Since 1898, sailors have gathered at the Chicago Yacht Club each summer to race their sailboats up Lake Michigan to the Mackinac (pronounced mackinaw) Island. The 333 mile course from Navy Pier to the lighthouse makes it the longest annual freshwater sailing race in the world.
The sailboats race around the clock for days as the crew work in shifts, sailing for a few hours and then sleeping for a few. Night sailing, storms, and quiet windless calms make this a memorable experience.
I’m nowhere near qualified enough to get a crew position on one of the real race boats, but I tried it in high school aboard a friend’s cruiser. At the time, cruising sailboats weren’t technically allowed in the race, but bystanders shuffle down to Chicago and start at the same time as the serious racers. We lived about halfway up Lake Michigan, so we were proud that we even made it down to Chicago for the start. We made it about halfway back up before calm winds and a problematic engine made us give up. I still fondly remember steering the boat in the middle of the night, watching the compass and the stars, talking to friends about what we planned to do with the rest of our lives.
This year, I’m honored to be able to give it another shot. The Chicago Yacht Club started a separate class for cruising boats recently, and I’ll be aboard the Hannah Frances. Mike Cook’s a good friend of mine, and he tolerates my complete ignorance of how to tie a knot. (I was a Boy Scout – how come I know absolutely nothing about how to tie lines together?!?)
We have no delusions of winning, but we do have delusions of finishing. The Hannah Frances is a wonderful boat rigged for easy shorthanded sailing and relaxed self-tacking, but fast, she is not.
We’re hoping to finish the race in under 4 days, but that means a lot more than 4 days of sailing. We’re leaving in two weeks – Wednesday, July 16th – for a couple/few days of sailing down to the Chicago starting line on Saturday. Then it’s four days of sailing up Lake Michigan, a day of partying with the other sailors on Mac Island, and then another few days of sailing back to White Lake. By the end of it all, the crew will be intimately familiar with the boat and with each others’ quirks. (Mike’s already warned me that if I want to listen to Death Cab for Cutie, I’d better bring headphones.)
Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll blog a little about race preparations. Sailboat racing really is a sport, and it’s harder work than it looks. For starters, I have to go pick up a Tyvek suit to fend off the black vampire flies.