To my surprise, the dreaded pounding never surfaced, nor did any spray breach the beam. We got the 26-foot Sea Ray Sundeck on plane atop the two-footers and, throttling back a bit for the wake of a ferry or passing cruiser, we made the crossing in comfort even as the wind-tossed seas grew off our own.
I had been itching to test Sea Ray's deep-vee-hulled Sundeck 260 model since its introduction in late 2009. And with an invite to visit one of our favorite island vacation destinations on a prime summer weekend, the pairing was perfect. Lake Erie would allow me to test the Sea Ray's big water capabilities on the crossing and experience the big deck boat's day-cruising features and comforts as we explored the island's coast and near-shore waters.
Our visit to Kelleys Island coincided with a popular annual late-summer event, Homecoming weekend, one of the busiest of the season at the 3000-acre Erie County offshore vacation destination. By calling as soon as the opportunity presented itself, we were able to book a dock at Portside Marina and a two-bedroom suite at the Quarry Condominiums within walking distance of same, smack in the middle of the village's quaint downtown.
We wanted to be up on the Lake Erie coast the day before our cruise to get the boat in the water and ready for the crossing from mainland Ohio to Kelleys Island, so we booked a room for Thursday night at the stately Captain's Lodge Bed & Breakfast on nearby Marblehead.
Cruising To Kelleys
It's a four-mile cruise east by northeast to Kelleys Island from the MarineMax docks on Catawba Island, which is connected to the Ohio mainland by short causeways. At the MarineMax dealership we found the new Sundeck already dockside, freshly waxed, fueled and ready for a cruise.
Clearing the long limestone breakwall of West Harbor, we entered Lake Erie's South Passage waters, which separate mainland Ohio from its islands. With the Bass Island chain and the popular "party port" of Put-in-Bay three miles to our north, we pointed the blunt bow of the Sundeck toward the east and "quieter" scene offered by Kelleys Island on the horizon, using the distinctive water tower that looms over downtown as a mark. South Passage, also known as the "slop chute" for its famous rock and roll conditions generated by a combination of wakes, wind and current as the water is funneled between mainland Ohio and the islands, offered only a light chop the Friday morning of our crossing. I put the 26-footer on plane and kept her there the entire 20-minute run, during which I found myself seeking wakes from other craft to test the boat's "rough" water handling.
The fast-paced cruise east toward Kelleys Island took us past sailboats, charter fishing boats and a dense flotilla of powerboats, large and small, anchored off the island's southeast shore. We would join them later that afternoon over a huge school of yellow perch that congregates there on and off for most of the summer, into which we dropped hooks baited with minnows to catch a dozen of the golden, sweet-eating fish over the course of an active hour of angling.
Approaching and hailing the marina on VHF Channel 68, we were met by a dockhand and directed to our slip at Portside, which on that Friday was filling up fast with boaters arriving for the weekend. Some were in crafts big enough to sleep aboard; others, like us, shuttled luggage to motels, guest houses and rental condominiums nearby. We were grateful for Portside's central location, within walking distance of most of the shops, restaurants and attractions we frequented over the next two days.
That said, we rented a golf cart for the weekend, available right there at Portside (and about everywhere else on the island), and used it to get to some of the Homecoming events staged across the island, as well as for general sightseeing. We used the cart to visit the swimming beach at Kelleys Island State Park on the north side of the island, a straight shot up Division Street from downtown, and to see the nearby Glacial Grooves, dramatic geologic features cut through a granite outcropping by retreating glaciers eons ago. We also used the cart to explore the island's back roads, and even discovered a small, sandy swimming beach off a dead end that we vow to return to someday.
Meanwhile, the Homecoming festivities, starting with a parade Saturday morning, kept us occupied. After that we headed inland on the cart to the school grounds for a barbecue, games, live musical entertainment and a flea market. Then we cruised in the cart along Lakeshore Drive to look at the stately-and sometimes quirky-waterfront homes on one side and boats of all shapes, colors and sizes enjoying Lake Erie's sparkling waters on the other.
We ended the afternoon at The Village Pump, an eatery in the heart of downtown across Lakeshore Drive from Portside. We enjoyed an early dinner of fried clams, perch and a pitcher of their famous Brandy Alexanders, followed by a requisite nap aboard the Sundeck while our son fished off the transom in the marina. Three rounds of miniature golf under the lights and a moonlit golf cart cruise to the state park and back served as the night's entertainment.
Adventure On Deck
To get an active start to our Sunday morning, we walked east along Lakeshore Drive to Inscription Rock Park to see petroglyphs, believed to have been inscribed by members of the Erie Nation more than four centuries ago. After checking out of the condo and packing the boat, we assembled an impromptu picnic lunch at the Island Market and hopped aboard the Sea Ray for a round-island boat tour, using the boat's portable cooler to keep it all chilled.
We arrived at the beautiful bay off Kelleys Island State Park campground around lunchtime, where we anchored in the sandy shallows and swam, fished, relaxed and did some beachcombing. We snorkeled in the clear waters off Camp Patmos children's summer camp on the east shore, following smallmouth bass and sheepshead through the weed beds and chasing them across the rocky bottom, and took turns towing each other in an inflatable raft we brought along.
Aboard the perfect day boat for enjoying our coastal cruise, we delayed our return to the mainland until I spied a storm cell looming over the horizon to the west. With little geography to break winds sweeping east across the Great Plains, and shallow waters for the breeze to kick up, Lake Erie is famous for producing fearsome boating conditions with short notice. That first hint of foul weather prompted us to make a beeline for the mainland, and we arrived back at the dock just as a Mother Nature deposited a damp exclamation point to end a perfect long summer weekend on the water.