chicago mac
The view from the bow at the start of the 2012 Race to Mackinac.

The Mac Races, Part 2: Chicago to Mackinac

My second overnight sailboat race ever would be the 2012 Chicago Mac on a Dehler 39 called Troubadour.

I stood in front of Union Station with my “Lietuva” duffel bag on my back, my foul weather gear hung neatly on a hanger thrown over my shoulder, feeling like a seasoned veteran. Sure, I had never done the Chicago Yacht Club’s annual Race to Mackinac, but I had just sailed up Lake Huron. I was experienced.

That evening at dinner, I regaled my cousins with stories of sailing under star-filled skies and searching for wind in the fog. And, I answered as nonchalantly as I could the most commonly asked questions, “How did you get on this boat?”

Crew list. Yacht clubs and race committees around the world have websites where you can post your name for racing or cruising. Truthfully, you never know what you’re getting into when you put your name up, hoping that a couple of phone calls exchanged will be enough to determine whether the person on the other end is someone you’d like to be stuck on a boat with for an extended amount of time, or not. There are a couple of boats I won’t go back to, but for the most part, I’ve been incredibly lucky; sailing with Lars and Felicia Wilhelm and the crew of Troubadour was no exception.

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On our way to the start, Chicago skyline in the background.

We were nine in total: the beautiful and capable Wilhelm daughters Adele and Caroline, their childhood friend Matt and his young colleague Zoë from the Duluth-Superior Sailing Association, Morgan from New York, myself, and our “Naviguesser.” The whole crew was finally together for the first time less than an hour before we pushed off from the dock. We had the mainsail up before we left the marina, immediately spit out into the chop. Lake Michigan was churned up into a bright sea-green color usually only found in a Crayola box. We were tossed and rolled as we completed our obligatory man-overboard drill (me hanging off the bow with a boat hook to grab the sacrificial orange life jacket meant to represent one of us), and then made our way to the starting line, munching on sandwiches, sipping lemon-lime sodas.

We hoisted the jib and practiced a couple of tacks inside the shelter of the breakwater off Navy Pier before I scurried up to the bow to call the start. I shouted out information back to the helm, “Blue hull, starboard tack, two o’clock!” and sighted the starting line, counting down boat lengths with my fingers. Swells hit us from every angle, and before the race was even begun, I was soaked.

Once over the line, I settled on the rail with the rest of the crew. We took the time to get to know each other chatting about where we’d raced before and what we like to do on a boat as the Chicago skyline faded on the horizon. The wind was sustained at almost 20kts into the evening, the swells never letting up. For the first time in my life, I felt sea sick. For hours I tried to tell myself I was okay but I was on the first watch that started at 8:00 pm and the wind hadn’t let up. Dreading the fact that at midnight I’d have to go down below to try to sleep—and that sometime before then I’d have to eat dinner—I decided I needed a patch. An hour and a half later I was ready for a bowl of beans and rice.

Adele told me that this was the first year Troubadour would sail in the cruising fleet, and to that end, the girls had negotiated a few concessions with their parents, mainly that wine would be served at dinner. Though on that first rough night, a glass of rose was the last thing anyone wanted. We ate well throughout the race, better than I’ve ever even imagined eating on a sailboat. Saturday morning we had apples and oven french toast with eggs, Saturday night we had stir-fry and pot stickers. There were breakfast burritos, frittata, and fresh-made sandwiches with huge slices of juicy tomato.

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Sunset and calm seas on Lake Michigan.

The days passed by quickly with our four-hours-on, four-hours-off watch schedule. We admired sunsets and sunrises, took turns at the helm, and hoisted and dropped, set and doused the sails multiple times. We hooted and hollered when the wind was strong, and created wind where there was none. Sunday morning we took bets on when we would get to the island. It was about 8:00 am, and we had approximately 60 miles to go. We were going 6kts. Ever the optimist, I estimated we would arrive around 5:00 pm. Other guestimates put our arrival between 11:00 pm and 3:00 am. By Sunday afternoon, our speed was down to 3kts, with no more wind on the radar. We watched the water for puffs and tried our best to stay in it. For most of the race, we were out there alone, only one boat ahead of us. From time to time we’d see some of the fleet on the horizon, but they would soon disappear again. Not far off from Harbor Springs, a text from shore told us that “Puma” would soon be overtaking us. A Volvo 70 that had been renamed Il Mostro for this race, it was the fastest-rated boat in the racing fleet, which had started almost a day later than we had. There was one red spinnaker dancing alone along the shore. We got out the binoculars. The tiny speck quickly got bigger and bigger, seeming to be doing 12 knots of boat speed in 3kts of wind. Soon enough, Puma was skimming our beam, before disappearing in front of us as fast as it had come.

Darkness fell again soon, the sliver of a new moon doing nothing to light our way. We pushed on ahead to Grey’s Reef and the final turn into the Straights of Mackinac. Puma would not be the last boat to pass us that night. With the blinking red light marking the reef in our sights, I felt a shiver over my right shoulder. Turing to look behind me, I started; the red glow of a port light lit up a large black sail only a couple of boat lengths to our 5 o’clock. It was surely the Maxi Z86, Windquest. Just like the Volvo 70, they moved away just as quickly and stealthy as they had come upon us. As we made the turn into the Straights, the wind picked up. We unfurled our jib and dropped the downwind kite. On final approach, 15 miles from the bridge slowly growing up in front of us, we were reaching at 10kts of boat speed, and it was all hands on deck to keep the boat flat. The march of big boats continued behind us: TP 52s, Santa Cruz 52s, Great Lakes 70s, and a Farr 65.

Ten miles out from the bridge, the wind calmed just enough for us to want to set our reaching kite. I scrambled up to the bow, tethered in, water crashing all around me. Adele and Matt brought up the bag and we hooked it up—halyard, tack line, sheets. The crew in the cockpit called the set and up it went. We struggled to get the jib furled, the lazy spin sheet was tight and wrapping into the sail. Though we were running strong on adrenaline, our true fatigue showed through as both Adele and I failed to call for the easing of the lazy spin sheet for what seemed to be several minutes but was probably less than 45 seconds. With the jib finally furled, we high-fived each other and got back on the rail for a wild ride home.

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The Mackinac Bridge is an imposing goal line.

Lars called for Adele, his eldest daughter, to take the helm under the bridge, the colorful lights dotting the sky like Christmas. Though we know logically that the base of the bridge is suspended several hundred feet above us, as we crossed below, I was sure that the windex at the top of our mast would not survive. We recognized an unofficial moment of silence for the crossing as if to pay homage to the power of Lake Michigan, giving thanks for one more safe passage.

We were still three miles from the finish line with calming winds. We struggled to keep the kite full, before finally unfurling the jib, all crew now positioned on the leeward side of the boat. Behind us, the big boats steadily and silently marched on, like a fleet of alien starships in a George Lucas movie. The only sound came from an easing sheet, like a deep breath under Darth Vader’s helmet, the red of their port bow lights illuminating the seams of their sails. As the water moved softly around us, we listened to the drone of the race committee radio, as the hundreds of boats behind us approached the bridge.

“Race committee, race committee, this is Freedom. We are 1.4 miles out from the bridge, over.”

“Race committee, race committee, this is Heartbreaker. We are 2.7 miles out from the bridge, over.”

And then, as we got closer to the line, “Race committee, race committee, this is Talisman, please acknowledge our finish, over.”

It had not been a hard race, in fact, it was mostly pleasurable. We had consistent wind and following seas for much of the race. There was no rain, but not too many bugs either. We ate well, drank wine with dinner once it had calmed, and most of all, enjoyed each other’s company. But after almost 60 hours on the water, we were ready to get to the dock.

Less than a quarter-mile from the line, we were caught up in the search light from shore, spotting incoming boats. Flash Gordon, a Farr 40 that started a day after us with the racing fleet, challenged us for line honors. We held our breath as we crept to the line, the Farr inching up below us. We could see the beam of light illuminating the imaginary line across the water which was our goal. With less than a half a boat length over the Farr, a cannon shot proudly into the night to announce to all that we had reached the line.

“Race committee, race committee, this is Troubadour. Please acknowledge our finish, over.”

“Troubadour, this is race committee, your finish is confirmed. Please proceed to Dock G.”

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Troubadour on the dock at Mackinac Island.

At 5:15 am Michigan time—exactly twelve hours later than my predicted time—our finish celebrations were subdued. We opened the two bottles of wine we had saved, and Felicia put pizzas in the oven so we had something hot to eat. By the time we pulled into Dock G, dawn had overtaken us. We tied up to the innermost slip, the first boat to arrive. Only a few hours later, the harbor would be packed; five boats would be rafted off of us alone.

Mackinac Island was alive all day and the next two nights with “yachters,” as the locals call them, running the town. There were parties and rum and a very large jacuzzi at a bar called the Pink Pony. Lars and Felicia hosted us for an amazing team dinner, where much of the conversation was already about next year’s race.

I’ve now completed both Mac races, over 110 hours of sailing in the last 10 days. I’ve been wet, cold, and tired. But also excited, and challenged, and happy. And most of all, I’ve been lucky to get on two amazing crews. Thanks to both Chico 2 and Troubadour. I’ll see you next year!


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