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Chicago-Mackinac Race—The New Old Fashioned Way

by David Schmidt on 18 Jul 2011
Thirsty Tiger racing in the 103rd Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac presented by Veuve Clicquot Event Media
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The Chicago Yacht Club's 103rd Race to Mackinac, presented by Veuve Clicquot—Believe it or not, there was a day—not so long ago—when the Internet did not rule people’s lives.

True, information moved slower, but the pace of life was also a bit slower then as well (example: horses, not cars). For distance-racing sailors, this offered a beautiful respite from life ashore. The problem, of course, was that family and friends couldn’t track their loved ones as they raced to Mackinac Island.

Flash forward to 2011: The Internet rules the airwaves and distance racers have nowhere to hide, thanks to the magical little boxes that upload all sorts of germane information to satellites, which in turn update race-tracking web pages. Problem solved…mostly. As anyone who has ever stepped foot aboard a racing sailboat knows, electronics work great until they stop working.

Due to technical troubles, the race-tracking system for the 103rd Race to Mackinac, presented by Veuve Clicquot, stopped working some ten hours into this 333-mile classic race, presenting a 'new-old problem': How to determine where boats are, and how far they are from the finishing line.

According to Helle Getz, a Race Committee volunteer who has served on he Chicago-Mac RC for 39 races, the Chicago Yacht Club (CYC) got creative. Since boats didn’t have accurate lat/long capabilities back then (think radio-direction finders, not GPS), the CYC created a hypothetical grid over the racecourse (e.g., the X axis was lettered A through I and the Y axis 0 through 31); boats were required to radio in their position twice a day, ideally when they passed certain well-known way points (e.g., an island or a particular point). A navigator, says Getz, might call in a report advising that they had reached 'J-27' (much like the notation used in chess), thus allowing the RC to know, roughly, when to expect finishers.

Interestingly, Getz also told a fine tale of Bernie Wiczer, a prominent club member who owned a plane. Back in the day, Wiczer would take to the friendly skies with a spotter who would ride shotgun, a camera slung around his or her neck. The pair would snap images of the fleet and their position relative to the chessboard. Then, according to Getz, Wiczer and company would fly back over Mackinac Island and drop the film in a weighted bag onto the beach, right in front of RC. Some quick developing would take place, and the information would be made public.

Jumping back to 2011, the RC is reverting back to 'new-old ways' of solving the information void for a public used to up-to-the-minute updates pushed to their smartphones. The RC has dispatched a monitoring vessel to Grey’s Reef Lighthouse, which is situated some 33 miles from the finishing line, with the goal of phoning in sail numbers as the boats pass by. Also, raceboats are calling in their positions, but—being 2011—the chessboard has been replaced by GPS coordinates. All information is being uploaded to the race’s Facebook page—check there for the latest info.

So while the tracking system has failed, expect up-to-the-minute racecourse reports from the Sail-World.com team, as well as other engaging media, images and interviews, as the on-the-water drama plays out.

The flow of information might be slower this year than in times passed, this is certainly not stopping the sailors from enjoying a wonderful race. Given that Mackinac Island is a place where horse-drawn carts and bicycles—not cars—are the ticket around town, a slightly slower information flow seems fitting, given the atmosphere of this beautiful place.

For more information on the Chicago Yacht Club's 103rd Race to Mackinac, please visit www.cycracetomackinac.com
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