On a warm, mid-summer weekend the north breakwater at the mouth of the St. Joseph River in Michigan is teaming with watercraft. Boaters from all walks of life come here to gain access to one of the true natural treasures of the Midwest – Lake Michigan. This is where I caught up with my friends, Kenny and Michelle Centilli, on an exceptionally humid, July evening.
Mishawaka, Indiana residents, Kenny & Michelle Centilli, own a 2000 Chaparral Signature 300 and take to the waters of Lake Michigan just about every chance they get. “It’s my happy place,” says Michelle, as we sit on the bow catching the golden sunset while we float lazily a half mile from the shore. “I’ve been on a boat nearly every summer of my life since the mid-80's, and there is simply no other place that allows me to breathe more freely than when I’m on the open water.”
Boating began early for Michelle. She was a teenager when her parents bought their first boat. Her first memories of being on the water are of sunning on the bow alongside her sister, as the two fancied themselves sun goddesses. “It was before anyone really knew what SPF was,” she recalls. Familiar with Lake Michigan and the surrounding coastal towns, it was her fond memories of simpler times, and a sense of tranquility, that led Michelle to eventually share her love of boating with her husband, Kenny.
Even with far less boating experience than Michelle, Kenny has taken has taken to life on the water like a natural skipper. Guiding their twin-engine boat from their private slip just off the river and through the channel to the large lake is no easy task for a newbie. “The day we bought our boat and went out for a sea trial the lake was like glass. The next morning Michelle and I decided to go out on the water ourselves. That day back in 2014 was the first day I drove a boat solo,” Kenny shares. “The water seemed more choppy than the day before, but I told myself I could handle it. As soon as we got out to the channel near the lighthouse I felt differently.” The choppy waves in the river channel had become huge, rolling waves at the mouth of the channel. The waves were so high that water was splashing up over the elevated, concrete walkway extending out to the nearby St. Joseph North Pier lighthouse. “Our bow was dipping below the waves – the searchlight submerged completely at one point,” Michelle shares. “We got to the mouth of the channel and turned around immediately and came right back to our slip. I was white-knuckling it the whole way.”
They’re able to laugh about that memory now, partly because of all the good times had on their boat, the Sea Belle, with family, friends and their dog, Gabby.
When I ask why they keep coming back season after season to boat in a region of the U.S. that often gets snow up to five months out of each year, their answer was simple: the lake draws us in. As the third largest of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan offers over 22,300 square miles of magnificent water to experience. The shoreline spans four states with one of the most notable port cities being Chicago, and extends to include the natural beauty of everything from sand dunes to savannas and dense forests. Sometimes referred to as the “Third Coast” behind the Pacific and Atlantic, the temperatures of the lake can reach into the 70’s in the height of summer, making it an ideal destination for locals and tourists, alike.
As Kenny easily swings the boat around to take us back to their slip at Pier 33, the sun begins to sink below the horizon. As we enjoy the cool breeze, the light covers us in all shades of coral and gold. Every angle provides a postcard-worthy snapshot and due West looks to be an endless pool of liquid gold disturbed only slightly by the wake of our vessel. As we moved to the seats at the stern and marveled at the fading rays Michelle shared, “Being on the water, you’re more isolated but you spend more time focusing on what matters because you’re together without distractions and interruptions. It’s the most freeing feeling. That’s why we keep coming back to Lake Michigan.”