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Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race: Keeping it safe, keeping it fun, keeping it real

by Barby MacGowan 1 May 2019 05:27 PDT July 20, 2018
2019 Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race. © Martin Chumiecki / Bayview Yacht Club

The Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race, America's greatest and longest-consecutively held freshwater sailing competition, is readying for its 95th edition on July 20, and organizers are working to "keep it safe, keep it fun, and keep it real."

"With a June 4 deadline for entry, we have crossed the threshold of 157 registered boats, putting us well on track to have 200 by the start date," said 2019 Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race Chair Robert Nutter, noting that the largest boat is 104 feet in length and the smallest is 27. "The competitors recognize how hard we have worked over the past several years to improve the competition and safety of the race, and because of this, interest continues to climb on a local, national, and international level."

The race, which starts on lower Lake Huron and finishes at Mackinac Island to the north, offers sailors a choice of two courses: one the length of 259 nautical miles (the Cove Island Course) for larger boats and the other of 204 nm (the Shore Course).

Safety First

As all who've sailed in it know, the Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race is not for the faint of heart. Much of it can be spent beating upwind, and when Mother Nature is feeling feisty, she can serve up hefty breezes and short hammering waves that can wear down even the saltiest of souls.

The biggest problem, according to Nutter, is when a sailor assumes his safety gear will work and it doesn't. "We are urging owners and crew bosses to proactively check flares, life vests and life rafts in advance of the race, even if it means using up a $20 cartridge," he said.

In the same vein, organizers continually encourage the improvement of sailors' skills by hosting various seminars. This year, they included a North Sails Seminar on Mackinac race strategies, weather and routing as well as a seminar on PFD safety presented by Thomas Hardware's Todd Jones and presented at three different area yacht clubs (Bayview, Port Huron and Cawtaba). To qualify for the race, at least 30% of those aboard including the person in charge, must meet minimum safety educations requirements.

"Any sailor will tell you the preparation you do off the water leading up to the race is as important as the work you do on the water," said Karl Kuspa of North Sails. "Having participated in more than 30 Bayview Mackinac races, I have a deep understanding of what it takes to get from Port Huron to Mackinac fast and safely."

Fun Factor Second

The Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race has had 95 years to polish its reputation as one of the most festive sailing events in the country; it is enjoyed by 2,000 or more sailors and some 75,000 fans over a course of time that begins a day or so before the race start and ends several days after the first boat finishes.

At "Boat Night" on the Friday night preceding the event's Saturday morning start, entries line up their boats along both banks of the Black River in Port Huron for some last-minute frolicking at the massive Blue Water Fest. The next morning, the fleet motors to the starting line in a parade that passes under the Bluewater Bridge and past spectators who set up lawn chairs on the shore and cheer on their favorites.

Meanwhile Mackinac Island prepares for the arrival of the fleet and is blossoming with activity by the time the first finishers arrive a few days later. Horse-drawn carriages serve as taxis and bars and restaurants spill over with happy sailors who seem to grow exponentially by numbers until the last "pickle" boat appears at the dock. On the Tuesday after the start, the colorful atmosphere is punctuated by the Island Awards Party and music concert attended by thousands (including competitors, race officials, friends and families) at Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel.

"Michigan has so many great traditions and sitting on Grand Hotel's Front Poach while watching the sailboats cross the finish line of the Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race is one of them," said Grand Hotel President Dan Musser III.

The "Right Thing" Always

Bayview Yacht Club and the Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race have for many years worked with the non-profit organization Set Sail for Autism to create special sailing events and opportunities for autistic children and young adults. As well, their partnership with the non-profit Alliance for the Great Lakes supports that organization's efforts to protect the lakes now and in the future.

In its ongoing effort to expand sailing for all, the event this year officially welcomes a new partner: Warrior Sailing. Warrior Sailing enables military service members access to sailing as therapy physical, mental and emotional for a variety of injuries and illnesses.

"As a company with deep Michigan-based roots, we are proud to continue our support of this world-class event and our community partners." said Bell's Brewery Founder and President Larry Bell, who has sailed in the event several times. "When you look at Set Sail for Autism, Alliance for the Great Lakes and Warrior Sailing, each contributes so much to helping make our state a better place for everyone."

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