Sailing Is the Family Business — How Family Fun Begat A Charter Business
By Jane Ammeson
March 2020 Issue of Lakeland Boating Magazine
“None of this would have happened if I had known how to camp,” says Tim Morris, talking about how his family charter businesses, Sailing Saugatuck and Sailing South Haven, came to be. That’s Morris’s story and he’s sticking to it. His ignorance about the workings of camp stoves, tents and hiking boots gave him and his wife, Susan, little choice but to take their three children sailing instead. So in lieu of freeze-dried food and campfires, the three Morris children — Dominic, Erin and Melissa — learned to raise a mainsail, take the helm and sail into the wind, starting with a 21-foot traditional lapstrake wooden boat. It was the first of several, including a 44-foot Peterson design sloop IOR racer. The family used it for racing, but Morris calls it a floating camper.
Ultimately, this familial deficit on Tim Morris’s part ensured his children a future as avid sailors. For their youngest daughter, Erin Morris Baittinger, it meant going completely overboard (excuse our pun) and becoming a U.S. Coast Guard certified captain. “My parents always had sailboats when we were growing up,” Baittinger says. “Every weekend we’d just pile on and cruise. We might do a one-day sail and spend time in port or hop from port to port. In Lake Michigan, we’d anchor and throw floatation devices into the water and jump in. I remember taking a long sail to South Manitou Island and how fun it was. Back then it was our family’s hobby — something we all did together. Now it’s my career.” In keeping with the nautical theme that seems to define her life, Baittinger’s husband, Andrew, also chose a profession involving boats. The two, who have three young children and live in Petoskey, Michigan, met when she was crewing on the 170-foot schooner Mystic, a three-masted, gaff-rigged, square topsail schooner in Mystic, Connecticut — a job she held for three years. Andrew has some serious boat cred as well. A graduate of the International Yacht Restoration School in Newport, Rhode Island, he now works as a boatwright for the Irish Boat Shop with locations in Traverse City, Harbor Springs and Charlevoix. When Baittinger moved back from Mystic to Michigan, the Morris family took sailing to the next level. “Erin talked me into opening a charter boat business [in 2010],” Morris says, who was a custom cabinet maker. “We bought a six-passenger Gulfstar 37 sloop built in Florida that Susan and I found. It’s a bluewater cruiser with a fiberglass hull and teak trim — the kind of boat you see island hopping in the Caribbean.”
The Original Vessel
Equipped with starboard and port settees, and a cabin down below, passengers are encouraged to bring their own food and drink, including wine and beer (there’s a cooler onboard to keep it cold), and sit back and enjoy the sail. Or, if so inclined, they can pitch in — no matter their skill level — and help with the sails and lines. “We named her the Margaret Ann after my aunt who was the coolest lady who ever walked the earth,” Morris says. “She just treated everybody like they were the most important person in the world and my kids were very close to her.” The name makes sense; how it happened shows the intensity of the feeling for the boat’s namesake. “I told Erin to make a list of names she liked and I would too and then we’d decide,” Morris says. But when they compared lists, the father and daughter discovered each had written down only one name: Margaret Ann. Describing his sister Erin as basically a “superwoman,” Dominic Morris — who, though he works out of state, designed and maintains the company’s website and does its marketing and videography — says it was his sister’s hard work that transformed their small six-pack charter boat operation into the busiest and most popular sailing charter in Southwest Michigan. “It’s the No. 1 tour in South Haven,” he continues, noting they sail four times a day from Memorial Day to the end of September. Dominic is referring to Trip Advisor’s rating of Sailing South Haven as being the No. 1 of 13 tours in South Haven, while the company also has five out of five stars on Yelp. The two-hour Sailing South Haven charter excursion travels along the Black River as it flows between the piers and into the lake. From there, the sails are trimmed according to the direction and strength of the winds.
Expanding the family dream
“Building on the success of our operation in South Haven, we finally were able to fulfill our family’s life-long dream of buying a schooner,” Dominic says about schooner Serenity, a 65-foot two-masted gaff-rigged schooner designed by Tom Colvin and built by Custom Steel Boats in Arapaho, North Carolina, which they bought last year. “It’s been a feat in itself getting Serenity ready for showtime but we’re finally there. We couldn’t be happier to offer a laid-back, family friendly and authentic schooner experience with folks who are visiting and folks who live here.”
Originally built as a cargo schooner, the tall ship was later converted into a passenger vessel and, at the time the family purchased her, was a charter sailing out of Yorktown, Virginia. Now her homeport is Douglas, Michigan, a charming village on the Kalamazoo River just 18 miles north of South Haven. Like Sailing South Haven, the new Sailing Saugatuck charter trips are two hours long. It’s a 40-minute journey from Douglas to Lake Michigan, past a changing topography of prairie wetlands and the historic downtowns of Douglas and Saugatuck, with their collection of boutiques, art galleries, wineries, cafes and homes — a mélange of 19th-century mansion-esque dwellings, as well as cute and cozy summer cottages. Once past the lighthouse, the options are straight west into the blue waters, north along the sand cliffs or south toward Oval Beach, named one of the Top 25 Beaches in the World by Condé Nast Traveler, MTV’s Top 5 Beaches in the USA and National Geographic Traveler’s Top Freshwater Beaches in the USA. Sailing Saugatuck offers two afternoon cruises and a sunset cruise, as well as two-hour customized private charters for up to 24 guests. Charters from both locations include a U.S. Coast Guard-certified captain and first mate aboard every trip. Like Sailing South Haven, passengers can bring their own food and drinks, including alcoholic beverages.
It’s all about the passenger experience
“We want those onboard to feel like it’s their boat when we sail,” Morris says. “It’s never about the names of the boat parts; our passengers can relax, they can watch, they can ask, they can help. It’s their trip — we want them to have fun.” In some ways, Morris seems somewhat surprised by all their successes as a sailing charter. “I don’t think any of this would have ever happened if I’d known how to camp,” he repeats in a bemused tone. “When I was out on the East Coast, I decided being back home and having a charter company would be a good fit,” Baittinger says, who, enviably, crewed the Mystic down to the Bahamas each winter. “After all, most of our favorite family memories are about sailing.” ★