2007-07-14 / Top News

World's Longest Freshwater Sailing Race Bound for Island Harbor

"They battle with the Lake Michigan weather, no matter what is thrown at them." - Christie Kirchner Chicago Yacht Club
By Sean Ely

At the starting line just off the Navy Pier in Chicago, three yachts line up, awaiting the cannon firing for the official beginning of the 2006 race. From left, Sapphire, owned by Robert Radway of Chicago, Joie de Vie, owned by Marty and Donna Hastings from Mount Prospect, Illinois, and Rally, owned by Paul Stscherban of Mishawaka, Indiana, are all in the Beneteau 36.7 division. (Photograph by Lu O'Neill) At the starting line just off the Navy Pier in Chicago, three yachts line up, awaiting the cannon firing for the official beginning of the 2006 race. From left, Sapphire, owned by Robert Radway of Chicago, Joie de Vie, owned by Marty and Donna Hastings from Mount Prospect, Illinois, and Rally, owned by Paul Stscherban of Mishawaka, Indiana, are all in the Beneteau 36.7 division. (Photograph by Lu O'Neill) As the departure of the 300 sailing yachts from Chicago's Navy Pier to Mackinac Island grows closer, the last-minute preparations are being put into place. The Chicago Yacht Club's 99th annual Race to Mackinac, the world's longest freshwater sailing race, begins Saturday, July 14, preceded by a host of events and activities in a festive atmosphere.

"Days before the race, a lot of sailors are out practicing," said Christie Kirchner, the club's communications manager. "But while they do that, the yacht club is in constant preparation at the facility to get every detail ready before the race is underway."

Tents move into the surrounding area, tables are set up, sponsors swarm the vicinity, and booths line the Chicago Yacht Club's property all week. There are also several parties before any of the sailors ever officially step onto their boats for the 333-mile race.

This map shows the routes taken by nine of the 300 sailboats in last year's Chicago-to-Mackinac race, plotted by FIS Tracking Services. With boats now equipped with GPS transmitters, progress during the race can be tracked in real time online. The race is 333 miles and takes about 30 to 40 hours. (Map courtesy of Chicago Yacht Club) This map shows the routes taken by nine of the 300 sailboats in last year's Chicago-to-Mackinac race, plotted by FIS Tracking Services. With boats now equipped with GPS transmitters, progress during the race can be tracked in real time online. The race is 333 miles and takes about 30 to 40 hours. (Map courtesy of Chicago Yacht Club) A Family Night Party will take place Wednesday, July 11. A Warning Gun reception is Thursday, July 12, and on Friday, July 13, there are skippers' meetings, a private pre-race celebration, and a Sailors' Pre-race Party, in which wristbands are needed for restricted attendance.

On the morning of the race, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., some of the racing boats can be seen whipping across the water before their official start-time, with colorful commentary overheard at the Pier.

"A crowd of 400 to 500 people gather at Navy Pier to watch the boats," Ms. Kirchner said. "There is a type of coordination that goes in with all of that, as well. A sound system is installed, with risers at the pier so people can sit and view the parade."

A sportscaster will the announce the start.

Preparations go on all year, and begin as soon as the previous year's race ends.

"There are so many people that work hard to make this event so great," Ms. Kirchner said. "We are in the 99th running of the event, but to have an event that gets better and better every year is phenomenal."

The race Web site has had 9 million hits since last summer, and Ms. Kirchner said that the event gains more national interest every season, but the one aspect that makes the race so interesting to the sailors is the weather.

"Although the race has grown every year since 1898, the elements of the race are all fundamentally the same," Ms. Kirchner said. "They battle with the Lake Michigan weather, no matter what is thrown at them."

The weather factor is always up in the air, so to speak, and sometimes the race is slow, like in 2004, and sometimes it is fast, such as 2002, when records were shattered. Both conditions require great skill in sailing, navigation, and strategy.

In 2002, Pyewacket, sailed by owner Roy Disney, broke the monohull record with an elapsed time of 23 hours, 30 minutes, 34 seconds, which beat the 14-year record of 25 hours, 50 minutes, 44 seconds held by Dick Jennings' Pied Piper, a Santa Cruz 70.

The multihull record was set in 1998 by Steve Fossett aboard Stars and Stripes, which completed the race in 18 hours, 50 minutes, 32 seconds. This catamaran was previously sailed by Dennis Conner in the America's Cup race.

"These families just keep coming back every year, because they love the water, they love the experience, and they love Mackinac Island," Ms. Kirchner said. "Everyone is wonderful to us on the Island."

In Chicago, the boaters all leave at intervals depending on their division, and, because of an elaborate handicap system, the winner is not necessarily first to cross the finish; it is the boat with the best corrected time. On average, boats finish between 30 and 40 hours.

The boats are handicapped with a mathematical rating system that predicts how quickly a specific boat could be traveling under various conditions. These ratings are applied to each boat's elapsed time and shows which boat actually sailed the best relative to its rating.

Handicapping makes it possible for all 300 boats to compete against one another.

Racing boats are divided into sections of between eight and 28 boats based on their ratings, with each section beginning in sequence at 10 minute intervals.

This year there is a new cruiser division for bigger boats equipped with sails designed for comfortable cruising rather than racing. The 18 cruiser ships are expected to take longer to complete the race.

There will be a number of awards given away at the conclusion of the race, including a Mac Multihull Award, a Mac Cup for bigger boats, and a Mac Trophy for the smaller boats in the race.

The finish line is between the Round Island Lighthouse and Windermere Point, and 100 race committee members staff the race headquarters to keep tabs on the boats and their times. Flagship Integration Services tracks the boats during the race utilizing global positioning transmitters on the boats. Island coordinator Lloyd Karzen and his wife arrive on the Island Wednesday, July 11, to set up the tracking system, a trip they have made for five years. A kiosk will feature computers in the race tent at Windermere Point, with six or seven employees working them, allowing spectators to watch the race at any time. Positions are also posted at www.fistracking.com

There are other ways the boaters can be tracked, including the 45th parallel call-in, when skippers must call in to give their bearings. They also call in when they are approaching the Mackinac Bridge to announce their name and sail number.

The 300 boats will race through the night. Staying up is tough, so crews work in shifts, or "watches."

This is an amateur event, and no prize money is awarded to the first-place winner. Each section winner is given a plaque and a flag. Overall winners have their crew's name engraved on trophies that kept at the Chicago Yacht Club.

"It's the passion that the sailors have, because if you stripped away the parties, the sponsors, and everything else, ultimately, this is a true test of what you are able to do, to work as a team, to go from the bottom of Lake Michigan to the top of it," Ms. Kirchner said. "They push each other and test themselves, fighting against all the elements. That's how the race started, and that's how it will continue. That brings new people in, and that keeps the people who already participated in it as well. It's not predictable, and races are never the same, because the lake and the race are never the same. No one ever knows what to expect."

In addition to family traditions associated with the race, there are friendly rivalries among the competitors.

"Many of the sailors compete against one another in other races, as well, Ms. Kirchner said. "There is some fun ribbing that you'll hear between people. Some boaters have their own little trophies that they pass back and forth, like Pied Piper, which races against Stars and Stripes."

This year, a party for finishing racers and the awards ceremony have been moved to Grand Hotel and require tickets.

"This is the first time we've done activities at the Grand, and we like to think that it will help the boaters, the yachting personnel, and the police on the Island," Mr. Karzen said, speaking of the relative seclusion.

There could be more than 3,000 crew members pouring onto Mackinac Island after the race, plus families and friends who meet them at the finish line. Mr. Karzen estimates the race could bring Mackinac Island close to $4 million in revenue from food and accommodations.

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