Tall Ship series sets sail on Detroit River to teach local history, river's ecosystem

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

A new ship is dotting Detroit’s River Walk. Back for its seventh season, the Detroit History Tour’s (DHT) Tall Ship series started Friday for a three-week run of educational cruises around the Detroit River. Its opening “Great Lakes Ecology and Knot Tying” tour is one of four cruise options that cover a variety of topics including biology, history, stargazing, music and an overall experience of life on a ship.

“Guests are going to experience sailing on a historic vessel on the Detroit River,” said Bailey Sisoy-Moore, executive director of DHT. “They’re going to learn about the history of the river, of the city of Detroit, of Belle Isle, the Ambassador Bridge, the Detroit Windsor Tunnel, prohibition, the civil rights movement, the Underground Railroad, and what swims, eats, lives and fishes in the Detroit River.”

Bailey Sisoy-Moore (left), executive director, Detroit History Tours, gives a tour of the Detroit River to Kassia Martin of Hazel Park and her husband Sam Martin aboard the Appledore IV in Detroit on Friday, May 14, 2021.

The ecology tour, open to people ages 12 and up, focuses on the river’s ecosystem and how it has been impacted by hundreds of years of industry and change. It also provides guests with hands-on opportunities to experience life on the ship, including assisting with rigging, taking water samples and tying knots. 

“History Under Sail” talks about the influence of the river on Detroit’s history, learning about its role in trade and military as well as prohibition, the Underground Railroad, the Ambassador Bridge and more. It is open to people 12 and older for tours before 6 p.m., and people 18 and older for tours after 6 p.m.

“Our 6-9 p.m. tours are really great, because you get the sunset,” Sisoy-Moore said.

Laura Giovanini (left) pilots the Appledore IV as captain Matt Tkach looks on during a Detroit History Tour along the Detroit River in Detroit on Friday, May 14, 2021.

“Stargazing Aboard the Tall Ship” sails from 10 p.m. – midnight and is open to those 18 and older. Guests can learn about the constellations, love stories on the river and some risqué moments in Detroit’s history while enjoying the city lit skyline after dark.

Its fourth tour, “Mariners Songs and Sea Shanties,” tells the musical history of the Detroit River and includes a performance from sea shanty singer Vadriel King. The cruise will discuss music ranging from the hauling songs of schooner crews to revolutionary French music to hymns from generations of Detroit’s immigrants. 

Ships are limited to 30 people – about half their capacity – that Sisoy-Moore says provides guests with the space for a magical experience.

“They come off the ship with photos of a lifetime, a really unique understanding of what the Detroit River and water system means for our community and a pretty spectacular day on the water,” she said. 

The Bay City–based ship, the “Appledore IV,” is an 85-foot long gaff schooner with a 76-foot mast and more than 3,500 square feet of sails. While it was built in 1989, it is traditionally-rigged with a design based on ships from more than a century before. 

“Any vessel that is traditionally rigged is considered historically-rigged,” said ship captain Matthew Tkach. “It’s basically big cables, deadeyes, lanyards, wooden spars. You don’t see ships like this.”

Guests aboard the season’s first cruise said they had a great time.

Sam Martin of Hazel Park said his favorite part was sightseeing along the Detroit riverfront as well as experiencing a sailing vessel up close. 

Captain Matt Tkach begins traveling along the Detroit River for a Detroit History Tour aboard the Appledore IV in Detroit on Friday, May 14, 2021.

“It was really cool seeing how that worked, and of course, the ecology stuff was really interesting, too,” he said. 

Grosse Pointe resident Anne Duffey-Leo said she has a boat docked at the Detroit Yacht Club and will never look at the water in the same way.

“It definitely made an impression,” she said. “It was amazing.” 

Tickets for the tours begin at $71.50 and are available at www.detroithistorytours.com. Tours run several times daily until the end of the month and are selling out quickly. The ship returns for another three-week series in September.

Detroit History Tour’s Tall Ship series 

now through May 30

Cost: $71.75 and up