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Nothing’s better than a fully participating sponsor

by Barby MacGowan on 20 Apr
Larry Bell on Rail - Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race Martin Chumiecki / Bayview Yacht Club
Every year our regatta gets better. Those are often empty words, but not when gauging the success of Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race, the longest consecutively run freshwater race in the world. The event’s 93rd edition starts this July 22, and for a seventh year, Bell’s Beer Brewery, headquartered in Comstock, Michigan, has come aboard as presenting sponsor.

As might be expected, Bell’s Beer makes its presence known through inclusion of its name and logo in the event’s title and on bow stickers, billowing flags, and backdrops for giant music stages while providing its much-loved product to responsible sailors of legal drinking age. But there also is a layer beneath all this that makes “something more” of the partnership between consumer product and much-loved distance race.

“It typically takes a decade to really change things in a community with sponsorship, but we get great support from the organizers and Mackinac Island, so it’s a two-way street, and the event is just absolutely phenomenal,” said Larry Bell, president of Bell’s Brewery since he founded the company in 1983.

It’s fair to say that Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race has become one of the most festive sailing events in the country, with a pre-race festival and raft-up on the Black River, a Parade of Sail to the starting line (enjoyed by spectators in lawn chairs watching from shore), and a party of gigantic proportions at the Grand Hotel on the island of Mackinac, which provides a bucolic, fairy tale setting for the race’s finish. It’s estimated that 75,000 sailing fans, families and partygoers join in the peripheral fun to create an economic impact of between $30 and $59 million for the state of Michigan.

“The race promotes tourism and celebrates the Great Lakes as bodies of water,” said Bell. “As well, there is a charitable aspect in the Set Sail for Autism program, where kids with autism get to experience being part of crews, and the Pro Team Challenge that gets our major professional sports teams involved. It all gets great media coverage, because it’s all integrated and tells a great story.”

Bell has sailed in the event five times before, and he will return this year to sail the Cove Island course aboard Lance Smotherman’s Santa Cruz 70 Details. He’s not exactly an Old Goat or a Grand Ram – distinguished titles for those who have sailed, respectively, at least 25 or 50 of the races – but he’s certainly among those who have been converted. A fan for life.

“My sailing experience was minimal before this,” said Bell. “I recognize that people sail their whole lives wanting to get on a boat like Details, and I’m extremely fortunate to be able to sail on a boat of this size and be included with a crew that is so good.”

Bell is one of 14 crew on the ultralight displacement boat and helps with grinding and trimming the jib. “It’s pretty cool, and yes I look forward to it, but I have some anxiety when leaving every year,” said Bell. “I think ‘wow, I’m doing this again,’ but also it is super exciting.”

Bell’s favorite part of the race comes on Sunday morning when, after sailing all night, the fleet must round the Cove Island buoy before heading on the final stretch to Mackinac Island. “Whether you’ve gone right or left on the way up from Port Huron (where the event starts), you still must go around that buoy, and it’s a moment where all hands are on deck. You can see who is ahead, who is behind, and you can smell the pine trees, you are so close to shore.”

Bell says jumping into the trenches with 2,000 of the hardest working, most fun-loving competitors he has ever met has helped him better know his market, and having the stage as a sponsor has its advantages as well. “The first year I raced, my then-girlfriend hadn’t wanted me to go because of bad weather in the Chicago Mac race. We won, and I was hooked, so I figured I’d better make this official: I asked to speak last at the awards ceremony, and that’s when I proposed to her in front of a roomful of sailors.”

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