by Rob Kothe
49 year old Blake Middleton has made a 9,000 mile trek to Australia’s Lake Macquarie for the Heaven Can Wait 24 hour race. This is his third year in a row ‘Down Under’.
We caught up with Middleton in the final hours of the 24 hour race and asked him to tell us the why and the how.
‘Sailing wise I grew up sailing in the Midwest, mostly scows – boats like M-scows and E-scows, (28 foot, flat bottom boat with dual rudders and dual side boards) which are still my favourite boat – and race Lasers and 470s and a variety of other boats as well – and eventually got into teaching, which led to coaching – and I coached at a National level in the US as an assistant coach at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland for a season; and then I spent nine years as the head coach and director of sailing at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
‘Now I do mostly race management, so I run races full time for two yacht clubs, the Minnetonka Yacht Club and the Wayzata Yacht Club in Minnesota now, near Minneapolis.
‘During the sailing season – May through to October – I’m out there on the lake for as much as six days a week, literally running races.
‘I was just the principal race officer for J24 North Americans for a week, a few weeks ago.’
Why does Middleton come to Australia for the Heaven Can Wait?
‘About five years ago I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, out of the blue there was some strange things that had been going on for a couple of years that I didn’t understand and the diagnosis finally answered that, I had some strange episodes – my feet went numb, my left eye sight was lost for awhile, I had something called Optic Neuritis, and a lot of it has reversed itself – my eyesight sort of came back, one of my feet came back, and so forth.
‘Then five months later after that diagnosis I was diagnosed with cancer, and it was a rare form of cancer called gastrointestinal stromal tumor or GIST, very rare in the United States maybe 4000 cases a year ... and I had surgery to have the tumour removed and I was on very powerful drugs for about a year in the hopes that it would not come back – and so far now its been four years and I have been cancer free which is (kind of) a major deal obviously.
‘About three years ago I’d gotten involved with the online Sailing community (Sailing Anarchy) a little bit, and one of the threads that I came across was a thread that was started by Shaun Lewecki. It was about people on the website who were affected by cancer and I read his story, he didn't initially tell it.
'He just kind of opened up and later on he filled in his story, and I was horrified. I mean literally his tales are horrific as far as what he’s had to go through – and I think he’s up to eight major surgeries now, or something – and I included my story and sort of medical history as well, and at the time he was already talking about how he was inspired to live, to survive, to move forward – by focusing back on sailing again, obviously his love.
'He came up with the idea of doing this 24 Hour race around Lake Macquarie.
‘I love things that are different and this sounded completely unique. The lake that I sail on, Lake Minnetonka West of Minneapolis, is like Lake Macquarie, it has lots of bays and islands and so forth, although it’s not quite as big as Lake Macquarie, and there’s parts of it that you can’t get to because of bridges between peninsulas – you can’t do it on a sailboat, anyway.
‘We have a 100 year old race around Minnetonka every year called the Burton Cup – it’s a similar thing with maybe a eleven or twelve mile course, and so I started talking to Shaun and saying Heck, I’d like to do this but the logistics are just tough – plane fare and housing and boat and equipment and everything else. His response was mate you get here, we’ll take care of you – and they did it.
‘I literally arrived at the Sydney airport two years ago and Phil Yeomans was there to meet me. I didn’t even know what he looked like and actually didn't know what anybody looked like ... I looked at him and thought, that guy looks like a sailor, Phil looked at me and thought that must be Blake. ... come with me mate, we’re going on a tour of Sydney today. We had a blast.
‘It was a very draining experience for me because it was .. horrible fatigue ... and somehow, I don’t really know how, I ended up driving fifteen of the last eighteen hours of the race that year, including from midnight until eleven am straight through. But it was so cool and inspiring for me to do that I came back last year, and again there were a lot of logistical issues, trying to come up with boats and crew and so forth.
'But one of the things that bugged me a little bit about the last two years was nothing to do with the race itself! It had to do with the fact that Shaun was effectively a one man army pulling this thing together. It was his vision, his idea, his passion – and the problem was there was so many things to do that it was his entire life, putting together the race.
'To the point where he (as you probably remember) barely got his boat in the water minutes before the first race, couldn’t get the keel down.
'Shaun had to have Teaky (British born Sydney sailor Hadley Allchurch) jumping up and down on the damn thing and started the race 30 or 40 minutes late. And then last year he had a problem with the mast step, and couldn’t even sail his boat. He had to jump on someone else’s boat, again starting 30 or 40 minutes late.
‘I was just like .... you know, I want to come back. Australia has just been so kind to me – but I wanted to come back and help manage the race a little bit. It’s hard to do from 9000 miles away, but I’ve helped Phil actually run the race this year. Obviously with you and a variety of other people, we’ve managed to put together this Heaven Can Wait Yacht Club which is super cool, a real step in the right direction, so ... that was it, I decided I was going to come back to Australia. I’ve been in Melbourne and all around this trip.
‘Up here on Lake Macquarie it’s been another great race this year. It has been great to be able to get my head out of a boat and help make it a better experience for everyone who does make the effort and time to show up and participate.
‘Above all, we are all really pleased this year that Shaun and his Heaven Can Wait crew have been on the water for almost 24 hours now, and this year he was able to start the race in his own boat, on time with rest of the fleet!
‘The really exciting thing about this totally unique race is that there are lots of keelboats currently sailing on Lake Maquarie that will join in future years, and from round Australia lots of sports boats and trailerables who want to join in.
'We are already seeing big growth, and if some of the local Lake Yacht Clubs can consider adding the event to their calendar, the Heaven Can Wait race could easily triple in size within a couple of years. As a sailor and race manager, nothing is more important, or more fun to me, than seeing lots of people and boats participating.
'The fact that this event is for such a great cause is a huge bonus - and one that is also very personal to me ... for obvious reasons.‘