By Judy Carmack Bross
Chicago skippers, crews, and cooks have one mission this week, gearing up for the 112th Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac. We spoke with fierce competitors and potential winners in the Beneteau 36.7 class Basil Souder and Nancy Snyder, and Connie Barkley, one of the best chefs for the race whose meatloaf helps motivate the crew of Soulshine.
Over 3000 sailors bent on besting the 333 statute miles to the Island on Lake Huron and to celebrate after that at the historic Grand Hotel, site of many a movie and boasting the longest porch in the world. Presented by Wintrust, the Race returns this year after the 2020 COVID hiatus with sailors all the more determined to finish first. Begun in 1898, the Race starts Friday, July 16 for cruising sailboats and Saturday, July 17 for performance sailboats. The Race is by invitation only, with the Yacht Club determining what boats and crews are equipped to participate.
Snyder, who has raced the Mac for 31 years and will be aboard Peter Nielsen’s Eclipse this year, told us:
“I like to say that I am hopeful, but not boastful about winning the race in 2021. There is of course some luck involved but winning the Mac is all about being the fastest you can go under any conditions. You have to sail perfectly 24/7. It is always different, always an accomplishment and at heart is about the camaraderie found in trying to get up to that island with fellow racers.”
This is architect Basil Souder’s tenth Race to Mackinac where he will be part of the crew of the Maggie Mae. He expresses what surely most Mackinac participants feel: “I love the people who are drawn to racing. We have a shared experience that few others have, and this has enriched my life.”
“The boat is a Beneteau First 36.7, a sloop, meaning one mast with a jib and mainsail. It has a symmetrical spinnaker. It is 36 feet long, and we race against identical 36.7’s in our class. There will be 18 of these boats in the RTM, so the competition will be stiff. We race with 8 or 9 people, and cannot exceed the maximum crew weight allowed by the class rules.”
“I was recruited to Maggie Mae by Lee Petersen, a friend who had been the captain of a beautiful Chicago boat, Hilaria. We had sailed together on Hilaria for about 10 years. And I had known Peter Wright, Maggie Mae’s owner and skipper since the late 70’s when we had been sailing and racing out of Belmont Harbor, Peter in the Star Class, and I had been racing an Etchells 22. So Lee recommended me, and I ‘tried out’ on Maggie Mae, and made the team.”
“We race in two regattas at the beginning of the season, and the Waukegan race. We often go out on Wednesday nights for informal beer can racing. There are several regattas later on in the summer after the RTM.”
We asked Souder about the grueling pace of the race:
“We stand watches of four hours on and four hours off around the clock. When off watch we eat and try to sleep. The boat never stops during the race, so we need to get as much rest as we can so that we can be as alert as possible while up and on watch. Often we are all on deck during the day.”
Souder is an almost lifelong sailor. “I learned to sail when I was a kid summering on the coast of Maine. Sailing stuck with me. I raced in college (not very well) and graduated to larger boats racing in coastal waters off of Virginia and New England. I have been on three Newport to Bermuda races. Since arriving in Chicago I have been involved in one design inshore and offshore racing.”
In 2017, the Maggie Mae was one of many boats forced to abort the race to the Island before the finish line because of a horrific storm that developed and communication with many boats was lost at the time. Each racing boat is equipped with a satellite tracker that sends GPS information every 15 minutes and displays the location and track on the course.
“I have great respect for Lake Michigan. Winds out of the north can create waves of five to six feet and uncomfortable conditions. It can also get cold in the middle of summer. We have such good weather forecasting that we are seldom surprised by the weather. Our crew also has great experience with the Lake. Thunderstorms seem to create the biggest challenges, but good crew work and sail management usually means that there are seldom any surprises.”
What’s it like to cross the finish line before heading off for the celebration?
“The feeling after a race is one of accomplishment, mostly, no matter where we finish. The race can be a lot of hard work and concentration. Winning demands constant concentration in trying to get as much speed out of the boat as possible. So at the end of the race, we know that we have all done our best, and have the satisfaction of knowing that. We are also very happy to be going ashore and enjoying our time together on the island, as a crew and with our friends from other boats, along with a nice hot shower!”
Connie Barkley, left, with Peggy Snorf and Leslie Zentner at a Chicago History Museum event
Classic Chicago readers know Connie Barkley as the canny chair of the Guild of Chicago History Museum events. For this week, Barkley has put aside plans for the upcoming gala opening the Museum’s exhibit “City on Fire: Chicago 1871”, to be held at the Museum October 8 on the exact anniversary of the Fire, to head to her kitchen to prepare meals for the crew of her boat “Soulshine”. Her late husband Peyton Barkey first owned the “Volare”, named for a song he liked to sing at the top voice as he crossed the Lake, and her son Jarrett Altmin, who skippers the boat likes names with a shining brilliance, thus he chose Soulshine.
Recently moved back to Chicago from St. John in the Virgin Islands, Altmin is sailing with his son Dylan. Barkley will not be on board this year but took on the all-important job as a chef. The crew has requested her meatloaf.
“Before 2019, one of the crew who had trained as a chef did the meals. Jarrett came to me that year and said ‘we are doing the food now’ and I said yes with pleasure. I knew they needed hearty food because it sometimes gets cold and stormy out on the lake– although it is often hot and steamy.”
Barkley begins with one-pound containers that are freezer and oven safe. When we talked this week she was cooking and freezing dinner for the first night.
“I prepare 27 dinners for the three nights—30 just to be safe—and freeze them so they can pop them in the oven. No one eats at the same time. I will do beef stew over egg noodles for the first night, lasagna for the second, and either chicken a la king over biscuits for the third, or meatloaf over potatoes. I’ll make burritos with eggs, sausage, and cheese for breakfast. At lunch, the crew assembles sandwiches and wraps of turkey, lettuce and tomato, and the like. We have cookies but not a ton of sweets. Snacks are more protein-based, like nuts, raisins, or dried cranberries. I also make 100 ‘Scooby snacks,’ which are dates wrapped in bacon. Everyone is allowed a certain number of soft drinks and there’s no alcohol until you hit the Island and the celebrations begin.
“And one thing that we can’t go without are red Twizzlers.”
Before her grandson Dylan Altmin joined the crew he and his grandmother drove up to Mackinac together, stopping for a night in Saugatuck or Silver Lake for bumper car rides or miniature golf. Barkley will be driving up this year. “I can stream on my phone how the crew is doing and when you arrive at the Island, all hotels have computer screens reporting on the boats. Committee members are there to report how each boat finished.”
“Often there is a parade of the boats past Navy Pier where the names of the boats and their captains are mentioned as they sail by on their way to their starting positions. Onetime the announcer welcomed Dylan to the microphone to wish his father well in the race. It definitely brought a tear to my eye.”
Jarrett Altmin and son Dylan after winning a Mackinac race in their class
“They won in their class the first time Dylan raced the Mackinac and one older sailor told him he should quit right then and tell people he never lost a Race to the Mac.”
Prior to founding Bon Brise Design, a full-service interior decorating company based in Chicago where Snyder is principal designer, she did leverage investing at JP Morgan. A former President of the Junior League of Chicago, her achievements in the non-profit field are second to none.
She likes to recall that her racing career began at age six, crewing for her brother’s x-boat on Pewaukee Lake in Wisconsin. She brings a great record onboard for the Mackinac, having won a third of all the races she has sailed.
“My dad was racing up in Escanaba and other places even before college and as I grew up racing with him. At SMU I founded the women’s sailing team and when I moved to Chicago I started sailing Tartan 10 racing sailboats and owned Cheap Thrill which I sailed for 22 years.”
We asked Snyder how she prepared for the Race:
“Each crew member must be empowered to make the best decisions. There are lots of storms and large waves on the Lake and the most important thing that individual sailors, as well as the crew as a whole, can do is to get into safe mode in the days before. You are always getting ready for a storm, knowing where your harness and other gear are. You can track now on your phone if you are close to shore, or get satellite coverage if you are in the middle of the Lake. NOAA weather reports are on our radios. Some years it is all about a battle with nature. Several years ago we had thunderstorms for 23 straight hours. Another year there was NO wind and we were stuck close to Leland Michigan for eight hours.
“You start a few days watching weather patterns out west in California, Nevada and Canada. This data can help you plot the fastest way to get to the island. But you can start the morning off planning for a certain pattern and all of a sudden your plans go out the window. The race can go two to three days depending on the wind and the size of the racing boat. I believe the fastest time was 25 hours and the fastest time for a Tartan 10 was 45 hours.”
Snyder reports that the Chicago Yacht Club’s safety checklist is used for races across the country.
“The crew spends time practicing water drills like man overboard, shortening sails, and steering without a rudder. We carry our own safety equipment like floatation devices and tethers to be used at night or in rough weather and a knife that can be operated with just one hand.
“We each provide our own foul weather gear. In 1898 when the race began racers used oilskins with tar on them. Now it is Gore-Tex and other breathable materials. We bring bib overalls, jackets, boots, and gloves plus many layers of other quick-drying clothing. It can get unbelievably cold out on the Lake. I remember sailing on Rick and Mary Ann Lillie’s boat Waterworks in 1992. The temperature was in the low 50’s towards the island. Wind and wind chill are real factors in the crew’s ability to perform.
“It is important to sail with the crew in races before the Mac. We recently completed the Queen’s Cup, an overnight race from Milwaukee to Muskegon. It is a great way to prepare.”
We asked Snyder what it’s like to sleep on board.
“You get so excited about the race that it is hard to sleep but you try, depending on your watch. You have four hours primary watch, four hours secondary watch where you are allowed to doze, and four hours sleeping below where it is often hot and nosy because of the sailing above as well as lights on computer screens going on and off. One thing that might not be generally known is that there are black flies biting out on the Lake. So I wouldn’t call it sleep exactly, but it is important to get some rest. Think camping lifestyle.”
The excitement of seeing the boats sail out for the Mackinac Race is one of Chicago’s summer sensations. Good luck to all the racers. We know that the crew of Soulshine will be eating particularly well and that it, Eclipse and Maggie Mae will be wise and ferocious competitors.
“There should be even extra excitement this year because there was no 2020 Race. I think it might have been cancelled a couple of times during World War II and maybe once in World War I,” Barkley said.
The best way to follow the Mac is to use the tracking systems on the Chicago Yacht Club’s website: cycracetothemackinac.com or visit Facebook.