With constantly shifting weather models leading up to the Chicago Yacht Club’s 107th Race to Mackinac, the race came down to maximizing opportunities while minimizing mistakes.
In the days leading up to the Chicago Yacht Club’s 107th Race to Mackinac, weather predictions ranged from no wind at all to storms and 50-knot winds. Chris Bedford of Sailing Weather Service, and chief meteorologist for Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing, opened up his weather briefing at the skippers’ meeting by saying, “The weather this year, it’s complicated.” When race day rolled around, it was anybody’s guess where the wind would be.
Vern McCain’s Spirit Walker finishing out the 2015 Race to Mackinac. Photo by Barbara Hartsough.
The cruising fleet got underway with sunny skies and very light winds on Friday, but on Saturday, the racing fleet was greeted by overcast skies and steady winds.
Before the race, Quantum’s TJ Craig, on Mike and Dawn Fisher’s Archambault 40 Fishtals, said, “What this race is going to come down to is who can maximize the opportunities that come their way and minimize their mistakes.”
“Almost everybody stayed on the west side of the rum line. The boats that really got lucky—lucky isn’t the word, or maybe it is—were the boats that were a little bit east of us, but still west of the rum line,” said Craig.
The luck Craig referred to was a finger’s width of sea breeze that filled in on Sunday afternoon, taking a handful of boats up the lake at eight knots when the rest of the fleet wasn’t sailing faster than two knots.
Among those boats was the overall race winner, Vern McCain’s Sydney 38 Spirit Walker sailing in Section 3. “We made peace with the spirits above,” said McCain. “We got a lot of weather information early on, and just kind of stayed with it. I think that was probably the biggest factor.”
While many crews might cite great preparation and a lot of experience sailing together as another key factor in their success, McCain called his crew the “Wal-Mart crew”—most of the 12 members were pickups, brought on just ahead of the race. McCain had had back surgery in May, and while he’d registered the boat, it wasn’t clear that he’d be able to start. With three weeks to go, he said a friend of his called him up to say, “Let’s do this thing.”
“We put the rest of it together, and here we are. I think everybody was real conscious of everybody else because they didn’t know each other. There were no personality problems, nobody with a big ego, and if they had one they didn’t bring it with them,” said McCain.
Spirit Walker sailed the majority of their upwind work with Quantum sails. We asked McCain if there was a moment when they knew they had the race sewn up. He replied, “We went into Point Betsie and normally that can be a kiss of death, but the gods gave us a little wind off the shore and kept us rolling when the boats on the outside were running pretty slow.”
The crew of Spirit Walker – the winner of the 2015 Race to Mackinac. Photo by Barbara Hartsough.
Doug Evans’ J/109 Time Out was on a similar line to Spirit Walker, and finished first in their section and third overall. As a surgeon, Evans has spent his career working with pancreas cancer patients, and his boat is dedicated to raising awareness for the disease. Not only is this the first podium for Time Out, it’s also the first Race to Mackinac.
Evans credited much of his success to a new Quantum Code 0 he’d acquired shortly before the race, which they used from just after the start until well into Saturday night. “The Code 0 that TJ Craig and Kerry Klingler recommended was invaluable, and it helped us build a huge lead,” he said. “A lot of people have asked me about our light blue sail. I wouldn’t be surprise if Quantum gets a boost in business.”
Success wasn’t entirely restricted to a few boats in one particular line of wind. Wes Schultz’s Kokomo was second in Section 2 and 11th overall, taking a dramatically different course up the Michigan shore.
“We had a good start. We’re always are careful at the start, even though it’s only a small part of the entire race,” said Schultz. “We went east. At one point we were probably the most eastern boat in the fleet, going fast with great VMGs. We led our section for almost the whole race until the wind filled in and the boat behind us, Chewbacca corrected out on us, but we were the first boat to finish in our section.”
Schultz wouldn’t divulge what information led them to make the decision to go east, saying only, “We sail as fast as we can where the wind takes us. We do our own weather forecasting and it seemed to work out.” He also added that the average age of the Kokomo crew is 60, and that’s badly skewed by one young crewmember.
“I’ve sailed with most of these guys for 15 or 20 years. We’ve almost set a record for the Mac, making the podium for the past five years. We’ve gone 3, 2, 1, 2, 2—I’m very proud of that,” he said.
“We used Quantum sails from the beginning to the end, starting with a Reynolds sail—a reacher that Quantum CEO Ed Reynolds had developed for us for the Queen’s Cup, which was very fast.” Kokomo later switched to a #2 jib that Evans reported was extremely fast in all the conditions they used it in, including close reaching through the straights.
“I’ve known Ed Reynolds since before he sailed, when he was on his hands and knees cutting cloth, and I’ve stuck with him through the years; he’s always done a great job,” said Schultz. “They’ve got a great group of guys at Quantum, and they’re always very supportive.”
In the end, there’s a lot of luck involved in a light wind race. No matter how well you prepare, when the breeze is shutting off across the lake, you either get it or you don’t and there’s not much you can do about it. Even with local knowledge and secret weather reports, what it often comes down to is who is prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that come their way.
And like Bedford said, the weather was complicated—a heavy storm with 30-knot winds blew across the straights midday Monday. The crew on Felicia Wilhelm’s Dehler 39 Troubadour was exuberant reaching toward the bridge with a Quantum asymmetrical kite when the boats ahead of them started rounding up. Troubadour doused the kite and rode out the storm with only a mainsail, but still maintained eight knots of boat speed. After the storm blew through, taking most of the wind with it, they were again inching their way to the finish under spinnaker.
But like every Mac race, despite the flies and the heat, the storm and the cold, from first boat to last, good times were had by all. The Pink Pony was in full swing and the island was hopping well through the rum party on Tuesday.
“Sometimes you win the race, and sometimes the race wins you,” said Craig. “Maximizing opportunities when you come upon them was how these boats were able to benefit. They were ready for the wind, and they made the best of it when it came. Boat handling, preparation, and crew work is what won the race for them, along with just a little bit of luck.”
You can see the full list of results here!