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Queen’s Cup: A Great Lakes Racing Adventure

For sixteen-year-old sailor Will O’Haver, this year’s Queen’s Cup, a 69-nautical-mile race from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Muskegon, Michigan, proved to be quite an adventure. Will and his father, Dan, are team Northern Light, based in Charlevoix, Michigan. They competed in the double-handed division on their Beneteau First 36.7 for this year’s race. Here Will describes the team’s Queen's Cup experience of sailing in challenging conditions and the thrill of the finish.

This is the story of team Northern Light’s Queen’s Cup racing experience. It was one of the most challenging races I have ever completed, yet also the most rewarding. The race started in light air and two hours later than planned due to several postponements resulting from heavy fog. When the race finally started, the wind was light, but we were making headway. After about 10 miles of solid sailing, the wind died. For a while our VMG was below 1 knot, and our TTG (time to go) in the triple digits. But after some time, the wind came back, and we were sailing into the night. At this point the wind was coming directly from Muskegon (which is where we needed to go, so of course we had to tack back and forth upwind), so we followed the general rule of sailing: Find where you want to go, and don’t point there. We tacked for hours, making 4 knots VMG if we were lucky, though our boat speed was closer to 6 knots.

At about 2:00 am, when we started seeing lightning on the horizon, it confused us, as storms hadn’t been predicted. We checked the radar, and, lo and behold, there was a line of storms about five miles in front of us heading directly at us. Without cell data or great weather information, we were unsure of what was to come, not to mention the fact that we were so consumed in fog the only navigation lights we could see were the ones a few hundred feet behind us. It was very disorienting. When the storm hit, the wind came forward, and it was strong…in the 20 knot range. We reefed the main and sailed through it. We had a lightning strike so close it blinded me for a good 25 seconds. When the rain hit, it really hit! The foot of the mainsail was a waterfall straight into the cockpit. It was at this time we got an automated Mayday DSC call over the radio. After contacting the Coast Guard, we found out it was a false alarm, but it was still a scary thing to hear in the middle of a storm and 40 miles from land.

After a few hours of the same wind and weather, the fog lifted, the wind died, and we found ourselves surrounded by boats! As the low pressure system passed overhead, the wind did some crazy swirly things. It started at 15 knots on the nose, but within five minutes it went to 3 knots on the stern, then 0 knots on the beam, and back to 10 knots on the stern. So the kite went up. Setting a spinnaker at 4am is never fun, especially in a downpour! We were content when it was up, but not 10 minutes had passed when we spotted an odd low cloud and wind line on the water. We figured this was a sign to take down the kite, and it most certainly was. Within a second of the wind line reaching us, the wind went from 8 knots right on our stern to 22 knots directly on the nose. It would have been a big mess if we hadn’t taken the kite down moments earlier.

While we were flying along with a reefed main and our number one headsail up, other boats were running away from the wind with their kites up, struggling to get them down. The fog came back, and we were once again alone on the water. The sun had risen at this point, though with little fanfare as we couldn’t see it to begin with! For two more hours we sailed with wind just forward of the beam, plowing through waves left behind from the storm. At 8:45am we crossed the finish line. The awards ceremony in Muskegon was great, and it was good to see the other Beneteau 36.7s at the docks. By the time Northern Light is back in Charlevoix, we will have put nearly 600 miles under the keel, almost all of which was under sail.

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