This year I was fortunate to do a race that has always been on my bucket list, the Chic-Mac. A few months back I got a FaceBook message from Sarah Mars, who I used to race against up in Seattle. She was putting together a crew for this year’s race on a Santa Cruz 33 named Elektra and owned by Bill Raymoure. The crew that was already lined up were also good sailing friends from up north and after a visit from a few of them down here in the bay and a few cocktails at the RYC bar, I said yes.
First though, I would like to start by explaining the race. It is a 333 statute mile race (nautical miles aren’t use inland apparently) that starts in south end of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Chicago harbor. You then head due north to the top of the lake (harder then it sounds) where you hook a 90deg starboard and sail under the massive Mackinac Bridge that connects Upper and Lower Michigan and into Lake Superior where Mackinac Island sits. The course is relatively basic but with 300+ boats competing each year, the number of possible routes seems endless.
Our race started about an hour’s drive north of Chicago in NorthPoint Marina. That is Elektra’s home and the beginning point to what was truly, a long race.
The plan was that basically all of us were to fly in at the same time at O’Hare Airport to simplify the crew management. While Jeff, Sarah and I all made it, Ben and Jen got stuck in Detroit when their connecting flight was cancelled. They rented a car and were going to drive the last leg of their trip. Our point of operations was the Raymoure’s house in Lake Shore. We had several brand new sails arrive that day from our good friends at Ballard Sails and were keen to get them up and take and take a look at what we had. The plan was to deliver the boat to Chicago the next morning and use the opportunity to not only check out the new rags but to also finish all the remaining rigging items and properly organize the interior for food and sailing gear storage. We got started a little late but made it off the dock finally and heading in the right direction. We didn’t get in until after sundown and my first visual of the city by boat at night was truly awe-inspiring.
The next day, Friday, was just going to be a workday with a few unfinished projects that needed attention before our departure. We then walked over to Chicago Yacht Club along the awesome shore side where the race party was just getting going. It was quite an event with loads of non-sailors there as well. We hung out for a while in the air conditioned club and said hi to familiar faces before finally calling it a day and going home. I think all of us were mentally preparing ourselves for what we thought was to come.
1130am. We were starting right after the Tartan 10 one design fleet. The parade out to the start line was really cool as each boat would line up along the Navy Pier while an announcer recognized each boat for the surprisingly large crowd of spectators.
So the plan was that I would drive the start. I probably should have put more thought into what I could actually do with this boat. I haven’t really raced a proper keel boat in ages now and I was probably a little too aggressive at the helm. The boat end was clearly favored and everyone in our fleet wanted to be there. By the time the gun went off, we were spinning around, narrowly avoiding a collision with a rogue competitor trying to ram us and the committee boat. At that moment, I vowed to beat that guy.
So when we did get turned around and across the line, we stuck with a higher angle sailing close-hauled with our new #1. We decided to stay east of the fleet believing that there was an easterly weather system coming into play later that night. Of course though we caught up to our friend from the start who apparently also wanted to stay east and what resulted was an absolutely absurd attempt to block our passing. We got by soon enough and sailed into the evening pointing North East and sailing into the middle of the lake.
Now this is where we made a big mistake. Also I should have seen it coming as we started losing sight of our competitors as they all started changing course for any other direction but the one we were on. I stayed up most of the night slowly watching as our wind starting moving west and dying. By sunrise we had nothing. We were somewhere just north of Milwaukee in a massive dead zone. While I’ve done my share of light air racing in the Pacific Northwest, this was something entirely different. What also occurred when daylight came was something far worse then the lack of wind and the 100 degree air temperature, the arrival of the bugs!!
I was warned about these pests before I left but I didn’t realize how serious of a problem they would become. The agony of being dead tired, lying on a leeward side bunk in sweltering conditions and swatting constantly at these carnivorous creatures that take chunks of flesh with each bite. It was hell.
The second night brought us just enough breeze to sail nearly due east to the Michigan shore where we checked back into our fleet rather unexpectedly. We also got into cell phone range where we learned that we had dropped back to 13th place. Devastation would be an understatement. But we continued on, now with a serious goal and a solid idea of where we were at.
The morning of day 3 brought no wind again. We were right in the middle of our pack and did our best to stay in touch by playing all the zephyrs and small shifts that would occasionally turn up. Now that we were on the east shore, I was convinced that there would be an evening thermal. I had been chasing any and all information I could get on temperatures on the lake and on shore and my gut told me that a thermal had to show up right before sundown. I was so sure and had the crew in high spirits as we slowly work our way even further east of our fleet to bank on this. What nearly caused me to jump over board was that at sundown, we had nothing. In fact the wind was worse then what we had earlier, we could see the guys to the west of us slowly inching forward on the horizon as the sunset above them.
With defeat in our hearts, we ate our last planned meal of the race and tried to stay positive. One thing though that did happen at sunset was that the bugs seemed to back off, that was relief. But as we ate dinner in the dark, a new swarm came upon the boat and began to wreak havoc. Mentally I was fried at this point. And then a light bulb clicked on somewhere in my head. I was told before this race that the bugs would be a good indicator of wind shifts. Before we had a chance to digest our meal, the breeze began building. It was a North Easterly at 7-8 knots and clocking further east as we went. We were only a mile off the shore and making 6-7 knots with our brand new A-3. I was a little nervous of the breeze going to far east but it held steady all the way through to the morning. By sunrise we knew we had done something right. The tracker said we were in 3rd and the boats that were to the left of us the day before were now beyond sight in the rear.
The next morning was the same, light air and very little forward movement. We held steady and kept our position on the fleet. We were getting close though and as we made our final right turn towards the Mackinac Bridge, a northwesterly filled in at 15 knots and it became a frantic free for all as about 90 boats were being funneled into a narrow finish line all at the same time. Talk about a spectacular end to an amazing race. Coming into Mackinac Island for our safety inspection, I was amazed to finally see this place that we had been trying so desperately to get to. I was a little underwhelmed but happy non-the less to not only finish but to end up in a respectable 4th place. The conditions were tough but we pulled though in the end and even surprised a few of our competitors.
So at the end of it all, I’m extremely glad to have had the opportunity to experience something totally new and sail with great friends. Will I come back? That’s hard to say. But if I do, I’ll definitely be a lot more prepared and hopefully have better idea of what to expect.