I remember telling my Dad when he reached his 49th Chicago Yacht Club, ‘Chicago Mackinac Race,’ “You need to quit now, nobody has ever made it to 60 races, that means you have less than 10 years left on earth if you do 50 races!” Phew – two guys have made it to 60 races – John Nedeau, Sr. at 65 races (who sadly passed away this spring, we all miss him), and my father Gene McCarthy getting ready for his 63rd race this year. So I’m ready to join the 40 race group (there’s 48 of those now with 40 – 49 races under their belts with the chance another 9 of us joining this year).
I remember the first race like it was yesterday, but all other races in my head have all merged into one really long story.
In 1975, we had just completed the first “long race” ever from Port Huron to Chicago, some 660 miles. We cleaned up the boat, made necessary repairs and were ready to turn around and head back up Lake Michigan. The final act was to pump out the head holding tank the night before the start. We went to the North end of Belmont Harbor, and did the deed. The sun was setting, the light leaving the sky, we fired up the motor and Dad put the engine in reverse. The boat didn’t move. He put it in forward, the boat didn’t move.
We checked the shaft leaving the transmission going through the bottom of the boat and it was spinning. What the? I was asked (ordered) to jump overboard and take a look before the remaining light disappeared. I didn’t have a swim suit, just the clothes on my back, reluctantly I did. The two bladed folding propeller had lost its two blades. Just the hub was there.
Less than 16 hours before the race, we were dead. The race requires a propulsion system that can move the boat 40 miles. We couldn’t race. The scramble was on. Dave Cornes was called (a SCUBA diver) who wasn’t too happy about an early morning dive, as he was racing on another boat and wanted to be fresh. Also, Gary Comer at a boat hardware store on Elston Avenue was called to see if he had a spare folding propeller in our size. He thought he did and agreed to meet my Dad at his store at 6am Saturday morning – fantastic customer service. Gary was racing too on another boat.
So Gene met Gary at his store “Lands’ End” (ya, THAT “Lands’ End,” back when it was a boat hardware store, before Gary shifted into clothing) and he had the right size propeller in stock as he had thought. Gene gets to the boat at 7am and Dave is ready for the dive. He searches the harbor bottom (lots of weeds) and can only find one of the two blades. Gene passes the new parts to Dave, the propeller is installed and we’re ready at 9am, we are set to go with less than 4 hours to the start.
This is my first Mac Race at age 15 (I believe the youngest person so far was 8 in her first race).
One time, I almost stowed away on a race boat when I was 10 and figured to hide until the start occurred and then crawl out of my hiding place, but last minute, I ditched that effort. That year hurricane winds set in, more than 1/2 of the fleet dropped out, but my intended stowaway boat “Esbro,” made it to the finish line.
The “Mouth of the South, Ted Turner” did that 1970 race on his boat American Eagle, at first saying in Chicago to the press that this Lake was a “millpond.” After the race he publicly declared, “I hereby retract everything I have ever said about Lake Michigan.” Man, that would be a great story to tell had I followed through with the stowaway.
The boat’s loaded, we took on one new crew the night before (who called into the yacht club looking for a ride while we were making outgoing calls trying to get back into the race), University of Chicago Resident Shelly Berman, and it was time to leave the pump out dock. Dad put the engine in reverse and we started moving forward, “What the?” Put it in forward and we go reverse. The propeller was a left hand twist rather than a right hand twist. So we reversed our way going forward out to the starting line.
Boat design about that time had shifted, older boats had a lot of surface area under the water (like our boat, a Cal 40), newer boats had much less surface area under the water and went faster without this drag. A new boat “Tyche” with a light orange painted hull and the name in big square large light gray letters on the sides, just took off in the light winds while we crept along. There just wasn’t much wind that year, and we made every inch out of every breath of air that came along. There were times where there was no wind at all (wind is the gasoline that makes sailboats move – no gas). So we jumped overboard and went swimming without seeing shore anywhere (yes, during a race), there really wasn’t much else to do.
At the end of our fourth day on the water, we heard on the Detroit News Radio Station WJR hourly race report (imagine, this was about a “Chicago” race, back in those days, the radio, newspapers and TV gave sailing a lot more time) that Tyche had finished 24 hours earlier. Our hearts sank, we were still 60 miles away from the finish line, and the time limit in the race is 24 hours after the first boat in your section finishes. We were out, we were done. I wouldn’t get to the massive party at Mackinac Island. Drats.
We flipped the boat into reverse and motored forward into the nearest port – Harbor Springs, MI in Little Traverse Bay. The crew called their families who were waiting for us on Mackinac Island and invited them to come join us.
Zip ahead 40 races. This year I’m sailing with two others I sailed with 42 years ago (I missed 2 races through the years), my Dad Gene McCarthy and my sister Gail Turluck. Joining us is the third generation, my sister’s children Neal and Laura, and my daughter Christina. There’s just the 6 of us in a 33′ sailboat, not a slouch sailor amoungst the crew. All very capable.
My Dad said to me the other day, “We need to win it this year.” I was quite taken aback by that comment, I never knew we weren’t trying those 39 other times!
So 40 races times the 333 miles makes it 13,320 miles on a straight line, which is never a straight line in sailing easily having gone at least 15% further in distance or 15,000+ miles. And sailboat racing probably averages about 5 miles an hour. Just think how many glorious hours of life I have spent doing just this one race on Lake Michigan.
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