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Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac - Slower than usual, but still satisfying

by Barby MacGowan 22 Jul 2021 09:12 PDT July 16-17, 2021
231 boats started the Chicago Yacht Club's 112th Race to Mackinac presented by Wintrust. © Chicago Yacht Club

The Chicago Yacht Club's 112th Race to Mackinac presented by Wintrust was a slow race along its 289.4 nautical mile course from Chicago to Mackinac Island, with primarily upwind wind angles that saw the breeze going from decent at the starts to completely dead at some points near the Manitou Islands, offering windless holes that stranded some of the fleet's 231 boats longer than others.

"We didn't get to race last year (because of the pandemic), but this year we got to sail twice as long," joked one of the 3000 or more sailors that started racing either in Cruising Division on Friday (July 16) or in all other Divisions on Saturday (July 17).

The iconic race, the oldest annual freshwater distance race in the world, starts from the Chicago Lighthouse off Navy Pier and ends at Round Island Lighthouse off Mackinac Island. This year, it was indeed longer in the sense that the bulk of the fleet finished Monday night (July 19) and early Tuesday morning (July 20), with some arriving in just enough time to take a shower and grab a nap before Tuesday's afternoon awards party.

"The forecast was for it to be a very tactical race, and it didn't disappoint," said Race Chair Martin Sandoval. "Were there times the competitors wanted to see more wind? Yes. But they recognize there is a mental challenge to adapting a plan as you go to meet the conditions. Once the wind filled in from the west (after the Manitou Islands), folks in the Mackinac Straights made it in two hours to the bridge. It mixed up the results for sure; there were some different names in the winner's circle."

At stake were bragging rights in 20 "sections" (otherwise known as classes) for Cruising, Racing, One-Design, Multihull and Doublehanded boats and the glory that comes with winning overall in the Cruising and Racing Divisions, the latter category further divided into those sailing for the prestigious Chicago-Mackinac Trophy and those sailing for the similarly coveted Mackinac Cup.

First to finish just before midnight (Chicago time) on Sunday (July 18) was Eagle One with Timothy LaRiviere (Grosse Pointe, Mich.) at the helm. The Andrews 65, which also finished first overall in Cruising and first in Cruising 1, outpaced the largest boat in the fleet, Peter Thornton's 104' Bruce King-designed ketch Whitehawk, which finished next, around 9:15 the following morning.

When asked what stood out as his favorite part of the race, an exhausted LaRivere said, "The start, the finish (pause) and everything in between!"

The finish line was sighted from the Mackinac Island shore to the Round Island Light located in the shipping lanes of the Straits of Mackinac, which connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Oakcliff's Max Z86 OC86, led by newly named National Sailing Hall of Fame Inductee Dawn Riley (Oyster Bay, N.Y.) was the first of the racing division boats to finish (just before 11:30 on Monday). The boat finished ninth in Section 1, where the team aboard Natalie J, a PAC 52, prevailed over what it called the favorites to win: Vesper and Windquest, both Transpac 52s.

The Nelson/Marek 55 Fishtales, in Section 2, was another "unlikely" winner, not only because of its size relative to its competitors, including several Santa Cruz 70s, but also because it was the last boat up the lake for hours after the upwind start in 12-14 knots of north/northwesterly breeze. "We didn't have the speed to match the bigger boats in that condition," said the boat's skipper Mike Fisher (Lake Leelanau, Mich.), "but we stuck with it...later in the race it became a battle of getting through the light stuff."

Fishtales, like many other boats, decided to go west of the Manitou Islands, which mark a critical juncture in the race and are typically left to port. "It was a longer route, but we wanted to stay with the competition," he said, adding that the lighter wind eventually veered to south/southwest and strengthened to as much as 18-20 knots in the Straits of Mackinac.

That stronger breeze is what put the Mackinac Cup in the hands of Scott Sellers (Larkspur, Calif.) and his crew aboard the J/111 nosurprise (also winner in J/111s). "No Quarter and Pterodactyl, which eventually finished 2-3 behind us, went inside the Manitou Islands, which was the right move at that particular time," said Sellers, who had his 13-year-old daughter Merritt aboard for her first Mac Race. (There were three parent/child combinations in the eight-person crew) "We went outside and came out of it third behind them. At Gray's reef, we were two miles behind the leader."

Nosurprise's adversaries sailed with Code Zero sails, but Sellers and crew decided on a reaching spinnaker, which paid off. "We passed second place, then sailed up to No Quarter two miles before the Mackinac Bridge. After they switched to a spinnaker, too, we started match racing; in the final six miles, we changed leads three times, but with a puff at the end, we beat them by 100 yards."

Taking home the Chicago-Mackinac Trophy was the Ericson 35 MK II Providence (also winner of Section 9), co-skippered by the father/son team of Jerry and Greg Miarecki (Chicago).

"An old adage with respect to winning this race is that it's 1/3rd the boat, 1/3rd skill, and 1/3rd luck," said Greg Miarecki. "If you were to talk to me halfway through, I would have said it was crazy to think we'd win overall."

Miarecki described his team giving the Manitou Islands a wide berth to the west. The boat always had speed while doing that, but there were times on Sunday where it was becalmed for short amounts of time. The team didn't take the lead until the last third of the race.

"More of a disadvantage to us than the fact if was lighter vs. heavier air was the significant amount of upwind work we had to do with an older boat," said Miarecki.

Providence was built in 1970 but is still a warhorse. She has completed 43 Chicago Mac races and has placed in her section 21 times, winning her section six times. She also won her division in 2012, 2013, and 2014, becoming the first boat in 60 years to win her division in three consecutive years.

Andy Graff and Scott Eisenhardt aboard the J/88 Exile won the Doublehanded, while the Cris White 44 Caliente, skippered by Michael Steck (Naperville, Ill.), was deemed winner in Multihull.

"We both drive, call tactics and handle the bow, pit and trim, so it's good that we are interchangeable that way," said Graff about his two-handed experience with Eisenhardt, "but we don't sleep at all."

The "Chicago Mac" is widely considered a Bucket List race, but alternatively, many sailors are so used to including it on their calendars that they can't remember when exactly they first became addicted to it. The Island Goat Sailing Society takes seriously its responsibility for keeping track of "Old Goats," those who have sailed 25 or more Chicago Mac races, and indeed there are those who have 35, 45, even 65 of the races under their sailing belts.

This year, 92-year-old Gene McCarthy sailed his 66th Chicago Mac on his Tartan 10 Island Goat Express. He's now top of the list in the Island Goats Sailing Society. "This could easily be my last race," said McCarthy, who finished 11th in Section 10, "but I do it because I can sail with my family. Anyone can race the Mac, and a lot of families do it, generation after generation. It's a wonderful way to experience offshore sailing."

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