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J/Crews dominate Chicago to Mackinac Race

by J/Boats 21 Jul 02:06 PDT 12-13 July 2019
2018 Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac © Matt Knighton

The 111th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, sponsored by Wintrust, will go down as one of the slowest on record, with even the "big boats" (e.g. just TP52s) completing the race in 40+ hours! Yikes, just a 7.1 kts average for some of the world's fastest boats; that is way, way below their hull speed of 9.2+ kts. For the rest of the fleet, that meant a lot of the notorious "fly-swatting" and staring at "triple naughts" on the speedo for extended periods of time on Sunday, in particular!

The wind conditions favored the lighter side of the spectrum, with teams that played the delicate balance of hugging the Wisconsin shoreline and then venturing into the middle of Lake Michigan finding huge dividends in the upper half/ third of the race. The move was contrary to tradition that finds veteran teams typically jumping over to the Michigan shoreline early in the race.

The 2019 edition had a diverse fleet; thirteen states and three countries are represented, and there were over sixty J/Teams competing in the fleet of 240 offshore keelboats (about 25% of the fleet).

This was Doug DeVos' 39th Chicago Mac Race (a J/44 owner over time), and it's one of only four or five times he spent significant time in the middle of the lake and sailed on the west side of the Manitou Islands. His TP52 WINDQUEST earned the Royono Trophy as the first monohull to finish. "This definitely was a race when finding the right spot was very good and finding the wrong spot was very bad, so it was a very tricky race in that regard," he said.

No kidding! "Go West, young man" may have been the overall theme for the race for ultimate sailing success!

Why was the 111th edition of the Chicago to Mackinac Island Race such a challenge? Here is a synopsis from a leading offshore weather forecaster to give you an idea of the trade-offs associated with tactical/ strategic considerations for the race:

"The most significant change in the forecast is for a cold frontal passage Saturday during daylight hours- winds to veer WSW'ly to N-NE'ly swiftly in the afternoon. Expect intermittent "pop-up" thunderstorms/ cells forming and disappearing in southern part of the lake.

Continue to favor the West side of the Lake, left of rhumbline, where the further progression for winds to clock SE-S'ly by early daylight Sunday is still expected up to the middle of the Lake.

There will be opportunity to maximize boat speed in gusting 20 kt W'ly wind speeds within 2-5nm of the western shoreline Saturday afternoon just after your start at 11:30 hrs, albeit briefly ahead of the frontal passage.

Lulls as winds veer NW-NE, or even SE for early Saturday evening hours near shore a sign to head more offshore 5+ miles...for more reliable wind speeds, yet veering and flexing angle, to prevail over open Lake waters.

The Sunday and Monday forecasts look more timely and in line with previous forecasts, the aforementioned cold front is expected to remain stretched East-West just south of Lake Michigan, and begin transitioning into a warm boundary and lift north over the northern lake region by Monday.

The outlined zone depicted in purple on the charts (rhumbline to the E and W extent on the W side) is the area where I expect the strongest wind speeds and most reliable wind angles for efficient, fastest sailing angle opportunities. The Wisconsin "shoreline" strategy is at best a 10-15% probability of success due to gradient development offshore. Nevertheless, that gradient will develop from the northwest and gain strength southeast across the top of the Lake after midday Sunday.

Also, keep in mind the most stable sky conditions are to prevail for Sunday and you will want to gain northerly distance to avoid the re-development for wet, potentially convective weather to develop over the middle/southern parts of the Lake.

By late day Sunday/ early Monday, intermittent downpours/ squalls to develop over open Lake waters west of Beaver Island. The weather will be slow to develop east of Beaver Island toward Mackinac Island until the mid-morning to midday hours Monday. We still expect about a 3-4 hour period of weather that will additionally muddy the persistently light gradient easterly winds for the final stretch during early Monday. Winds stabilize finally on rhumbline Monday afternoon with least impact from local downpours/ squalls, from ENE to ESE.

In summary, with the exception of isolated downpours/squalls with cold frontal passage Saturday afternoon into early evening, maximizing northerly distance sailed in the period Saturday night to Sunday night in the fairest sky conditions is key!!

The weather development of downpours/ squalls over Lake Michigan Sunday night and Monday will be a sloppy trend of weather over the Lake. In this scenario, keep your eyes wide open, as wind angles can vary widely and wind speeds trend to lull and gust inefficiently in such a weather development."

In retrospect, the forecast was not far off. However, there were serious weather anomalies that many Mac Race veterans had never seen before, due in particular to the relative coldness of the lake surface (58 to 61 deg at mid-lake buoys).

The fleet started off at 11:00 AM in Southwesterly winds of 8 to 15 kts, set spinnakers, and headed between 0 and 23 degrees (rhumbline course) towards Point Betsie 165.0 nm away, the first major turning point to the Northeast.

Not long after the start, the cold front rolled through as a "dry" front with no rain, just a massive windshift from the SW to the N/NE around 2:00 PM. The entire fleet flipped from port tack broad reaching to a starboard tack beat in a matter of minutes. The NE winds persisted until sunset Saturday night.

Then, another massive windshift rolled through from the Northwest, when 95% of the fleet flipped back over onto port tack. Through the course of that night and into Sunday morning, the winds persisted right, ultimately passing 25 degrees.

Once the breeze swung right past the rhumbline course, most of the fleet again flipped back onto starboard tack to get further north up the lake around 2:30 AM.

The breeze basically swung back and forth all Sunday on a beautiful sunny day, the winds coming from 90 to 120 degrees for several hours. However, a very bizarre phenomenon was taking place; the cold surface waters created a very thick boundary layer and a significant sheer between the surface wind and those at the top of the masthead. The sails would set so the top was "over-trimmed", while the bottom was "under-trimmed" (or seemingly luffing). This was having a weird effect on what sails you had flying, whether genoas, code zero's, or spinnakers. As a result, tall-rigged boats with lots of sail up high had a big advantage over smaller boats just because of the wind sheer phenomenon alone. You could be sailing in 4-7 kts of wind at the masthead, cooking along at 5- 7.5 kts boatspeed, but the surface was like glass, perfectly reflecting the sun and clouds. The only "wind" you felt sitting on deck was, ironically, only your apparent wind!

At this stage on Sunday afternoon, the breeze was getting light (sometimes to "triple naughts" on the speedo), but visible wind lines were forming farther west that were difficult to get to for many of the leading boats.

In fact, it was the "tail-enders" in many of the classes that benefitted from that phenomenon as they carried just 1-2 kts of breeze more than boats a few miles inside them (to the east). Ultimately, many of the mid-marker to tail-enders sailed the "great circle route" around the fleet, 20 or 30 miles more than those closer to rhumbline, in other words closer to the Door County Wisconsin shoreline than much of the fleet in "mid-lake". Those that went that way sailed "outside" (to the northwest) of the Manitou Islands, cut back through the Fox Islands, to pass through Greys Reef and win many of the classes in the race!

On Monday morning around 6:00 AM, the next front rolled in with lighting, thunder, 15-25 kt winds, and torrential rain conditions for about two hours. When the front hit, the wind swung from 170 degrees to 270 degrees for about an hour. Then, it swung back to 160 to 180 and continued to blow at 15-23 kts. That made for a fast ride for at least half the fleet that was in the Manitou Passage to Greys Reef. However, by noon, the wind shut down again. At first, the southeaster tried to establish itself. That died. Then, the breeze filled in from the northeast, which then swung to the east in the Mackinac Straits, past the Mackinac Bridge to the finish at Mackinac Island.

The big winner of the 113-boat Mackinac Cup Trophy Division was the J/109 GOAT RODEO, sailed by the 29-year-old owner and skipper Robert Evans, sailing with members of the Clemson University Sailing Team. They were also winners for the second year in a row of the J/109 Class.

Behind GOAT RODEO in the J/109 division were several more performances that are outstanding. Second in class and third overall was Chris Mallet's SYNCHRONICITY, third in class and fourth overall was Jim Murray's CALLISTO.

Yet again, winning the J/105 class was Mark Symond's PTERODACTYL, finishing a respectable 11th overall. Second in class was Mark Gannon's GANGBUSTERS, and third was Peter Schwarzbach's PHANTOM.

The J/111's had their usual battles all the way up the lake with various boats leading the race at one point or another. Prevailing in the end was Rich Witzel's ROWDY, followed by Tom Dickson's WARLOCK in second and Scott Sellers' NO SURPRISE in third. The tale of the tape was extraordinary in the J/111 class. ROWDY and NO SURPRISE were always amongst the leaders, WARLOCK was not. At 3:00 AM on Sunday morning, WARLOCK was not doing so great. When the big right-hand shift came through, they were over 10.0nm behind the leaders (ROWDY/ NO SURPRISE). And, they made the fateful mistake of paralleling rhumbline at 25 deg. thereabouts until 7:30 AM. At that point, recognizing they were near last in fleet, sitting in about 12th place, a "back marker" for sure in the J/111 class, they dove left. Not just a few degrees left, very hard left. Like 305 deg at 9:00 AM on Sunday morning, hard turn left! In other words, they were sailing AWAY (beyond 90 deg) to the rhumbline course to Point Betsie (28 deg)! Radical? Yes!

At 12:00 PM high noon Central time, they were 15.0nm behind the two J/111 leaders. Not exactly the recipe for success, or was it? But, by 2:30 PM, at 87.22.50 W, they finally turned back to steering 30.0 deg. By 5:00 PM, just eight hours after their "left turn", they were further north than ROWDY and exactly the same distance to Greys Reef at 91.0 nm! Scary movies? No question for those boats inside them.

At 2:30 AM in the morning on Monday, guess who was first to the northern tip of the Manitou Islands? WARLOCK! Last to first. Hokey Smoke said Rocky the Racoon, to Bullwinkle the Moose! At that point, it was not until Beaver Island that ROWDY re-passed WARLOCK. From there on end, ROWDY simply covered WARLOCK's every move to the finish to win class.

The Level 35 class was yet again won by a J/35, this time it was Dan & Jill Leslie's NOMATA that led the eight-boat class.

In the ORR handicap world, there were a number of great outcomes across the dozen or so classes. In ORR 2 Class, Bill & Jean Schanen's beautiful red J/145 MAIN STREET was hunting down the SC 70s and TP52s in ORR 1 for most of the race, finishing amidst them at the finish to take 2nd in class.

Section 4 saw Robert Christoph's brand new J/121 LOKI (its inaugural Mac Race) take third in class and sixth overall (missing 5th place by a mere 6 seconds!). LOKI's team had sailed a remarkable race up to midday Sunday, leading both Section 4 as well as the lead for the overall Chicago Mackinac Trophy division. At that point, they made the fateful mistake to not keep heading due north and, instead turned right and started to parallel the rhumbline course of 25-30 deg. As a result, LOKI ran out of wind and "parked up" in a glassy calm for the better part of four hours! At one point, several J/105s and J/109s west of 81.25 deg West sailed past them going north! It was a devastating blow for the team. Despite that fact, they clawed their way back into the race, they lost the overall Chicago Mackinac Trophy by just three hours (less than the time they parked up!). Meanwhile, Robert Klairmont's J/133 SIROCCO 3 placed 5th in class.

A mix of classic and newer J's was participating in Section 5. Taking third place was Matt Songer's J/122 EVVAI, with Randy Kuhn & James Richter's J/44 CHEEP N DEEP finishing 4th. Fifth went to Frank Giampoli's J/120 JAHAZI.

Taking 4th in Section 6 was Ben Lumpkin's J/112E MARY GAIL, the only J/Boat in the fourteen-boat section.

The brand new J/99 HOKEY SMOKE was sailed by the veteran Mac Race team of Rich & Lori Stearns' in Section 7. It was Rich's 43rd Mac and Lori's 25th- a great celebration was had by all at the "Old Goats" party at the Island House after the race on Tuesday afternoon. The HOKEY SMOKE team celebrated their good fortune to take the bronze on the podium.

There's was the story of the "comeback kids". After trading off the lead with a well-sailed Express 37 (last year's class winner) for both Section 7 and Mackinac Cup Overall for the better part of 24 hours into the race, all hell broke loose from a weather and strategy perspective. The aforementioned "wind shear" played to the advantage of the taller rigs on larger boats and, strategically, several "back marker" boats that took "corner shots" westward towards the Wisconsin shoreline early to midday Sunday. With those two elements combined, HOKEY SMOKE dropped to 9th in section and 60+ overall late Sunday evening before approaching Point Betsy and the Manitou Islands.

However, the tenacious crew on HOKEY SMOKE simply worked hard to reel the leaders back in. From the Manitou's to the Greys Reef turning point, a 60.0nm leg, the J/99 flew down the track when the cold front hit at 0600 hrs on Monday morning, planing at 9 to 13 kts most of the way in 15 to 25 kt winds, gaining over 10.0nm on the Section 7 leaders. In the short 3.0nm Greys Reef leg, HOKEY SMOKE passed the third place boat, and then sailed away upwind to take the bronze medal!

Rounding out the ORR fleet for J's in Section 8 were two J/88s that battled the entire 289.4nm! In the end, taking J/88 honors was Andy & Sarah Graff's EXILE by finishing third in class. Meanwhile, their stablemates on MISTY (Dan & Dana Floberg) were just over a half-hour behind them to take 4th in section.

"It's been an honor to serve as Chair of the Chicago Mac for the past two years," said Sarah Renz, Chair of Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac. "As sailors, we've been challenged with a broad spectrum of conditions to test our talents. As a part of the organizational team, I want to thank everyone who has worked so hard to make our race 'America's Offshore Challenge'."

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