Come Sail in the Chicago Yacht Club Chicago to Mackinac Island Race

Come Sail in the Chicago Yacht Club Chicago to Mackinac Island Race

That’s one headline that isn’t a press the button and it’s done.  This one comes with joining a team on a sailboat early in the season, contributing steadily, and being a part of the team through the end of the season and then some volunteer work on the boat over the winter.  Nobody wants someone who steps on for this one race and then disappears.  But it’s worth it!

You can sign up as a Crew Looking for a Mackinac Boat Here and Here.

What is sailing in the Mackinac Race like?  A few years ago, I was asked to give a speech just on this topic.  It summarizes the 37 races I have made describing the experiences in total.  I dug it out and sharing it with you now:

Somewhere Else In Time

by Glenn McCarthy

OK, you hear about the Chicago to Mackinac race in the media each year, and some color stories are created for TV, radio, web and newspapers, but what is it really about?

Chicago, Looking From The Lakeside


We spend months planning and preparing which includes making sure every thing is in working order (does every little thing in your home work right now?). Food planning is always entertaining as the favorite meals of the sailors are picked out (skip the burger and fries thank you). Compatibility of the crew is always important, being confined in a space with 5 to 14 crew in about ½ the length and maybe 3 times as wide as the sidewalk in front of your house for a few days can bring out all sorts of surprises about the people who you think you know (political, religious, personal grooming and substance abuse, on a rare occasion).

All of the planning, all of the preparation culminates into that moment. The moment that the boat unties from the dock. Everything is left behind; the phones, faxes, emails, texts, driving in traffic, news, – everything. You now have a new job to do. The job is what sailors dream of. To sail. To sail until the sailing is finished.

The start of the race feels different than other race starts, this one is more of a journey, and not so much a sprint. It starts right off downtown Chicago.  You are on watch (working the boat) every four hours and off watch for four hours (to sleep, do minimal hygiene, eat and eat some more) around the clock.

Chicago to Mackinac Race Course


Sometimes it is peaceful on deck, with no wind, no sound and the knot meter (speedometer) reading 0.00 where you can hear your heart beating and many jump overboard and take a dip in the Lake (yup, we are racing now!). There are times where day turns to night, the thunder crashing all around, and enough lightning to read a newspaper by in the middle of the night. The rare storms are so ferocious with 80 or 90 knots of wind with everything shuddering and clanging and the rain and waves pelting your rain hood so hard that you must cup your hands around the ear of the person you are trying to communicate with and shout as loud as you can in a staccato voice.  Seeing the tops of the waves getting blown off is cool.  Sometimes the wind-speed gets so high, that it flattens the waves smooth rather than building them up.  Counter-intuitive, eh?

Tipping a can of pop up to your mouth with these winds has the liquid getting blown sideways and miss your mouth, where you need to seal your lips around the opening in order to get the drink in your mouth. Fish jump here and there. You see satellites moving across the night sky, shooting stars, and see the sunrise, and sunset. One time, a shooting star went ¾ of the way across the sky and it exploded – breathtaking. On the rare occasions, the Dancing Lights, Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights appear providing a display for all to awe. On one unbelievable night, there was no moon and the air was impeccably clean. Standing holding the steering wheel, the stars around the entire horizon were as bright, clear and abundant as the stars directly above. You felt like you were standing on the top of Mount Everest on top of the entire world.

Aurora Borealis aka Northern Lights


All cloud formations actually have meaning to you, they tell you of weather coming, staying or going. As you pass the many lighthouses, you recognize them by sight during the day, each with their own unique personalities, or by night, by the sequence of their flash like Morse code which tells you in your Government Light List which they are.

You’ll be in your bunk below-decks and hear a thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump and it is the propeller blades spinning on a distant or nearby ship. Sound travels through water incredibly well. Sometimes you’ll pass close to these ships and give the crew a hearty wave. From time to time fog will appear, sometimes so thick that you can’t see the front end of the boat from the back end where you steer from. You know there are 300 other sailboats crisscrossing plus those big steel ships around. You can’t wait until the fog clears!

Life on-board is self-sufficient. The skills you need are not confined to your paying day job or home improvement tasks on the weekend. You will be called on to become the plumber and fix a balking head (toilet). The engine for re-charging the batteries might not fire up and you become a mechanic. Electrical displays or lights need attention and you become an electrician. Someone is ill or injured and you become a medic. The stove won’t light.  A sail is torn and you become a seamstress. But you also need to be prepared to be a fireman, or a policeman, if necessary. Someone of each of these professions is on one boat or another somewhere in the race, but not necessarily on yours when you need them.

The racecourse is kidney shaped and is non-stop racing day and night (see related night sailing article here). In your mind it is broken into segments. The first is the longest from Chicago, IL to Point Betsie, MI making up about 2/5 of the length of the course. Oddly with 300 boats around, on sunrise on Sunday mornings (16 hours into the race) you don’t see very many boats and many times, none at all. It provides crossing the Lake, including the inability to see land at all on the clearest day, with water 360-degrees around the horizon.

Point Betsie Lighthouse


Most commercial traffic (freighters) travel North/South, generally in the same direction the racing boats are going.  There are two commercial vessels that run East to West and vice versa cutting right across the path of the racing fleet: The Lake Express, a diesel catamaran car ferry that runs from Milwaukee, WI to Muskegon, MI; and, the S.S. Badger, a car ferry that runs from Manitowoc, WI to Ludington, MI and the only coal-fired steamship operating in the U.S.  What makes the S.S. Badger interesting to see, is it always has had a trail of black smoke.  However, starting in 2014, it is adding scrubbers that will probably eliminate this tell-tale sign that she is coming or going in this day and age of environmental consciousness.

Lake Express Ferry


S.S. Badger Ferry


Then there are points of land that stick out in the Lake that have to avoided, including Big Sable, Little Sable, Cat Head Point, and finally you get to the Bear. Sleeping Bear, said to be the world’s biggest sand dune.  There is one particular reef, or really low flat island, that the sailors call Skillagalee.  As a 15 year old, I had heard of this for ages and was sent to check the chart to see how close we were.  I spent a long time with a flashlight looking over the entire chart and couldn’t find it.  This is when I learned its real name is Ile Aux Galet – go figure.

Sleeping Bear Dune with the Manitou Islands in the Background


Across from the Bear begins a chain of islands, from the Manitou’s to the Foxes, to Beaver, each with their own rich history.  From Mormon settlements, to one being declared the only independent kingdom within the United States. You’ll need to explore them yourself to get the whole story.  About now you pick up the heavy pine fragrance, with the wind blowing from the Michigan shore or from the Islands.  Finally you get to a reef, Grey’s Reef. The government keeps a passage way clear through this rock mass. You now have to pay closer attention to the water depths to assure you remain afloat.

Just Some of the Islands of Lake Michigan


Once through this channel, the course frees up again into the Straights of Mackinac that connects Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, there is 1/10 of the race left to get to the finish line. Before you know it, you go under the 4-1/4 mile long Mackinac Bridge that connects the Lower and Upper Peninsula’s of Michigan to one another.  The bridge is also the dividing line between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.  Painted green it looks like the orangeish/red Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, just in another hue. Six miles to go, the last big crunch is made, and you are there.  The finish line is between a pole with a flag on it on Mackinac Island, and the Round Island Lighthouse, on Round Island 1/2 mile away.

Mackinac Bridge Which You Sail Under Any One of the Three Center Spans


Somewhere in the midst of these sights, sounds and smells, a sailboat race is occurring.  On board, strategists at the navigation station study wind predictions, performance characteristics of your own boat, to set a course either West of the rhumb line, on the rhumb line or East of the Rhumb line.  It is easily possible that the strategy will change during the race, and one could cross-over from one side to the next.  While up on deck, the helmsperson is steering a steady course, or with waves, working the boat through the waves to minimize being slowed down by the waves.

Crew are working the boat constantly, making refined changes to the trim of the sails, using many different control lines, and sitting or standing just in the right place to keep the boat heeled at the optimum angle both fore and aft, as well as side to side.  While the mainsail pretty much is put up at the start of the race and taken down at the finish (sometimes it is reefed, which makes it smaller when the windspeeds are higher), the sail in front of the mast is changed by the crew with some regularity.  A Jib or Genoa will be put up when the wind is coming from the northern quadrant.  A spinnaker will be put up when the wind is from the East, South or West quadrant.  Commonly there are many Genoas and Spinnakers to choose from aboard.  The question, “Which one to use?” is a combination of the wind strength, wind angle to the boat and what change the wind might go through during the next 1/2 hour to 2 hour window.  Simply put, the crew works to make the boat go as fast as possible for the course given by the strategists.

Mackinac Island and the Finish Line With Round Island Just to the South


Round Island Lighthouse


Rarely will it be 100 degrees, inside of darkly painted boats, it can exceed that with the sun beaming. Most of the time it is moderate. Once it was to get into the mid-30’s during the race, which fortunately tempered to 42 as a low overnight in July.  The year where Chicago’s heat wave suffered more than 600 deaths, temperatures in the race were comfortable. It was also the year that the Grand Hotel on the Island first installed air-conditioning ever.

Grand Hotel


While the temperatures on the Island were in the low 80’s, the Grand Hotel flipped the switch to crank up the air-conditioning, and burned through the underwater electrical cables from the mainland that supplies the entire Island, shutting off all power. The nearest cable laying ship was 6 weeks away. That was a time warp on the Island as electronic credit card machines do not work, and impossible to move to cash, as the ATMs do not work either. Drinks were English that year – no ice. Commerce came to a halt.  A few old manual credit card wipers with the carbon paper appeared, but not enough to go around for all of the stores.

On average, it is close to two full days since last standing on terra-firma.  Tied to the dock at Mackinac Island you find you have stepped into a different time once again, not the one you left in Chicago. One where motorized vehicles are outlawed. To get around, you get three choices – walk, ride a bike, or go by horse. As a child, you remember this as a place of wide-open freedom. Your parents didn’t keep you close, they let you go free. It was impossible to get lost on an Island this size and dangers were a minimum. But the pace strikes you as a pace in life you don’t experience elsewhere. So many crews hit the dock and head straight home, and you’re left wondering, ‘Why rush out?’  Some say they’ve been there many times before that they don’t need to re-visit. But, have they really seen it?

The next smell you get is a combination smell.  The pine scent still comes through, the fudge shops that line main street on the Island all have fans blowing the fudge scent onto the street to try to draw people in the doors, and then there is the horse manure odor.  Not just a little, it is the strongest of the smells.  It takes no time at all to get used to it though.

Many take the 8-mile bike ride, or run, around the Island’s watery edge, to see the other Islands, Upper and Lower Peninsula’s of Michigan and Canada in the distance and look at the natural beauty of this place. But have they really found the neat nooks and crannies?  While Arch Rock is a mainstay, did they find the unmarked museum of antique horse carriages and horse drawn sleds? What about the antique bowling alley with pins and bowling balls about one-half the size of today’s, all manually set by kids willing to make a quarter or a buck?

And what about the 600 or so year ‘round residents, have the sailors taken the time to learn about their lives in a place that blossoms to 30,000 on busy summer days? Have they spent time seeing the Victorian gingerbread houses sitting on East Bluff and West Bluff roads which deserve the attention of your eyes to see such magnificent woodwork.  The cliche – “Stop and Smell the Roses” is in full bloom on the Island.  If you scurry along, you’re missing the point of being in a different time.  Stop, look at the homes, look at the architecture, the incredible hand construction work, look at the abundance of flowers, take your time, relax!

While many have heard of the aforementioned Grand Hotel, how many have taken a dip in the Grand’s pool? Do they visit the earthen fort in the middle of the Island, no not the one overlooking the harbor in plain view, but the other fort? Not having been much of a history buff in school, when I took the tour of Fort Mackinac I was stunned at how enjoyable history can be.  And the caves, OK, they call them caves, but they’re more like nooks in the stone to me, with Skull Cave being the most talked about when the Indians used it.

A visit to the airport is fun to walk around the airplanes (one exception to the motorized vehicles), to see how the force of wind on sails that pushes the boats through water, is the same force of wind that lifts an airplanes wing. They seem like our brethren.

The gatherings with the sailors on the docks, around town and at the various parties is quite the experience hearing the tales of making this annual trek up Lake Michigan. Some are interesting, some sad, some hilarious, some with moments of terror, some of busted up gear with nervous laughter, and some with bragging rights.  Those bragging rights which lasts for one year to those listening and forever to those who won. Until next year, when we do this all over again.

Would you like to join this annual journey of travel to places, which provide a pace of life that breaks you out of your regular mold? Please join a crew, or buy a boat and become part of this amazing experience called the Chicago Mackinac Race.

You can sign up as a Crew Looking for a Boat Here and Here.

The title “Somewhere Else in Time” is a rip-off of the movie title “Somewhere in Time” with Christopher Reeves which was filmed on Mackinac Island in 1979.

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