Race to Mackinac: 333 Miles of Adventure

It’s 4 a.m. I’m steering a small sailboat through possibly the heaviest rain I’ve ever experienced.

The story of Noah comes to mind. Keeping my glasses clear is hopeless, so I’ve taken them off. They wouldn’t help much anyway. Visibility is down to a few hundred feet at best. I grip the wheel tightly, fighting heavy seas and using the compass to stay on course. Only a few minutes ago I was warm and dry in my berth below decks. But after four hours of sleep, it’s my turn to stand watch. Yawning, I awkwardly pull on my “foulies” (heavy weather coat, pants and boots) as the boat heaves and pitches, and I scramble up the ladder into the storm.

I’m having the time of my life.

Okay, so the Mackinac Race isn’t for everyone. But each year in July, thousands of sailboat racers like me embark on the adventure. The Chicago Yacht Club, sponsor of the event, calls it the longest freshwater sailboat race in the world. Hundreds of boats fight their way north sailing the full length of Lake Michigan, 333 miles to Mackinac Island, a tiny dot in the straits between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Sailing around the clock, it takes two to three days to reach the island depending on the weather, the size of the boat and the skill of the crew.

Our vessel is called “Radiance.” It’s a Farr 38 owned and captained by Ben White, a professional lighting designer from Oak Park. We usually make the voyage with a crew of eight or nine.  Many of us have sailed together on Radiance for more than a decade.

The first Race to Mackinac took place in 1898. It was a bet among five yachtsmen to see who could get to his summer home first. The 64-foot sloop Vanenna won, crossing the line in 52 hours. In the early years, many wealthy racers hired professional crews. Some still do. But most racers are avid amateurs like I am.

I can’t speak for other Mac racers, but for me the race is not about the destination. I can do without the fudge shops and horse-drawn carriage quaintness. And it’s not about winning either.  Of course I’m thrilled when we do well. Usually that means finishing somewhere in the middle of our section. But no matter how we do, the journey itself is the real reward.

Seeing the sunrise far out of sight of land, passing islands and towering dunes as we approach the distant shore, enjoying crew camaraderie and feeling a spiritual connection to mariners past, putting our skills to the test in rough weather and (even worse) when the wind dies down to a whisper. And yes, there are those biblical events that try our souls. Like torrential rain or the plague of moths that descended on us in the middle of the night a few years ago, leaving our boat a slippery mess. But in the end, another biblical allusion comes to mind: paradise.

Editor’s note: Want to see the boats off on their adventure? Head down to Navy Pier on Saturday, July 16, where you’ll catch the Parade of Boats, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Geoffrey Baer’s documentary about the race can be viewed on WTTW’s web site: http://video.wttw.com/video/1824843018/.

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