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The Mac Race 2014: Exhaustion and Exhilaration

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WGN Radio’s Dave Schwan participated in the 106th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, sailing on “Dark Island” in the cruising division. This is his wrap-up of the event, beginning with an audio report filed from the celebration after the conclusion of the race:

Now, Dave’s detailed recap of the race:

The Race of the Season/A destination like no other/The adventure of a lifetime . That’s what you read when you log on to the home page of the Chicago Yacht Club’s site for the 2014 Race to Mackinac Island. It summarizes the experience of sailing from Chicago’s Lakefront to the marina at Mackinac Island, 333 statute miles, and roughly 289 nautical miles away. For a newbie like me it was definitely an adventure and certainly an unforgettable experience. I’ve sailed before, but nowhere near to this extent and nowhere near the length of time we were on the water: Nearly 60 hours aboard Dark Island, with Captain Tom McInerney, his wife Judi and seven crew members, including myself.

Being on the water for a full weekend and more is a challenge in itself. The crew takes turns around the clock at the helm, trimming the sails, cooking, navigating or assisting one or more crew members with their assignments. When you’re not involved in any of this, you’re trying to catch a little sleep, no matter what time it is. When the weather cooperates, things go well. While the weather must have looked good to some for sailing during this year’s race, with clear skies and no storms, the lack of wind on more than one occasion proved frustrating. Several times we had very little wind, which left us barely moving. Decisions must then be made as to which sails to use in order to catch some kind of breeze and get moving again. Sometimes this meant moving off-course in order to pick up wind and, hopefully, move back to where you want to be. One instance happened in late afternoon/early evening on Saturday, when we were nearly “becalmed” or breeze-less. There was a little wind, but just a little and the boat moved at barely two knots or less (roughly two miles per hour). Things did not change for the better late into Saturday evening and into Sunday. The wind picked up, but the temperature dropped and those on deck all night had their work cut out for them. One crew member told me it was by far the coldest night he’d spent working the Mac. Everyone, whether they were on deck or below did their best to keep warm.

We had other challenges. First, we discovered that our engines wouldn’t fire nearly 24 hours after we began. While things started just fine as we moved into position to start the race on Friday, Saturday was a different story. Several experienced crew members tried everything they could think of to solve the problem, including tearing apart a portion of the control panel in the cockpit. Nothing worked. As a result, battery power had to be conserved. This meant the computerized instruments had to be used very sparingly and navigation was done the old fashioned way with a huge chart laid out on the navigation or “nav” table in the boat’s lower quarters. Later we discovered we had no fuel for cooking, which meant no hot food…and no coffee. Food that was meant to be heated was laid out on the top deck in the open sun with the hope that it would be warm enough to eat.

We slowed down once again several times Sunday evening as we headed into the final portion of the race. From the time we first spotted the famous Mackinac Bridge to the time we crossed under it moving toward the finish line, eight hours or more had gone by. At long, long last we crossed the finish at 2:08:37am, Monday, July 21st, coming in 26th in our cruising class. The race officially began Friday, the 18th at 3:10pm. Since we had no engine power, we were towed safely into the marina and tied up soon after. Here is where exhaustion turned into exhilaration. Moments after we were tied to the dock, families and friends of the crew came aboard to greet us with hugs, cheers and bottles of champagne. Despite it being the middle of the night, the challenges and headaches of the race were pushed aside and stories along with laughter flew from bow to stern. That spirit built throughout the day Monday as more and more boats made it in. Everything culminated with an exuberant celebration (and wow, what a celebration) with nearly 3,000 sailors, their families, friends and colleagues cheering each other on the great lawn beneath Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.

So, you may ask: With all the trials and tribulations that go along with an event like this, why do it in the first place? There are as many answers to that question as there are people that do this year in and year out. Having now been in it, my answer would be this: Anyone with a desire or passion for sailing and boating is willing to deal with the challenges to be faced. There is magic in being on the water, watching the sunlight shimmer on the surface during the day, the moon doing the same thing at night. The array of stars can be breathtaking. Sunrises and sunsets seem to take place ever so gradually, much slower than they do observing them on land. And when a colorful spinnaker or other sail is hoisted, bursting with the wind and driving the boat forward, it is a thrill nearly unmatched. Along with all this, the many captains and crew members who sail this and other races know that each is a member of a team, there to help and encourage each other to get the job done. They also know that they are connected to one of the great sailing traditions anywhere in the world. (The fact that people came in from Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere this year just to “sail the Mac” is proof positive.) I’d also be willing to bet they would agree with a saying that a long-time family friend, one who sailed in many “Macs” seemed to live by: If All That Surrounds You Is the Horizon—That Is Freedom.

Here’s to the 107th running of the Race to Mackinac!

Finally, some new photos:


The Mackinac Lighthouse in Mackinac City, dating from the 1890s. In the distance, you can see the Mackinac Bridge. (Dave Schwan / WGN Radio)