The good news: in the official press release announcing the winners of the Chicago-Mac sailing race, the Hannah Frances was included along with the winners.
The bad news was the way we got mentioned:
“While 33 boats chose to retire, most citing reasons related to the slow conditions such as lack of provisions or crew commitments elsewhere, at nearly 6:00 am Wednesday morning the last of the fleet arrived on Mackinac. The boat was the cruising division boat the Hannah Frances, who starting on Friday, raced with an elapsed time of almost 111 hours. Congratulations to the crew of the Hannah Frances for sticking it out in a very tough race.”
That’s right: we came in dead last – both on real time and corrected time. In sailing parlance, this is known as being The Pickle Boat, and we even won an official Pickle Boat Trophy (a green Heineken DraughtKeg) from the Chicago Yacht Club. We entered the race just hoping to finish, though, so I can’t complain about the outcome.
When they say “very tough race”, they don’t mean the race was close. Boats retired because the race was a rock-and-roller-coaster of conditions. The first day we had 20-knot winds that shifted all over the place, especially during the start. We almost ran into a city water intake, and we beat the bejeezus out of ourselves and the boat. I remember holding out as long as possible before making the trip from the bunk to the bathroom due to the pain and effort involved in the ten-foot journey, and once inside the head, I received the beating of a lifetime. Picture, if you will, your bathroom being thrown ten feet in the air like a giant pizza while you take care of your bodily functions. Good times. I found myself wishing the toilet had a seat belt. And yes, it’s as unclean as you might imagine.
By day 3, we were sitting idle off the Manitous, surrounded by sailboats with sails hanging straight down. It was so calm, I could actually hear people coughing on other boats. We had to ration water because our slow progress meant we might be in for a week-long race. Don’t feel bad for us, though – rationing water just meant we had to drink beer. Mike had warned us about the possible slow speed ahead of time, so we’d all taken at least a week off for vacation in order to stick with it rather than retire from the race.
Toward the end of the race, we were back into nasty winds coming from exactly the wrong direction. At one point, we were in 18-knot winds and 4-6 foot seas making just 2 knots of forward progress. I think I saw a camera crew from Wipeout filming an episode in the v-berth. Our closest competition, a slightly smaller boat from the same manufacturer, retired from the race just a few miles short of the finish line rather than continue to tack through these treacherous conditions. Imagine doing over 300 miles in a 333-mile race, and then giving up – that’s how bad the wind and waves were.
You can view my photos of the 2009 Chicago-Mac Race, but it doesn’t really convey the difficulty. I captured a lot of the light, fun moments like cooking, but when the seas are nasty and the boat is pitching all over the place, you need both hands to hang on to the boat. Forget taking pictures.
Would I do it again? Probably not, and that was the same verdict from all of the crew (save the captain, who’s still thinking it over). I saw the Northern Lights and the International Space Station, shared great stories with truly hilarious people, got a nice tan, and had some good sailing, but it was physically exhausting and dangerous. We fought mechanical problems like dead batteries, a borked depth finder, and bilge pump valve that decided to let water into the boat rather than keep it out. I couldn’t stay awake long enough to witness our passage under the Mackinac Bridge because I’d steered the boat for several hours prior, and needed a nap before we hit the finish line. It took me a few days of sleep to get back to my normal schedule, and I’ve still got sea legs. Amazing experience, but I only need to do it once to remember it for a lifetime.
I do have one nagging thought – if the losers get a trophy made out of beer, what would it be like to win?