Wind Directions: N, NNE, SSE, SW
Hazards: Boat traffic, long offshore distances, cold water temps outside of the late summer (Consider a wet suit) and changing weather and wind conditions.
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Best Time: The ideal wind and water conditions are prevalent in late summer and early fall. Generally, water temperatures are at their best during this time, but it is best to check so you can dress accordingly. The strongest winds are produced by weather systems moving through the area. Afternoon summer thermals can also produce some good winds, especially on the eastern side.
About the Run: West Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, Michigan is generally known for serene views from vineyard-lined hills that surround the bay. While many paddlers like the bay when it is calm and peaceful, it also produces great downwinders.
The West Bay is one of two bays that form the 20-mile long Old Mission Peninsula. These deep bays open to Lake Michigan on the north and are regarded as some of the most scenic paddles in southern Michigan. During lighter winds it is a great place for persons new to downwinding to work on developing skills and on strong days it can challenge experienced paddlers. While the bay may look benign some runs can take you a couple miles offshore so be prepared to get yourself out of whatever circumstances arise.
East Course: 10.4 miles
The Bay divides into two halves with two different personalities. The eastern side of West Bay terminates on the north side in Bowers Harbor. It lacks the fetch that exists on the western side of the bay which opens up to Lake Michigan and works best with a NNE or SSW wind but can still be fun with a SW or N wind though you may end up hugging the mostly sandy eastern shoreline for part of the run.
I find the SSW preferable, though you will want to be diligent to end up on the right side of the island. You can put in at Clinch Park or Division Street and take out at the Bowers Harbor boat launch. The waves will begin building at about a one-and-a-half miles. Some of the best waves you link together will be in the first five miles. I have seen waves build to near head high adjacent the island (between seven and eight miles) in strong winds, so people uncomfortable or inexperienced in those conditions will want to avoid those days.
If you run this from the north, you may wish to experiment with your start location at Bowers Harbor. I prefer paddling to the western side of Bowers Harbor which gives me a straighter run south. With a north-biased wind Bryant Park is a good take out spot and you can run just outside the drop off near shore for good waves on the later half of the course.
Note: It is not uncommon to get an additional side swell on this course through the cut between the island on Bowers Harbor. This cross chop can be very significant when the wind is from the NNW to W, though it may happen with a N to NNE. This opposing set of waves can be difficult to manage, even more so closer to the eastern shore. The less-experienced might wish to avoid this on stronger days.
West Course: 10 to 12 miles
This side is generally best navigated by experienced downwinders. The western side of the bay opens on its north end to Lake Michigan creating about 80 miles of fetch on a N to NNE wind, usually making larger waves with longer periods. This can create some great waves from either Hendrix Park (near Lee Point) or the DNR boat launch on M22. Both of these launches are generally protected on a N wind, allowing you to either paddle out to the wind line or paddle south, gradually picking it up.
Be aware that really strong winds from the north can blow moored boats ashore in Traverse City so choosing safe conditions on this run is paramount. Paddling out from Hendrix Park to the wind line can place you far from shore. This can be great fun, but must also factor into your safety plan. There is a large shoal off the west and south side of Power Island that should be avoided.
In addition to a good leash and PFD, I carry at least two communication devices (phone, PLB and flare) and always let someone know my start and estimated finish time. Use common sense, paddle with others, and don’t take risks beyond your capabilities. If you get in trouble call for help immediately.
No shuttle services exist but with a little help the logistics of the bay are easily manageable. Traverse City access points are numerous and include Bryant Park, the Senior Center, Clinch Park and the west-end beach near Division Street. Have fun! Be safe!