BY NANCY SNYDER
Stormy. That’s how I describe this year’s Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac when asked, “How was the race?” Aboard our 34-foot Tartan 10, called Cheap Thrill, with our crew of four women and two men, we faced about 23 hours of unrelenting storms that left us simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted.
Before I say more, let me fill in a few blanks. ‘The Mac’ is a 333-mile long sailboat race that starts at the Chicago Lighthouse and finishes at Round Island Lighthouse by Mackinac Island, Michigan. (This is pronounced “Mackinaw Island,” not to be confused with the town Mackinaw City, MI, which is pronounced as it’s spelled.)
Each year, some 350 boats participate in the race, ranging in size from 26 feet crewed by five people to 77 feet crewed by 19 people. Most of us have done the Race multiple times, a testament to the CYC Race moniker, “The race of the season, a destination like no other, the adventure of a lifetime.” And this is a family affair; different generations race together and have done so for many generations.
This was my 27th race, and my husband Tim’s 28th. Our crew members have done the race from three to twenty-four times. Each year, the winds of Lake Michigan serve up a new and mostly-exciting experience. I say “mostly-exciting” because there are some years that we practically drift up to the Island, just ghosting along with almost no wind, for days on end. Not too thrilling. But then, there are other years like this one.
We start the Race in mild conditions, with the spinnaker up, moving along at about 5 knots/hour (1 kph = 1.15 mph). This is good speed for our kind of boat—we’re focused on making the boat go fast and we’re a chatty bunch. We know there is a storm coming at us from the west and we’re watching it on radar to track the speed and intensity. We eat a late lunch of turkey sandwiches and grapes while sitting on the rail, excited to already be up to Baha’i Temple. We see thunderheads popping up on the horizon, and as we approach Waukegan, the first storm darkens the sky. We are ready for it in our foul weather gear and harnesses, all clipped to the safety line. We shorten the mainsail as the first gust hits, and we take off, now doing about 10 knots/hour, doubling our original speed. The lightning is pretty intense and the rain even more so.
The storm hangs around for over two hours—longer than expected—but eventually the winds abate and back up goes the mainsail and up goes the spinnaker. We eat dinner, all of us on the rail, enjoying poached salmon on a bed of spinach and quinoa with a Gorgonzola drizzle. But, we’re still watching the radar closely, as another squall is rapidly gathering near Rockford. We quickly finish our dinner and the second storm hits with fierceness just off of Racine. Again, we’re ready. We reef the mainsail and are clipping along at 10-12 knots, with winds of 45-50 knots, drenched and surrounded by lightning. The thunder is deafening. As the storm passes, the wind dies completely and we sit, not moving north but drifting east—not the way we want to be going.
After a couple of hours, the winds pick up and so do the number of squalls; we lose count of the number of storms. They just keep forming to the west and hitting us with wind, rain, and lightning. No one goes below for sleep during the storms, but we take turns catching quick catnaps between the most intense parts. The wind has turned more southerly through the night, so we put the spinnaker up again and keep it up during the next several storms. Now we’re surfing the waves, which are significant, with the boat’s speed at a steady 10 knots, sometimes going up to 15-16 knots. Someone notes that sailing can put the terror back into going 20 miles per hour.
By Sunday morning we’re in the middle of Lake Michigan. Things below deck are pretty soaked but, all in all, everyone is holding up well. We nibble on our breakfast of mini-quiches, drained and getting pretty darned tired of being wet and belted by the storms. The good news is that we’re getting up the lake in record time.
Finally, the storms begin to dissipate—but the winds don’t. We still manage to quickly eat our lunch of meatloaf sandwiches and continue to surf down the waves as we approach Point Betsie. We pass the venerable lighthouse at 3:20 pm Central Time, a record for us. We get hit by a 35-40 knot gust and the boat basically goes out of control, rounding up, its mast nearly touching the water. We’re all fine. We release the spinnaker and the boat rights itself, but our spinnaker is in shreds. I joke that I didn’t like the color of that sail anyway, so I blew it up (I’m an interior designer)!
All racers monitor the marine radio channel 16 throughout the race. We soon begin to hear distress calls. Fellow sailors respond with assistance where needed, as does the Coast Guard, who are following the fleet up the Lake as usual in the cutter Mobile Bay. We later learn the extent of human and yacht damage: a diabetic shock situation, a heart attack scare, a few broken arms, a sunken boat, a few lightening hits, and lots of torn sails.
Finally, the clouds part and in the late afternoon, as we are sailing by South Manitou Island, the winds come down to a manageable 15-20 knots. We have a lovely early evening sail and can finally peel off our foul weather gear. We enjoy our dinner without rain, a smoked pork tenderloin with plum chutney and haricot vert.
We finally have a chance to rest and chat. This is one of the things I love about the race: the opportunity to relate with your fellow crew members. In an era of communicating via email, Facebook, and Twitter, there is something gratifying about spending face-to-face time with others. Not only do we learn one another’s strengths as team members, but we have time to talk about our pasts, our influencers, what’s important to us now, how we cope with daily life in the city, the stars, questions of the universe, and whatever else may pop to mind over a long period of time in a small space.
Sunday night, as we approach Beaver Island, the stars overhead are endless, mesmerizing. We have light winds, a period of intense fog, and at dawn, we are approaching Grays Reef with spinnaker up and flying, moving along nicely. We go around the requisite buoys of Gray’s Reef Passage and head down the Straits, toward the Mackinac Bridge. We’re in the home stretch: the last 25 miles of the Race. It’s always exciting to sail under that landmark bridge with its towering structure. We have a tradition, borrowed from an older fellow sailor, of telling an under-the-bridge joke. When we cross the finish line, we have set a personal record with a time of 45 hours. Although we’ve been fortunate to win our section eight times in the past, we finish seventh this year. We dock, clean up the boat, and the on-Island celebrations begin.
We’re already looking forward to next year’s race, which starts July 15, 2017. One can watch the boats head off for the race at Michigan Avenue Magazine’s Parade of Boats festivities on Navy Pier. The race can be followed online via Facebook, Twitter (#CYCRTM), and the race-tracking app YB Tracking. Check it out at CYCRaceToMackinac.com.