Earth, Wind & Fire: A Race To Mackinac Video In The Making (Part 2)

Earth, Wind & Fire: A Race To Mackinac Video In The Making (Part 2)
Chicago Yacht Club's Race To Mackinac. The world's longest running freshwater sailboat race starts its 107th on July 11th, 2015.

CHIEF's First Race To Mackinac
After a whirlwind summer purchasing and prepping our new boat, I stood on the docks on July 16th, 2011, preparing to say goodbye to my husband, my 13-year-old son and the 6 other crewmembers racing in our new boat’s first Race To Mackinac as CHIEF. The crew was provisioned and totally pumped.




Look at all the wives and kids and girlfriends and onlookers! Look at all the amped-up husbands! Look at how my husband thinks it’s better to include our 13-year-old son on the crew instead of me! I’m NOT BITTER! I can perform weddings and interfaith youth ceremonies but I can’t ride my own boat across a lake. LOOK AT ME I’M SO SUPPORTIVE AND NOT UNHAPPY ABOUT DRIVING TO MACKINAC ISLAND AFTER MAKING FILET MIGNON SANDWICHES AND TURKEY/BRIE/CHUTNEY SUBS FOR A CREW I THOUGHT I’D BE PART OF! A CREW OF EIGHT SAILORS, 7 OF WHOM HAVE NEVER DONE THE MAC!!!! BON VOYAGE, jerk-offs.

Yet before they set sail, I tied a monkey’s fist knot above the starboard berth for good luck and safe passage -- my way of leaving them a meaningful good luck charm that I’d made with my own hands.

The first monkey's fist knot.

My very first monkey's fist knot.

Historically, sailors tied monkey’s fist knots to the ends of their lines before coming to shore; the weight made it easier to toss (and catch), ensuring a safe return to harbor. But what do I know? I just drive the chase car. I hug all the guys and wish them Godspeed, all 8 of them, including Mike and Henry. Chris Froeter is also on the crew, and he promises me he’ll keep an eye out for my son. I’m not yet afraid because I don’t yet know about the two storms brewing – one that will become a supercell – preparing to converge tomorrow, in the middle of the night, offshore, directly over this crew.

I know you’re anxious to hear details of my journey to Mackinaw City, like, Where did we stop for coffee? Did the hotel have a pool? Single-ply or 2-ply?

Perhaps another time.

I can only tell you that I kept trying to track CHIEF’s progress through an online race tracking system, increasingly frustrated that I couldn’t seem to work it right. My friend Sue was with me since her husband, Sean, was also aboard CHIEF. Like most spectators in the 2011 Mac race community, we were unaware the race tracking server had crashed and that everyone else on land was in the exact, same, frustrated boat (thank you very much. I’m here til Tuesday; please tip your server).

With no way to know where the guys were, Sue and I settled into a Mackinaw City hotel room – along with my two younger kids and Sue’s two girls – then drifted off to sleep as rain pelted our windows through never-ending flashes of lightning.

Just after 10:45pm, the National Weather Service Offices in Green Bay, WI (KGRB) and Gaylord, MI (KAPX) issued these warnings:

Suddenly I was awake, unable to shake the heavy fog of sleep and confusion. The kids were still asleep as Sue freaked out silently, reading and whispering Facebook updates from her laptop computer to me, like these:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.11.34 PM

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.12.42 PM

In one jolt, an instant, nothing felt real. As I pictured an entire fleet of sailors battered by the waves, my default mode -- to seek the positive – became drowned in silence. In a matter of hours, I would learn that two sailors’ lives, lost in this night, were the first race-related deaths in the history of the Mac, a racing tradition that began on August 6th, 1898 – seventy years, to the day, before my husband was born.

Waiting for news, internal dialogue took over. They’ll be okay. They’re all good sailors. Still, one question overpowered every thought: Where are they?

As updates filled the Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac Facebook page, references to the CG (Coast Guard) terrified everyone. The bad news for those of us on land was, we knew a little too much about what we could not confirm, barely enough to contain our panic. We could only wonder and worry and wait to hear if and when we’d see our sailors again.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.15.01 PM

That last comment, shared by my friend and partner-in-crime, Sue (whose husband, Sean, was onboard CHIEF) came just after Mike called us, thank God. As the vessel’s captain, he let us know everyone was okay -- knocked around, but alive. They’d made it through the storm. We exchanged few words -- primarily his – though I wanted to keep talking…to hear how they were…how they’d gotten through. He had to go, however. More storms up ahead.

This video, which surfaced after the race was completely finished, shows exactly what the racers faced that night.

Reflecting back, the only good news was that I wasn’t onboard. No amount of tranquilizers produced in the history of pharmaceutical manufacturing could have calmed me down when CHIEF was slammed onto her side and, for awhile, remained there. I’d have been screaming and praying and cursing at myself and at Mike for taking me on such a godforsaken "race" across a "lake". I’d have offered zero help to the crew as they fought to keep CHIEF upright. And, I would have probably gone into shock when the MAYDAY calls came over the VHF radio.

When ocean-loving Ted Turner (um, yeah, that guy) boasted before doing the Mac about it being a piece-of-cake-race on a little mill pond,  he quickly learned his lesson; not only did he publicly retract his trash talk: he never did another Mac again. What many misunderstand about Lake Michigan is that it's like an inland ocean, with wind and waves oftentimes just as fierce (if not moreso) as any massive saltwater sea. Consider the distance (also known as the period) between waves: in Hawaii, it's often about 20 seconds; in the Great Lakes, it's more like 6-8 seconds. Factor in high winds and storms and you're barely catching a break between the periods.

As the sun rose on July 18, 2011, Sue and I followed updates on Facebook, like this:

Chicago Yacht Club-Race To Mackinac July 18, 2011 ·

Early AM--little new news

All--just want to reiterate what I know--which is spotty. Earlier tonight in a squall, Wingnuts, in the sportboat section, capsized. This happened, broadly speaking, between the Manitous and Gray's Reef--east of the fox islands, south of Beaver Island. The 40.7 Sociable picked up 6 of the crew (out of 8) from Wingnuts. As of now, I have no more information on the other two, though I know an extensive search has been under way.

There have been many, many posts regarding damage to boats and drop outs here. There have been a bunch of posts that certain boats are OK. There have also been many of you who have had no news and are asking here for information on specific boats. If we have information, we'll give it to you. If we don't that means that the boat has not contacted the RC to say it's in trouble, and is therefore probably--probably--OK. 

I know that's not what you want to hear. I know you want us to tell you we heard everyone's fine, but we can't. Just know that, as I've posted several times, no news is usually good news...and with spotty cell coverage up there, it's often the only news we have.

I appreciate everyone contributing and I appreciate the effort to find out about individual boats. If we don't answer your requests, it's not for lack of interest. It's because we know as much as you do.

Thanks, everyone. This has been an incredibly difficult night.

Then, Sue and I read this:

Chicago Yacht Club-Race To Mackinac July 18, 2011 ·

Latest this AM

Another longer note

All--I have to step away for work obligations this morning. I will do my best to stay in touch, but expect my participation to come and go as the day progresses.

The general situation is--well--good in some ways and awful in others. We still have two missing crew out there somewhere, and all we can do is hope that they are somewhere, somehow safe. There seems to be a lot of broken equipment and a few broken bones, but those seem trivial compared to the Wingnuts situation. Many of you are pleasantly surprised to find out everything's OK. Others are worried because you haven't heard anything--but, really, no news is goo news in sailboat racing, as I keep saying.

Boats are progressing up the course and finishing in what have become much lighter winds than we saw yesterday. In general, the faster boats (through about section 5) are in the home stretch, it sounds like. Slower boats (starting at about Beneteau 36.7s are probably on the approach to Gray's reef, and our last place boats are probably exiting the Manitous by now. That's highly speculative right now because who knows what the storms did to fleet positions, but that's my guess!!!

I will stay as on top of it as I can, and leave it to you all to continue to update us all. I've asked for some help at/around the finish line that I hope will be coming soon. In the meantime, thanks again for everyone's support!

The Chicago Yacht Club then shared this Chicago Tribune column on Facebook, as well as its own statement:

Chicago Yacht Club-Race To MackinacJuly 18, 2011 ·

Statement from Chicago Yacht Club

As of Monday, July 18, it has been confirmed by the U. S. Coast Guard and it is with great regret that the Chicago Yacht Club acknowledges the deaths of two sailors who were competing in the 2011 Chicago Yacht Club’s Race to Mackinac.

A severe thunderstorm crossed Lake Michigan around midnight EDT last night. Windgusts were reported at 52 knots with waves of 4-6 feet.

The Coast Guard was notified at 12:40 am via VHF radio by crew members from one of the competing boats "Sociable" that another of the competing boats, "WingNuts," had capsized in these severe conditions. Five sailors were pulled from the water on arrival to the scene and one other sailor was later rescued. The six sailors were rescued by the crew of "Sociable."

The accident occurred approximately 13 nautical miles northwest of Charlevoix, Michigan, and 10 miles east of South Fox Island.

The "Sociable" skipper called all boats for assistance on Channel 16 and ten boats in the vicinity immediately abandoned the race to join in search efforts for two missing sailors.

The two lost sailors were "WingNuts" skipper Mark Morley, 51, and Suzanne Bickel, 41, both from Saginaw, MI. Mark Morley had 44 years of sailing experience, including six Chicago Mackinacs and 85 qualifying races. Suzanne Bickel had sailed in two previous Chicago-Mackinac Races, with 16 qualifying races.

In a brief statement Commodore Joseph S. Haas said, "On the behalf of the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, the Board of Directors and Flag Officers, we express our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the crew of "WingNuts." The crew of this boat exemplified the spirit of the Chicago Mac that is steeped in tradition of family, friends and passion for the water."

Information will be released as it becomes available.

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 8.46.37 PM

Mark Morley and Suzanne Bickel (

It cannot be overstated how heroic the crew of Sociable was during the storm, and well-deserved story after story after story after story recounted the details of what happened that night near Charlevoix, Michigan.

Later that afternoon, July 18th, 2011, Sue, the kids and I arrived by ferry on Mackinac Island, where we’d originally planned to cheer CHIEF on as she crossed the finish line. However, at the sight the somber crowd gathered under a tent near the finish and a flag being lowered to half-staff, Sue and I, exhausted from hours of worry and tremendous relief, burst into tears.

And then, just as suddenly as the previous night’s storms blew through, the crew of CHIEF crossed over the finish line.  As they stepped from the boat to the pier, now safe in the tiny harbor of Mackinac Island, the crew slowly opened up about what they’d seen, stumbling and rambling from exhaustion and disbelief. They’d ridden the waves. In just under 54 hours and in 13th place in their division, they’d made it through their first Race to Mackinac.

As we greeted the sailors, just after they first tied up on the docks of the island, my youngest son is overcome with relief and emotion as he hugs my husband, the captain:

Click here to read Sailing Magazine's article about the 2011Race to Mackinac, and this independent review of the tragedy.

CHIEF's Second Race To Mackinac
CHIEF’s second Race to Mackinac (2012) was far less traumatic than the 2011 race, though certainly not without its own “excitement”. Our son, Henry, came down with mono just before the start, leaving CHIEF to sail with a crew of 7 rather than 8. Disappointed not to have Henry onboard, the crew sent him encouraging texts with photos of handmade signs wishing him a speedy recovery. Still, CHIEF did beautifully…until something happened – something epic – that lost them time and -- ultimately -- a decent finish. I still don’t understand the mechanics, but pillow talk with the Captain suggested two lost spinnaker halyards and some inappropriate language may or may not have been involved. After 47 hours and 4 minutes, CHIEF crossed the finish in 19th place. Overall, a challenging race that left the crew less than fulfilled on their second time on the course.

CHIEF's Third Race To Mackinac
The 2013 Race to Mackinac (CHIEF’s 3rd) seemed to be, at least to me, a game changer for every participant -- particularly since there was NO WIND. When I say NO WIND, I mean nothing. The crew reported that it was such a frustrating race that, at times, the lake was so glassy and still that waves actually pushed the boat backwards, AWAY from the finish line. Nevertheless, the crew finished with lighter moods…raunchier jokes…better stories…bigger laughs…lots of teasing…and significantly more confidence than ever before. They’ve told stories about when the biting flies drawing blood and the sun beating down and food running out and deliberations about who’d go first if the light air led to cannibalism. On the 3rd night, the dreaded question arose about whether to pull out due to lack of wind. What a stark contrast to the 2011 race, in which the winds rushed CHIEF across the finish line in 54 hours. But during this year’s race, falling back on a bold move that only a desperate captain facing certain mutiny should make, Mike pulled out an emergency bottle of Brunello de Montalcino (he otherwise prohibits alcohol during races). Pouring a small glass for every member of the crew, his desperate attempt at a solution worked. The crew, fortified with a taste of the gods’ sweet nectar, ultimately crossed that mother*^(#!*g finish line – stinky, hot and thrilled to step on terra firma -- after 73 hours and 1 minute of, ummm, “racing”.

Chris Froeter’s wife, Julie, and their daughter, Ruby, joined us to celebrate the finish, and our daughter, Maggie, couldn’t have been happier. The girls picked up wherever they’d left off, daughters of sailors who’d acquired the life skill to roll with the waves. As was tradition, we all ate and danced and counted our blessings. A few crewmembers may have gone streaking on a golf course, but I’ve read that heat does funny things to the minds of middle-aged men; they’ve since been forgiven.

It was also during this race that crewmember Chris tried his hand shooting video of the experience, purely for his own grins and giggles. From the footage to the music to the beautiful editing, Chris’ video brought the Mac experience to eager eyes like mine and so many others’ who yearned to see the Race through the eyes of its competitors. I’ve been told that Chris captured the vibe of the race…perfectly. Plus, CHIEF managed her best finish ever -- 7th in her class.

CHIEF's Fourth Race To Mackinac
It was during the 2014 Race to Mackinac that crewmember Chris Froeter shot footage for yet another video – and this time, he went all out.

My husband, Mike had assembled such a strong and able crew racing the Mac over 3 years aboard our Beneteau 10R that Chris, it seemed, felt more compelled than ever to document the experience of the 333-mile journey.

CHIEF’s Races To Mackinac


Annual Race To Mackinac

Place in Class

Elapsed  Time


Conditions, according to the

wife of the captain & mother of the teenager onboard




13th of 20






19th of 23






7th of 18






19th of 21



But forget the race…and let’s just talk about that video!

While it’s impossible to compare Chris’ 2013 Mac video to 2014, the process of watching both underscores the very depth of one’s perspective, illustrating how it evolves over time.

Within the 2013 version of Chris’s video, I appreciated such beautiful evidence of my favorite people doing their favorite things: a husband checking sail trim, mugging for the camera and looking blissful at the helm; a son grinding a winch handle or jumping playfully over running lines; friends, old and new, working together toward a common goal. You’ve heard of Pure Michigan? This video illustrated Pure Togetherness.

But, once Chris shared his newest video online, the Race to Mackinac’s host – Chicago Yacht Club -- approached him about utilizing the piece to promote the race. Chris, along with writer and human extraordinaire, Mike Noble – another 2014 CHIEF crewmember – collaborated and refined the 2014 video for #CYCRTM 2015.

But it was during this time, as Chris worked to edit the video memories he’d captured from CHIEF’s latest Race to Mackinac, that a fire destroyed his family’s Evanston, Illinois, home, along with nearly all the Froeters’ possessions. The date was Friday, March 20th, 2015.





Christine Wolf is a freelance columnist for the Chicago Tribune Media Group's Pioneer Press. As a community activist, Christine creates platforms allowing others to share their voices. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, their three children and two very vocal dogs.

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