This… is NOT a summary of my race. It is a full regale!
The Chicago Yacht Club 2017 Race to Mackinac was certainly a memorable one. Of the 302 boats entered in the race, 99 retired due to breakdowns, injuries, or sickness. 8 out of the original 17 T-10’s on the starting line retired. That is nearly 50% of the fleet. It was a brutal marathon slog all the way to the finish line. “Why do we love sailboat racing again?” was a frequent quote heard on the rail. But in the end, it was totally worth it, and I already know I’ll do it again.
After reviewing the latest forecasts, we finalized our game plan. Head north via the east. It’s not typical to go up the east side of the lake because the weather moves west to east, and usually you want to get to the wind first. In fact, I heard very experienced people say they’ve never done it before. But given the likely weather patterns, it would put us at an advantage once we reached the Manitous.
Our start wasn’t great, but it wasn’t particularly bad either. We were trying for the boat end of the starting line to give us clear air and keep us to the east. That was pretty much everyone else’s plan too. We were closer to the boat than the pin, but we were moving too fast and needed to slow down to not be over the starting line early. We ducked around one or two boats to leeward and ended up in the second row. It was not the start we had wanted, but the Mac is a long race and 333 miles is a great equalizer for 2nd-row starts.
We spent the next 10+ hours trying to shake one of our fellow T-10’s who decided to cover us like we were match racing. It was hard to understand why they were using this tactic in the Mac. The Mac is a marathon and they were slowing both us and themselves down. Every time we went up, they went up. Every time we went down, they went down. We broke away a bit and headed more east, they followed and proceeded to match another boat for a while. Apparently, that boat yelled at them and they made their way back towards us. We managed to create just enough separation to concentrate on working our way up the lake instead of wasting energy on them, but it was an additional unexpected factor that we needed to take into account in our tactics.
The forecast called for a big wind shift to the north right around midnight. After sunset, we discussed the plan to douse the spinnaker so that we would all be ready when the time came. That way, when I went below to get some rest, I knew what to expect if the shift came early and I was called up suddenly.
Of course… I now know that the alarm on my watch doesn’t work, because it didn’t wake me up at 10:45 pm for my 11 pm shift as planned. I don’t want to be “that” person that is late for my shift. Typically someone else is waiting for you to come on deck so they can go below. They are usually tired, cold and in need of a break. Fortunately, since we were racing with 7, I was a floater and an extra hand, so no one was waiting for me.
When I got on deck at 11:15 pm, there was a small-med sized storm cell with lots of lightning over Milwaukee. Gretchen sounded concerned and asked what I thought. It was hard to tell at one glance. If it were moving west to east, we would likely be north of it by the time it reached us. We were headed North Northeast at about 7-8 knots in a southerly breeze. We decided to watch its progress. It didn’t seem to be moving very fast, but the winds gradually picked up.
Not too long after I came up, all hands were on deck. We were piled into the cockpit on a fun downwind scream. However, we knew our douse was imminent. The core of the cell was going to be just south of us, but we couldn’t escape the edge of it. All of a sudden, a big 40-knot puff hit us. With perfect timing, we dropped the spinnaker and hoisted the jib. We were screaming downwind at 10 knots under the jib alone when I announced that the true wind speed had pegged a 52.3-knot gust, which then backed down to 36 knots. John asked me if I ever thought I would say those words and I laughed that no… I didn’t ever think I would ever say those words.
Just a few moments later, around 12:15 am, I heard the DSC alarm and the radio chatter started. I heard only a few words in the high wind, “Dark Horse” and “distress”. Then I heard “Sociable” and “distress, under control”. I have a friend who was sailing on Sociable and started to get concerned. Sara went downstairs to hear the VHF better. We were still listening but hadn’t gotten much more information when another call came through. “Mayday Mayday Mayday, this is the Meridian X, we have a man-overboard“. I also heard “trimaran capsized, four sailors are all accounted for and sitting on the bottom of the boat.“Sara wrote down the GPS coordinates and I pulled up our chart to see how far away the various situations were. It turns out that they were too far away for us to help in any kind of useful time frame and with many other boats closer, we decided to press on. But we kept listening anyway just in case. We were pretty nervous for the sailor who went overboard and wanted to confirm their location. Finally, just after 12:30 am we heard that the Meridian X had found and rescued their crewmate. I can’t tell you how relieved I was and how lucky he was given the conditions. And as I learned later, my friends on Sociable were fine. They had been providing assistance to the trimaran (High Priority 2), whose small handheld VHF radio did not have much range.
After the storm, the wind started clocking a bit to the west, so we decided to leave the jib up and barber-haul it to trim the sail. It felt like we were making good time when I finished my shift at 3 am. I was seeing some lights off to starboard and wondered if it might be Michigan. When I turned on my phone to check, I magically had service in the middle of the lake! I downloaded the latest weather forecasts and checked the race tracker. We were in 1st place!
It wasn’t my alarm that woke me up for my next shift, it was someone yelling “STARBOARD!!”, getting tossed off the bench when we suddenly tacked, and then the subsequent shout of “NOT COOL, Man!” I hadn’t bothered to take off any of my foulies when I went below for a sleep/break, so I just went straight up to see what was going on. It was a completely different scene from when I went below. We were close hauled and healed over on a knife’s edge pounding through 6-10 foot waves coming from multiple directions. The wind was blowing pretty hard, averaging about 30 knots. There was another boat that had also tacked and was now on starboard and headed in the opposite direction. It was just a close enough encounter to be uncomfortably close in such rough conditions.
The next 18 hours were particularly grueling and plodding. We had reefed the main. Gretchen was very seasick and spent almost all of it in a bunk. I called waves and 30-40 knot puffs for so long, I started to lose my voice. I trimmed the main; I traveled down; I trimmed the main; I traveled down. I don’t mind big waves actually, sometimes I pretend that they are roller coasters and did my own little arm wave. But imagine being on that roller coaster for 18 hours straight. It was rough.
We generally stuck pretty close to the eastern shore. The land juts out a bit south of Pentwater, which provided some relief from the worst of the waves. In mid-afternoon, we started to notice a few boats without reefs in their mains. Gretchen was still down for the count, and our combined crew weight on the rail was pretty low. Gretchen, Sara and I are pretty small women. I outweigh the two of them by a lot at 135 lbs. Mark and John are not big guys. Peter is tall, so likely has some weight for leverage on the rail, and Tom has some muscle but is also not huge. Tom was driving for much of the time, and he was still having trouble in the puffs. But the wind had diminished a bit, likely averaging 20-25 knots with puffs maybe up to 30. We started to notice another T-10 was moving up on us. It was Monitor, and they did not have a reef in their main. We called all hands up on deck around 5:00 pm. Even Gretchen, who immediately got sick again was sitting on the rail. In hindsight, we probably should have shaken our reef out sooner, but Monitor ended up passing us at about 5:30 pm.
By sunset that evening, we were still beating upwind trying to keep Monitor in our sights. The sky had finally cleared, and it seemed like the perfect conditions to see the elusive green flash that people say happens just as the sun sets. When I blinked I saw little sunspots behind my eyelids as I intently watched the horizon. I was hoping to finally see it for the first time ever. But alas… that unicorn is still out there for me.
After the sunset, I went below to try to get a little rest. The day had been pretty rough on the boat, and one of the benches ripped out of its hinges leaving only 3 benches for crew members to lie on. They were all full. Not having a blanket, or a place to lie down, I propped myself between the two benches and fell asleep sitting up. At some point, one of my crewmates got up for his shift and I managed to get an hour sleep in the bunk. He even put a blanket on top of me. It was glorious.
When I went up for my next shift it was very dark, and there was a bit of confusion. There was a high beam spotlight making sweeps across the channel and a bunch of chatter on the VHF between the Manitowoc Ferry and a sailboat. We had also just tacked. It was to avoid the ferry. The reasons you have crew shifts in a race is because fresh rested eyes can make more sense of the seemingly random patterns. What my crewmates didn’t realize is that the ferry wasn’t talking to us; it was a different sailboat a few miles away. I saw the ferry and watched. We were definitely not in its path. There were no red/green navigation lights. It was headed away from us.
Another source of confusion is where the South Manitou buoy was. It marks the northern side of the channel heading inside the Manitou islands. You can go outside and around the islands, but it adds a lot of miles to your race. You either have to know that the wind will be significantly better outside the islands to go there or be taking a flyer to catch up. Therefore figuring out where the channel starts is important. I’m not sure why this is a difficult buoy to find, but every year it seems to be a struggle. After consulting the charts and methodically checking each light with our binoculars, we found the buoy and went inside the Manitous.
Once the drama of the ferry and finding the buoy calmed down, I had time to look up. Star gazing on the night shift is one of my favorite parts of the race. The Milky Way did not disappoint. Being so far from the light pollution of a city allows the cloudy mix of stars to shine brightly. The northern lights glowed. They weren’t the shimmering dancing ribbons that you see in pictures, it was more of a warm blush in the sky, but pretty nonetheless. There were shooting stars that lasted 10 seconds or more. I made a wish on every one.
As you navigate at night, you are constantly monitoring the lights on the water around you for boats, navigational aids, etc… When I looked to the east, I saw the strangest sight. It was a huge orange shark fin. I was like “What the hell is that?!” In my sleep deprived state, it took me just a moment too long to realize I wasn’t hallucinating, and that it was the moon rising. It was spectacular. A perfect crescent shape, it looked exactly like the drawings of the man in the moon except for the fact that it was blood orange. He was peacefully looking over us and the rest of the night was uneventful.
Once again, I was woken up at about 6:30 am by a tack, but this time it was much much slower and the boat was much much flatter. I emerged from the cabin into the morning sunlight still wearing my full foulies and everyone immediately started making fun of me, but I was still cold. There was no wind. We were moving maybe 0.8 knots (on the GPS, the speed through the water read 0.0 knots of speed) and the sun was already shining brightly. I warmed up quickly and proceeded to peel the layers off and lay them in the sun to dry. The most important of which was my shoes and socks. My feet were soaking wet and had been for about 48 hours at this point.
I find that the 2 am to 6 am shift is one of the hardest, and the crew who were awake were tired. It was very light wind conditions at that point. Sailing in those conditions requires a tremendous amount of patience that is hard to muster when energy is waning so far into the race, especially after the day before when we were beating upwind for over 18 hours. We hadn’t moved very far since I went down to sleep around 3 am. We were still just to the east of the north side of North Manitou Island. I have had the benefit of sailing with some fantastic sailors in my life. One thing I’ve learned from them is that if you are not moving, at LEAST point the boat towards the finish line until you can find some wind. We were pointing at the north end of North Manitou Island. After I pointed that out, Mark said, “Why don’t you take over driving for a while.”
I slowly turned us to at least point towards the finish line, stopped moving the tiller so much and immediately started looking for signs of where the breeze was coming from. I looked for tree fuzzies in the wind. I looked on the water to check for the tiniest of ripples. I tried to see if the insects were generally coming from one direction in particular. I paid attention to the small hairs on my face. We started moving incrementally better, but still very very slowly.
Our plan had been to stay close to the Manitous because the wind was predicted to be better on that side of the channel, but we were pointed away from North Manitou Island. I didn’t want to turn back. We were getting the faintest of ripples of wind and I just wanted to keep the boat moving. The wind looked better ahead of us and looked worse behind. Peter saw one tiny little cloud over Leland on the mainland and expressed a hope that it was a sign of an early sea breeze forming over on the mainland. It was a bit prophetic. Soon, we were getting small fingers of light wind and those little clouds started to multiply. Someone observed that those little clouds are like magic. You never see them form but you blink, and another one just appears out of thin air! By the time I gave up the tiller, we were moving around 3.5 knots towards Gray’s Reef and were ahead of the rest of the fleet by 6 miles.
It became an almost idyllic day for sailing. We had all of our gear spread out all over the deck to dry. It looked like a garage sale. It was sunny and warm without being hot. There was enough wind to keep the flies at bay and was blowing enough to keep us moving in the right direction. Mark and John, who weathered most of the steering and tactics, both got several hours of uninterrupted sleep. It was enough to brighten everyone’s spirits for the final push to the finish line.
In the late afternoon, as time inched towards sunset, the wind started dying again. We had our binoculars out and Yellowbrick tracking, trying to figure out if there was more wind on the other side and if our competition was gaining on us. I had a borderline manic moment right as the wind was dying, where I gave a “pep talk” to the crew about light wind racing and this being the point where we could lose the race. Quite rightly, John brought it all back down to earth. Tom surprised us with the best looking sandwich I’ve ever seen on the Mac. It was a full baguette covered with layers of lettuce, sliced tomatoes, salami, roast beef, ham and horseradish cheese covered in oil and vinegar. We all felt much better for eating it. I must have been hungry.
Our biggest tactical decision throughout the afternoon and evening was when to tack and consolidate back to the rest of the fleet. It was a tough call. We ended up tacking four times. Our wind was light and shifty. Had we stuck to just 2 tacks, we may have arrived at the better and more consistent wind before our competitors. But in the moment, you just can’t know for sure and hindsight is 20/20.
Of the three nights, the sunset on Monday was by far the most spectacular. You need clouds on the horizon to have a proper sunset. They are something for the sun’s rays to bounce off of. Sunset on Sunday didn’t have any clouds at all. The swirls of high cirrus clouds that reached towards us with the lower and puffier nimbus clouds marching in a row just underneath them provided multiple layers from which the light could reflect and bounce.
Just after sunset, Mark asked me to take the helm again. It was hard. The transition between daytime, dusk and then nighttime is a very tricky one. In general, I need a reference point. Something I can use to keep my heading.
As the sun set, I kept losing my reference point and I’ve learned that it takes me a while to transition to solely using the compass to steer. I am not naturally good at steering by the compass, and soon Mark (quite rightly) took the reigns back.
In the middle of the channel, there is a small island/shoal called Ile Aux Galets. On it is a lighthouse called Skilagallee to warn vessels to avoid the area. The charts indicate that there is a green navigation can with a 9-second flashing light on the northwest side and a red navigation buoy with a 2-second flashing light on the northeast side. With all of the navigation buoys around, it’s pretty tough to tell what’s what. At least the lighthouse was easily recognizable. I identified the red buoy marking the shoal to the northeast, but couldn’t find the green 9-second flashing can to the northwest of the shoal. We had to make a decision as to whether we would go to starboard or port of Skilagallee soon. The wind essentially made it for us. It had gone south and was inching toward the southeast. This put us at a disadvantage to our competitors. They were coming in on a starboard tack on a fast reach. We were coming in pretty low and not moving as fast. There was a buoy in the place of the green 9-second flasher, but it was a red flasher which is why we didn’t recognize it. We skirted just inside of it after I checked the charts and our course and determined it was definitely deep enough for us to not hit bottom.
We hardly had to change course at all to make it straight down Gray’s Reef from that point, but the damage from the inopportune wind shift was already done. Both Erica and Monitor consolidated in front of us just before the Grays Reef Light.
We were still under spinnaker, and our next decision was whether or not we would be able to hold the sail after leaving New Shoal Lighted Bell Buoy 3 to starboard. I scanned the fleet ahead of us as they rounded the mark. Not one of them was carrying a spin. We decided that we wouldn’t be able to either.
As I was scanning for spinnakers, I saw a freighter heading down the straights towards the channel. We were about ¾ of a mile past the reef by the time it made the turn. I was very glad that we were past the channel when it went through, it can be harried in those close quarters at night under sail when going through with a freighter. Both Monitor and Erica would have definitely gotten away from us if we were also battling with the freighter.
When you start down the straits you expect to see the Mackinac Bridge, but sometimes weather can cloud it from view. At night in clear skies, however, you can see the lights from pretty far away. Seeing that bridge is very emotional. It marks the final leg of a very long race and you get the impression that you are nearly done. I almost always get a bit teary-eyed with relief when I finally see it. But that bridge is still 20 miles away and a lot can happen in those 20 miles, so it is important to not lose focus because you are ready to be done.
On the drag race down the Straits of Mackinac, we started to creep up on Erica. Monitor was really hard to see as their masthead stern lights were very very dim. It was hard to tell if we were making progress on them as well or not. They had both gone higher, presumably to be able to set the spinnaker and come into the bridge on a reach. We stayed lower and were, therefore, sailing faster. Our rationale was that you never win a race by following the leader. We had been using a light on our jib to see the telltales, which makes it easier to trim the sail, but also harder to be inconspicuous in the dark. We finally got to the point where we thought we could carry the spin and turned off our lights. We were hoping that we could be sneaky and set our spin before Erica, but I heard from them after the race that they were watching our light anticipating that moment. In the end, we were definitely not sneaky. We were pretty loud, and when we got settled, Erica had also set their spin and were pulling away a bit again on a better angle.
We passed under the Mackinac Bridge just before 4 am a little less than a half mile behind Monitor and Erica, who were nearly on top of each other. The sky was just starting to lighten up, and we could see them more clearly.
Passing under the bridge is always exciting. If you sail the course, you know you won’t hit the bridge. But it looks like you are going to hit the bridge and a favorite Mackinac newbie joke is to pretend that it is possible to take out your mast to freak them out. There are countless gorgeous pictures out there from sailors taken under the bridge.
The wind typically changes after the bridge. We were able to sail higher and we were catching up to Monitor and Erica who were battling each other and sailing lower. It turned out that there was just a bit more wind coming in from Lake Huron. As Erica tried to get around Monitor we were sneaking up on them fast. It was a super close finish, but we managed to pick off Erica and finish in 2nd place only 12 seconds behind Monitor. If we’d had another 100 ft, we could have pulled off the upset. In the end, Erica was only 13 seconds behind us. It’s amazing that we sailed 333 miles and it came down to only a few feet!
It was an exciting and brutal race, but I felt great about how we sailed and how we finished! It was my first time on the podium on the Mac race. Obviously, there is a lot of skill that goes into a race like this, but there is also a significant amount of luck. I have friends who race on Erica and they did an awesome job. I was sad that they had to take 3rd for us to take 2nd. It was a bit of luck that the wind filled in exactly where we needed it to in order to get in front of them. They worked hard and deserved their place on the podium.
I had an awesome time and even though it was a really difficult race, I would do it again in a heartbeat.
I want to thank the entire crew of Retention, but especially Mark for having me. You are all awesome people and great sailors. I wouldn’t hesitate to race with every single one of you again. Thank you so much, Mark Croll, Gretchen Croll, John Croll, Sara Otto, Tom Carney, and Peter Dubois!!