The two largest freshwater races in the US have been held in succession within the last 10 days and provide a study in contrasting offshore racing challenge.
The Bayview to Mackinac and Chicago to Mackinac races are both approximately the same length and end at the same finish line, but are raced from different starts and traverse courses on two different Great Lakes, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.
Both also have many entries who choose to race both races, a total commitment of 1200 miles in racing and deliveries in the month of July. It’s no wonder these races dominate the big boat racing scene in the US Midwest.
Both hosting clubs – the Chicago and the Bayview Yacht Clubs – cooperate by switching who runs first before the other. This year its Bayview’s turn, and it’s the 98th edition of this race first sailed in 1925 – which means it’s been running continuously every year despite world wars and pandemics. BYC is located on the Detroit River in Detroit, 60 miles south of the race start in Port Huron.
This race is different than Chicago’s in having two course options: the 290-mile Cove Island Course which has the boats ORC rated faster than 0.9900 TCC racing from the start at the south end of Lake Huron to a mark positioned in the northeast corner of the Canadian coast of the lake before turning due west to the finish at Mackinac Island. This race tends to be either downwind to Cove Island then a headsail fetch to the finish, or a reach to Cove Island followed by a long beat to the finish.
The Shore Course hugs the eastern coast of Michigan (shaped like your left hand) crossing bays and headlands towards the same finish. This race course is 204 miles long and is for boats ORC rated slower than 0.9900 TCC…these tend to be racers under 35 feet and cruiser/racers up to 40 feet in length.
Another interesting feature is rather than use the ORC’s All-Purpose single number handicap, each course has its own scoring course model developed by BYC after years of studying the statistical weather patterns of the race. These ratings are on all USA ORC certificates.
And while not a record, this year’s turnout was nonetheless impressive: 173 entries applied to race, with 69 monohulls and 9 multihulls accepted to race the Cove Island Course and 94 monohulls on the Shore Course.
The teams turned out to race this year, but the favorable weather did not. Starts and stops characterized the race this year, with numerous parking lots on both course areas. The fastest-rated boats on the Cove Island course could not break free, so the well-rated and well-sailed slower boats dominated the top results, with Chuck Stormes and his Corinthian crew on his Italia 9.98 DETOUR winning Division 1 overall after 55 hours of racing, only 8 minutes ahead in corrected time of runner-up HUZZAH, a First 36.7 skippered by Greg Chamberlain.
On the Shore Course the faster-rated boats had generally better results, with Division II won by Paul Hulsey’s Melges 32 HOODLUM defeating runner-up CHICO 2, Jim Weyand’s modified 1D35, by 35 minutes in 30.5 hours of racing. In third place overall and winner among the Double Handed entries in this division was Scott Sellers’s J/111 NOSURPRISE – Sellers raced with his 14-year old daughter Merritt and the two (shown above) were immediately embraced by the local media for their achievement.
Meanwhile at press time the finishers have been arriving already in the 289-mile Chicago to Mackinac Race, which started on Friday 22 July for 33 entries in the Cruising Division and Saturday 23 July for the remaining entries. This year’s 240 entries have been split into several divisions and classes (locally they call these “sections”). With a fleet this large race managers can form several classes of one-designs who race in an agreed trim on the same ORC rating to be scored in class results and with each having an ORC certificate they can be scored for overall results as well.
And unlike the BYC race where both ORC Club and ORC International certificates are acceptable, in the Chicago race those boats with ORC GPH ratings faster than 515 sec/mile must have a measured ORCi certificate (for reference a Farr 40 in one-design trim has an ORC GPH rating of 527 sec/mile).
Another contrast is in how the race is scored. The Chicago race has one course with three possible course models for scoring: a mostly upwind, a mostly downwind and an all-purpose course model. This helps refine the ratings to be more fair among the wide variety of boat types entered in the race. For this year’s race the race managers chose the Downwind option based on a solid weather forecast for mostly southerly winds in the first half of the race, switching to northwest later and at the northerly section of the lake.
These southerly winds got the race off to a fast start of downwind sailing, punctuated by strong storms and squalls associated with what veteran weather router Chris Bedford called “a mesoscale convective system (MCS),” which equates to a large mass of thunderstorms that moved across the lake from west to east late Saturday and Saturday night.
“But what made last night extra unique,” said Bedford, “is it that the first mass was then followed by another one early this morning. From preliminary reports, it appears the first round was probably most impactful with strongest wind gusts between 45 to 55 knots.”
The Racing and Cruising divisions experienced the storm systems in very different ways. The Cruising Division had nearly a 24-hour head start and was already further north in the lake while the Racing Division boats were located in the south-central portion of the Lake.
When the first round of storms hit, the winds shifted dramatically from south to north for the Racing boats. The Cruising Division’s version got more of a push from the south, further propelling them up the Michigan shoreline. Early Sunday morning, a social media report from Rocky Levy on board DAKOTA, the second boat to finish in the Cruising division, said: “We’ve had 50-knot winds knock us down and a bunch of things broke, but not our spirits! Almost there!”
Bedford said that while storms like this are not uncommon to occur in the summertime, he doesn’t recall a whole night of storms like this. “Usually, it’s a one and done kind of thing, but this year it was something we refer to as training, which is one storm after another.”
As a result, close to 30 entries retired from the race with a variety of issues from ripped main sails, exploded spinnakers, and broken equipment, to on-board minor injuries and equipment issues, but fortunately no serious injuries.
Sam Veilleux, Chairman for 113th Chicago to Mac race, commented “Ultimately the goal with our safety protocols and requirements is to help prepare our sailors and boats for situations like this with confidence. Chris’s advance weather briefings clearly outlined the impending weather to our racers, allowing them to make informed decisions in the best interest for both the crews and their boats.”
Phil O’Neil and his team on his Pac 52 NATALIE J did something rare in the history of these races: they were first to finish in both races in the same year. This was remarkable given the stark contrast in conditions in both races.
“All predictions were for it to be blowing like heck, tons of storms ripping through and very high winds,” he said. “Two [other 52’s] decided not to race, and Bob (Hughes, owner of HEARTBREAKER) and I discussed this and decided to go, and others did too. If it got too rough we would deal with it.”
He described the stormy conditions: “At one point we took our main down, the new modern rigs and sails don’t really allow reefing, so we carry a storm job and a storm trysail,” he continued. “We took the main down in 40 knots of wind, and we eventually saw 69 knots. Everyone on my crew has over 20 years experience and we talked through how we would handle this ahead of time so we came through in good shape.”
With HEARTBREAKER as runner-up among the TP 52’s in both races this year, O’Neil commented on how their rivals are also friends, and both push each other. In the Chicago race they were only 7 minutes behind in corrected time after 27.5 hours of racing, and O’Neil and team look good to win overall too.
“We’ve been doing this race for many years, and have been pushing each other to get the best out of our teams and our boats,” he said. “Its fantastic, this is the earliest I’ve ever been to the island, its usually late at night or the next morning.”
So, contrary to the slow conditions of the Bayview race that rewarded light-air prowess, patience and perseverance, the challenge in the Chicago race has been to test more traditional skills of seamanship, safety and gear-shifting for optimal speed. In the space of only two weeks, these two races have thus presented US and Canadian sailors the complete package for offshore sailing.