Just a year into sailboat racing, and I was about to do my first overnight race—the 2012 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race.
It was a hot Saturday morning; I was dressed in an official Detroit Tigers polo shirt and matching baseball cap as I headed out to my boat. I had gotten the call only a week earlier to join the crew of Chico 2 for the 88th Port Huron to Mackinac Race hosted by the Bayview Yacht Club and sponsored by Bell’s Beer. Yes, the race came with all the Oberon you could drink!
The boat is a 1D35, a fast boat designed especially for racing. (I sail on one in San Francisco called Alpha Puppy.) It’s got a sparse cabin, but I was happy to hear that one of my crewmates had gotten the head (toilet) working just for me—I’m the first girl ever to race on Chico 2. As per tradition, the four professional sports teams in Detroit drew boats to represent them in the race and the Tigers drew us, which explained my unorthodox sailing outfit.
Just before 10:00 am, we pulled our docklines and eased our way toward St. Clair river. The mood in downtown Port Huron was light and fun with over 200 boats flying their colors, all crew on deck, waving to the massive crowds. As we paraded past the Port Huron Yacht Club, an announcer called out the names and skippers of all the boats. It was quite a sight to be in the middle of so many sailboats, all going the same way for the same purpose: to race as fast as they could up the 230 nautical miles of Lake Huron to Mackinac Island.
Since we were the second fastest boat racing on the Shore Course, we had plenty of time before the start to check out the other boats in our class—PHRF D—and admire the big boats, the 70+ footers. Long and sleek, their towering masts carrying kevlar or carbon sails, they stood out from the more “modest” yachts. They had cool names like Thirsty Tiger, Natalie J, and Talisman, and their crews looked very smart in their matching outfits, or “kit” as the Aussies would say—and many of these boats did hire professional sailors from Australia and New Zealand.
When the gun fired, announcing our 10-minute starting sequence, we were right where we needed to be. Our skipper and owner Jim Weyland did a great job at the helm, keeping us parallel with the starting line only a boat length away. As the timer counted down the final 10 seconds, our bowman Dave gave a little signal to the helm. Jim turned up, and we were on our way to Mackinac.
It sounds more exciting than it was, since we actually had very little wind. Some of the boats in our class set their kites right away, but we waited it out, sitting on the low side on a reach with the jib up. When we had enough wind, we set our asymmetrical spinnaker, and started making moves through the classes that had started before us. My job on the boat was primarily jib and spinnaker trim; I did the best I could with the low but steady breeze to keep our speed up with the spinnaker much of the day. When the wind finally went behind us, we doused the asymmetrical kite, and set a symmetrical. Around 10:00 pm, we finally got enough wind; I took the spin sheet back from the other trimmer and started to build some real speed. Slowly, I took it from six knots, into the sevens. When we got up into the eights and nines, the rest of the crew moved to the back of the boat, hoping we’d be able to get up on a plane. I stayed on the low side, just barely able to see the luff of the kite, but it gave me good control of the sheet, slowly easing for speed, and allowing me to be close to the the winch handle when I needed to trim in. We worked the sail and the helm together carrying 10s and even 11s for several hours, the water rushing beneath us, the wind literally in our hair. As we passed Harbor Beach we watched fireworks on shore. On the lake, the sky was black, a great backdrop for the colors that lit up the night. We were so far away though, that we could see them long before we could hear them, the thunder of the explosion making it’s way to us long after the fire had gone out. At 1:00 am I was spent, and went down below to sleep.
I was woken up at 3:00 am for my next shift. Reluctantly, I put my new PFD back on, and grabbed my tether to reclaim my place with the spinnaker sheet. On the low side of a 1D35, there’s not much to keep you in the boat: no toe rail, and not much to hang on to. I tethered in, just in case a gust was in the mood to send me sliding under the lifelines. Our bowman had purchased a neat little toy from eBay, a special holder to attach a flashlight to one of the stanchions. The spinnaker glowed a soft white against the black making it possible to see it through the transparent main sail: The wind was coming from the west, forcing us to move the spinnaker pole so far forward I could no longer see it. I had to trim by feel, with only the shadow of the sail visible through the main. As the sky brightened with the dawn, I handed it off to Alex, and moved back into the cockpit to rest. It wasn’t long though before Jim was starting to doze off, and asked me if I wanted to take the helm. The idea of getting to drive was like a shot of adrenaline. I took the helm with Dave at my side, explaining how to drive using the numbers provided on the GPS.
As we closed the gap between us and Sleeping Tiger, I drew to within two boat lengths, hoping to pass them on port. But the wind and our desired heading was pushing us down, and at the last minute, I turned to duck them astern. As moved our boat past them, I said in my best smart-alecky voice, not quite loud enough for them to hear me but loud enough to give my own crew a good laugh, “You just got passed by a girl!” (Later at the post-race party, Jim said if I come back to sail with them next year, he’s going to get me a shirt with that phrase embroidered in big letters on the back.)
I went to bed again at 6:30 am, and sometime while I was asleep, we doused the kite and hoisted the jib. Sunday afternoon would prove to be a slow sticky sail, becalmed around an island we just couldn’t pass. Sitting on the rail, over and over I put my head down to sleep, only to look up every 20 minutes to see we were in the same place. The forecast wasn’t good, and finally, I got so uncomfortable from contorting my body into the stays on the low side of the boat, I went down to take a nap. While I was down there, snuggled with my pillow into the port bunk, I felt the boat start to heel, but I was so comfortable and cozy, that rather than run up to the windward rail, I decided just to stay down there a while and rest, so as not to jinx the wind. Finally I did come above decks, and we were sailing close hauled at seven knots, overjoyed that at least for the moment the forecast was wrong. We kept up that pace for several hours. You might think that sitting on the rail of a sailboat in the middle of the night is a good time to think, but try as might, I couldn’t think of anything. Instead, I just sat there and stared at the dimming sky sending shivers of orange, pink, and purple across the vast expanse of water all around us.
I went below again with a chill, somewhere around 1am. I snuggled in my blanket, desperately trying to get warm despite my wet clothes. Sometime later, Alex touched my foot and said, “Do you want to see the Northern Lights?” Even though I’ve seen it several times at summer camp in Minnesota, the excitement was still enough to warm me up and get me on deck. I put on my last dry shirt, and climbed out of the cabin. The sky was full of stars, the horizon lined by a soft white glow.
By dawn we were moving at only three knots, but any moving was better than no moving. As the sun rose, a fog set in, and we were nearly becalmed again. We had the spinnaker up, I desperately fanned the clew, hoping to help it catch even the slightest bit of breeze. As the fog settled, we saw that we were well ahead of a lot of boats. Some how we had made it across the lull and back into the wind, leaving them to drift far behind us. We were moving, if only barely, but it was enough.
We could see the island from the early morning. It was only 15 nautical miles away, but it took us almost six hours to get there. Alex and I flew the spinnaker. It was hot and sticky, gnats glued themselves all over our bodies, moth guts squished on the deck of the boat, but slowly and surely, we drew closer to the finish. Just a quarter mile from the line, the wind shut down again. But a smart move on our skipper’s part, kept us ahead of two boats that came from behind, trying to take us at the line. (We were not first—not by far—but every boat you beat at the line counts!) We stayed on the island side of the line, and less than 100 feet away, we saw the wind shift 90° around us. We doused the kite, hoisted the jib, and held our position over the line. Though we were hot and spent, the canon salute marking our finish sent us into a round of “whoohoos,” not too different than the feeling of crossing the finish line of a marathon. For the last hot hour we had been questioning why we did this to ourselves, but as soon as it was all over, we were refreshed. After a hot shower and a meal, we already talking about next year.