While Chris Froeter worked to edit the memories he’d captured on video during CHIEF’s 4th Race to Mackinac, a fire destroyed his family’s Evanston, Illinois, home, along with nearly all the Froeters’ possessions. The date was Friday, March 20th, 2015.
Thankfully no one was injured, but the effects of the devastation touched countless members of our community -- including me. It took the fire only minutes to destroy the Froeter’s home – the place in which Chris’ daughter and mine once shared their biggest dreams, performing little shows with their huge personalities, pleading for just a little more time to soothe anxious feelings over another big week ahead. The Froeters’ entire world lit up in a flash, not unlike a lightning strike on a stormy summer night.
The following morning, over coffee, my husband shared the news.
“The Froeters’ house caught fire yesterday,” Mike said, showing me Facebook updates with his phone.
I had that same, confused feeling from 2011 when I woke to the words, “Sailors in the water.” This didn’t make any sense. Not at all.
“What?” I asked in disbelief. “Chris and Julie’s house?” Their faces flashed through my mind.
Immediately, support poured in from our community. Neighbors collected donations and acted as command central. Social media circled wagons around the family, offering answers to questions about insurance and adjusters, creating fundraising sources and suggesting best practices and plans of attack.
Two days after the one-month anniversary of the fire, Chris sent Mike a link to the final cut of his Race to Mackinac video. It hadn’t yet gone live, but Chris wanted Mike to see it. The majority of footage was shot aboard CHIEF, upon which new memories and several friendships had started from scratch. These two sailors, two regular dads, had created an enduring friendship and survived experiences no storm or fire could ever destroy.
Then, on April 24th, 2015, the Chicago Tribune ran a letter to the editor submitted by the Froeter’s 18-year-old son, Joe:
An Interview With CONJURE’s Principal, Chris Froeter
Okay, so how much fun did you have shooting footage during the 2014 race?
The video footage was a blast to shoot. It’s always fun to record something you love. There’s a challenge with a physical event like the Mac Race: the best footage is the stuff that happens when you’re too busy to think about picking up a camera. The Mac also provided an endless opportunity for amazing footage.
Do you shoot video regularly? How’d you learn?
I’m in no way a trained videographer. I learned from my experience as a designer.
What kinds of equipment did you use and how’d you get those incredible shots?
90% of the footage was captured on a GoPro.
Did you have a plan before the race started?
We had a general plan for the final video. The writer, Mike Noble, and I had discussed a couple of options for the final execution. I was interested in telling a story that went beyond the typical sailing action video that we had created in 2013. Mike and I were both interested in telling the human side of the story, the relationship of the crew, the challenges with environment and test of ones own endurance. The race provides the unique opportunity of letting you step into the unknown.
When were you approached by the Chicago Yacht Club about the video?
I was contacted by the CYC shortly after we launched the 2014 Mac Video. They liked our point of view on the race being about ritual and relationship.
Describe the process of turning your original video into the version for the CYC.
Initially, I was concerned about creating something that was different from what we’d done the year before. I was concerned that working with primarily the same footage would limit our options to create something different.
How do you feel it turned out?
I feel that what we created was something completely different that honors the legacy, the Chicago Yacht Club and the race.
What’s the feeling you most hope sailors take away when watching it?
I hope the video makes them want to do the Mac.
What do you hope non-sailors think while watching it?
That it’s not about winning as much as it is about being.
When did you become interested in sailing?
I spent a summer in Martha’s Vineyard just after high school and started Windsurfing. It’s been a lifelong relationship ever since.
If someone wants to sail, what advice would you give?
Start sailing on a dinghy.
For you, what’s the most important aspect of sailing?
Sailing is never static. It's always testing your knowledge, skill, confidence and endurance. It takes you places physically and emotionally that you couldn't get to otherwise.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest misconception about sailing?
Sailing is not only for rich privileged white guys. Sailing is for everyone who has an adventure spirit.
How many sailors does it take to change a light bulb?
One, but the rest of the crew will tell him he’s doing it wrong.
Popeye or Olive Oil?
What do you make of this statement from Mark A. Thornton, meteorologist, from the 2011 Chicago-Mackinac Race: A Meteorological Summary “And let's not forget the dearest friend (and most menacing foe) of all sailors — the wind.”
I think about that statement every time I get on a sailboat.
What’s your fantasy sailing destination?
San Juan Islands, pulling into a little harbor and dropping anchor. Dropping the crab ring over the stern for crab, taking the dinghy to shore to collect fresh oysters and building a fire on the beach for a boil. My son Joe is planning on going to College in Bellingham, Washington. The dream is looking pretty good.
Bareboat sailing – hire a crew or sail it yourself?
Jimmy Buffet or Bob Marley?
Definitely Bob Marley.
During the 2011 Mac Race, how worried were you during that storm?
The anticipation of the storm was frightening. It was nightfall and the wind and waves were increasing as the sky all around us was filled with red lightning. We were prepared though, as the storm hit with a fury we took out positions and got to work.
Have you ever thrown up on a boat?
I’ve never thrown up on a boat, but I’ve thrown up just about everywhere else.
I believe the phrase “riding the waves” represents everything in life: the highs, the lows and the journeys in between. Recently, your house suffered a devastating fire. Tell us about that.
It was Friday March 20th, 2015. I was in New York on business when I got a call from Julie. She was stuck on the Kennedy coming home from work. A neighbor had just called to let her know that our house was on fire and the street was filled with firemen. It was an electrical fire that started in my oldest son’s bedroom (and who, luckily, was away at school). The fire was fast and devastating. It traveled immediately to the attic where it became deeply seated and began to work its way down the openings inside the walls of our old house. Luckily, no one was injured, but we lost just about everything. The firemen were amazing. They risked everything to protect our belonging and salvage as much of our home as possible.
I’m so glad no one was injured (not even your dog), but now what?
Now we start over. I’m not sure what that entails or how that unfolds. It’s like the Mac. We are leaving the harbor with no clear understanding of what lies ahead.
How is your family coping with the situation?
We are doing well because of the community around us. In the minutes, hours and days after the fire was made known, we were wrapped in the warm blanket of our community. Someone early on said that there had to be a silver lining to this tragedy. Without question, it’s the firsthand experience that we live in an amazing supportive community that protects you from hitting the ground too hard. Community is there to quickly lift you to your feet, helping you regain your balance.
What’s been the hardest part of the experience?
Balance became the undeniable challenge for all of us in this 1000-mile journey. Emotions rode like raging waves. The peaks and valleys were distinct and at times insurmountable. Laughter quickly and without warning was replaced with fear, loathing and self-pity. Nights brought bad thoughts from the darkness of the room and mind. Mornings brought an awakening of the reality once again. All is lost in the safety and security of “Home.” For a husband, father and man, your home is not your palace but an iconic symbol of what you can create. It’s an example of your success, personality, and your ability to protect your family. To have it stolen away in such an aggressive and violent manner rocked me to my core. Our beautiful home was destroyed and turned black and lifeless. Our home was filled with joy, laughter, music, art, photos, and endless memories alive in the artifacts that were our identity. Now it was dead, the kind of dead that you can taste in the back of your throat. There was no life left in the wooden frame, charred walls, carpets soaked in smoke-tainted water, plaster and ulcerated wood two feet deep on the floor.
Any advice for people riding their own waves?
Time heals all wounds. Whether you’re on a 300-mile sailboat race or looking to rebuild your life, it’s better to keep track of the minute-to-minute and day-to-day victories than become overwhelmed by the length of the journey.
Thank you for sharing so many thoughts and insights, Chris. You mean the world to me (and to my family). Thanks for always looking out for my boys during the races.
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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