The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac is an Epic, and Dangerous, Adventure

Every July, the Great Lakes beckon the bold and the brave to attempt the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac. Strap on to the Gotta Wanta with us to find out what it’s really like to sail 333 miles to the finish. 

Lake Michigan is to be respected. Her waters can churn up at a moment’s notice, giving sailors a healthy dose of fear, the ride of a lifetime, and in many cases, a bit of both. As racers, we are guests on the lake’s surface and while Lake Michigan is regarded as a “lake” by name, it’s most certainly a small ocean. The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, referred to as The Mac, is the pinnacle of the summer yacht racing season. The Mac, a distance race of 333 miles, is the oldest freshwater race in the world. It attracts many of the best sailors, top teams and boats from all over our nation, and in some years, the world. Boats ranging from 26 to almost 100 feet long slip north each year from the Windy City to the Straits of Mackinac to win their class or the entire race. From storms and heavy seas, to calm waters, moonrises, northern lights and sunsets, each race north is different. It’s impressive.

Featured in the July 2019 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

I competed in my first Mac race in 2004 as captain of my own boat, subsequently competing for six more years as captain, and another seven years as crew for others. I’ve never missed a single Mac race in 14 years.

Year 15, the summer of 2018, sees me crewing for Bob Mampe, the owner of Gotta Wanta, a ‘J-122’ that measures 40 feet and sailed out of Traverse City. It’s a very capable boat, and Bob meticulously prepared Gotta Wanta for this specific race. The weather forecast is conflicted. One forecast calls for moderate-to-light winds that are fairly typical of previous Mackinac races. But another forecast calls for the near opposite: a significant low pressure pattern that will create “sporty” conditions—meaning a strong northerly breeze and steep seas. During the skippers’ briefing prior to the race, the second forecast—heavy wind from an unforgiving direction—seemed the most likely. “Know your limits,” the race coordinator announced multiple times.

The week prior to the race I had packed my backpack with only the bare necessities to save weight. Foul weather gear, base layers, waterproof socks, a winter hat and gloves, my rigging knife and my sailing shoes. On race morning I re-pack everything just to make sure all is in its place. This race, like all others, starts with another check of the weather—confirming the heavy wind and seas that we had expected. Next, a morning prayer that my friends, crew and other competitors arrive safely and without injury.

Prior to leaving the dock, we do a short run-through of our man-over-board procedure. While we’ve all been sailing for a number of years, each boat is different in terms of the systems and safety equipment used in an overboard situation. “The first thing is to yell ‘man overboard,’ and never take your eyes off the person in the water,” Bob advises. With the weather forecast as significant as it is, safety must trump competition.

The starting line.

The finish line.

For novice spectators, the race start is the most confusing aspect to sailboat racing. Competitors want to be a few feet below the starting line going full speed when the gun sounds—which results in a frenzy of milling boats, each attempting to gain advantage. Sailboats don’t have brakes; collisions happen. Eyes are wide open. There is plenty of yelling between boats, “Stay clear!” The air boils with tension, passion and competition.

We deftly negotiate the mayhem and sail cleanly on the favored end of the line until the gun goes off. Tacking the boat toward the Michigan shore, we are starting with a nice lead in front of the majority of our fleet. In moments, we settle into our routine, putting as many crew on the high side as we can and racing the next 15 to 20 minutes like it was a short-term buoy race around Grand Traverse Bay. We assess our boat speed with the other boats in our fleet, and are pleased with our ability to keep the boat under control in the high winds while moving nicely among the six-to-eight-foot seas.

The waves slap the hull, drenching our crew in the warm surface water that has blown down the lake from the north during the past 24 hours. The weather forecast is simple. A low-pressure center is moving from Wisconsin, over Chicago, and slowly to the east-southeast. Low pressure centers spin counterclockwise, and as the backside of the low pressure center is moving across southern Lake Michigan, it funnels high winds and significant waves down Lake Michigan with ease. Our goal is to sail to the Michigan shore as the low-pressure center begins to move south and east. With the winds shifting to a more easterly flow, we can tack to begin moving in a more northerly fashion up the lake.

As we sail into the middle of the lake, the winds are consistently picking up speed, topping 28 knots—almost 34 miles per hour—causing all boats, including our own, to put a reef in the mainsail. This provides crews with a way to shorten the height of a mainsail, ultimately reducing sail area and increasing control. We do this without complication, and the boat immediately feels like it’s progressing more efficiently through the waves with less heel angle and better performance.

But the wind and waves have made one crewmember seasick. No one has an appetite. We reassess the crew watch system, placing navigators on opposite watches and schedule a rotation of drivers to keep them fresh in the difficult conditions.

The significant seas make rest almost impossible. Most of us resort to sleeping on the deck, huddled over a padded lifeline that we hold like a football player grasping a ball during a play. We all have tethers that permit us to clip ourselves onto safety lines running the length of the boat so that if we fall overboard we will remain within six feet of the vessel.

We all realize that given the weather forecast, this is our long-term reality. That first evening I have an eerie image cross my mind—of falling overboard, my lifejacket failing to inflate. With my foul weather gear and safety equipment weighing me down, I wouldn’t last 30 seconds. When this thought haunts me, I am completely oblivious of the tragedy that had happened on another boat earlier in the day.

As we close in on the Michigan shore and gain Wifi, we receive the news that the Imedi, a 52-foot high performance racing yacht, lost a crew member overboard shortly after the start of the race. Six miles into the race a big wave hit the boat, causing the crew member, who was making a routine adjustment in the open stern, to lose his footing and plunge into the sea. Imedi’s crew immediately circled the boat back to the lost racer’s location, only to watch in horror as their fellow sailor slipped underwater, his lifejacket failing to inflate.

Boats stopped racing to help locate the lost racer, sending crews up masts, to no avail. His body was recovered one week later, several miles east of the starting area. The accident marked the third loss of life in the race since 2011. That year, a storm ravaged the fleet with 100 mile-per-hour winds, capsizing a boat and drowning two sailors.

Morning is met with little talk from our tired crew. The discussion, if any, is about adjustments to course, tactics and strategy. The winds are more easterly as we approach the Michigan shore, however, we also have less pressure—meaning wind.

To stick with our fleet, we tack back out into the lake and begin to feel the impact of higher winds, waves and a more northerly wind pattern. Our goal is to find a balance between the favorable wind direction close to the Michigan shore and the less favorable wind direction and more pressure farther offshore. Since we are sailing as close to the wind as possible—known as close hauled—we feel strongly that by sailing closer to the Michigan shore, we would be able to sail higher to the wind in fewer waves and with comparable boat speed to our competition. This is our plan. As the winds shift east, boats on our left will need to cross the lake and be met with a more unfavorable wind direction. As we sail up the Michigan shore, our strategy works, and we launch from fourth place in our class to second. Morale rises. “Sweet,” is the word we all repeat.

The Manitou Passage, known to racers as simply “The Passage,” is the narrow watery strip between the Manitou Islands and the Leelanau Peninsula and the only funnel for boats and their crews making their way north. A great place to spectate for those on shore, it’s also a decision point for racers. Do you steer for slightly more favorable winds on the west side of South Manitou, known as going outside the Manitous, adding a little more distance but sailing a faster pace? Or, do you stay in the channel and suffer the same fate as everyone else. The tracker shows us still in second place, closing in on first, so we follow yacht racing’s rule one for when you are in the front of the pack: Don’t leave your competition.

Every hour, we check our position relative to our competition, staring through binoculars trying to make out sail numbers, rig dimensions and boat names. “That’s the other J-122 behind and to leeward,” Jeff, a veteran sailor from California who has joined us for his first Mackinac race, says. Now, it’s up to us to stay between them and the finish.

Personally, I never like to see the competition. I prefer that they be miles behind and not 500 yards to our starboard side and within sight. Nighttime sailing, while the most beautiful, can be the hardest. In past races, I remember hallucinating about sailing around non-existent islands and brick walls in the middle of the lake. Sleep deprivation is real, and the results can be devastating for a crew. Drivers need the most concentration—sailing as they are either by the stars, by compass headings or wind angles. Nighttime sailing is when races can be won or lost, with winning teams pushing hard when others are not.

While we make considerable ground on the first place boat, we sail too far to the right and into less pressure allowing Blitzkrieg, another boat in our fleet, to slip between us and the first place boat. When the sun has finally risen on Monday morning, we are in a position of challenging from behind in order to catch Blitzkrieg. Not where we wanted to be.

The early evening prediction of a moderation in the wind speed comes true. This second evening is also considerably colder, causing an impressive amount of fog near shore. Exhale deeply and you can see your breath. Our boat speed relative to the boat in front is just a bit slower, most likely due to the fact that our rig is tuned based on a significantly higher amount of wind. Racing rules prohibit adjusting your rig tension once the race has started. While we did catch and pass the former leader, Blitzkrieg is now in first place, and based on the wind forecast, is almost unbeatable. The finish of the race is always tense no matter the speeds involved. Jeff, the sailor from California, asks about the winds on the other side of the bridge. “Do they ever change as you cross under the bridge?” The answer: absolutely.

True to form, the lead boat stalls a quarter mile from the finish. Boats to the north of the finish line are also having a tough time finishing. There’s hope.

But finish place predictions are taboo in racing. And if you call your spouse to let them know that you’ll be finishing within the hour, rest assured, it won’t happen. Just when we believe we will have enough wind to take us to the finish, Lake Huron had other plans. We begin to ghost forward at a scant 2 knots, watching as the third place boat from behind steams ahead at three times our speed.

We are tense, conjuring memories of past races left sitting idly in a windless hole a few hundred feet from the finish, as others hear their cannon one by one. We quickly rig the spinnaker hoping that the winds are veering to the south and that the lack of wind had to do with a wind shift that was difficult to detect. The flag on the Round Island lighthouse is beginning to wave, and thankfully we slip through to our finish. The cannon sounds from the island. There are smiles, handshakes and ultimately relief. It was a great race and a hard one, too. Over 60 boats retired from this race compared to over 300 that started. We finish with a second in our class, and the desire to do it all over again.

Christopher Lamb, a Traverse City resident, is a principal partner and trust officer at Old Mission Investment and Trust. Growing up on Lake Huron, his first sailing experience was in 1978. After completing the adult sailing program at NMC
over 20 years ago, and with the support of his wife Autumn, Christopher is committed to remaining a lifelong sailor and Great Lakes mariner.