Lessons Learned During the Stormy 2016 Chicago-Mac Race

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm: heading north shortly after the start with the Chicago skyline in the background. Photo by zachary johnston

I’m not gonna to lie to you. When Rich said he wanted us to plug in the A3 I could have killed him.

It was the middle of the night, raining cats and dogs, blowing like hell and gusting into the mid-30s. We had just unrolled the Code 0, and the entire crew was hot and cold and sweaty and sleepy and soaked to the skin inside its foulies, all at the same time.

Oh, and it had only been about 10 minutes since we’d blown up the A2, our only other spinnaker.

I often tell my shore-bound friends I’ve almost never been on a long passage or offshore race where there wasn’t at least one moment when I’ve sworn I’ll never do something like this again.

Well, at that particular point in the Chicago Yacht Club’s 108th Race to Mackinac, I was really—and I mean really—never going to do something as stupid as another offshore sailboat race for as long as I lived—period.

michigan-race-map3“God-damnit!” said Ritchie Geoghan, up on the bow—not to be confused with the aforementioned Rich Stearns, our sadistic skipper, and easily differentiated from said sadist by his white dreadlocks—but that was it.

I also saw Lori, Rich’s wife, give him a look that struck me as a fairly accurate reflection of my own state of mind. But then again, what could she or any of us do? I sure wasn’t going to be the one to say out loud that discretion might be the better part of valor, certainly not in the middle of the Mac race!

The only one who didn’t seem pissed off at the idea of putting up that chute was John Poast, one of our main drivers. But then again, he’s clearly the kind of guy other people like to have as a member of their afterguard. So his mind has long since ceased to function properly, as is generally the case with those individuals who spend too much time at the back end of a boat.

And so we all got to work—Ritchie taking the lion’s share of the physical abuse as he tried to sort out the snake’s nest of lines up in the bow—and put the damn sail up, after which Mary Gail, a brand-new J/112e, shot ahead like a thoroughbred rocketing out of the starting gate.

Fine, so the damn thing didn’t blow, I thought to myself, as I took my turn at the main, periodically easing the sheet to help keep Mary Gail from rounding up into the wind before hauling it back in again. That didn’t mean Rich and John weren’t still both friggin’ nuts. And besides, what possible harm could it have done to throttle down a bit and give both the crew and the boat a bit of a break?

Fast forward about 40 hours, though, and I’m on a bus, bound from Mackinaw City to Pontiac, Michigan, on my way back to Boston when I receive the following text: “Update update. We got second place exclamation point.”

After that came a screen shot of the results for our section. Sure enough, Mary Gail’s finish time corrected to 36 hours, 33 minutes, 2 seconds: a little over an hour behind Section 5 winner Eagle, a Sydney 38 owned by Chicago Yacht Club members Jerry and Shawn O’Neil, and 1 minute 35 seconds ahead of the J/122 Sufficient Reason, owned by Mitchell Padnos of Michigan’s Macatawa Bay Yacht Club.

One minute and 35 seconds! In a flash I found myself thinking back to that sail change, the one that, at the time had seemed so rash. Granted, there are countless variables that come into play in the course of any sailboat race, especially one that’s 333 miles long. But at the same time, it didn’t take much imagination to visualize what could have happened had the afterguard decided to take it easy and slog along with that Code 0 for a while.

Rarely in this world are we provided with the kinds of cut-and-dry life lessons that flash light into a place of darkness with the intensity of, well, that same lighting we’d watched flashing all around us for hours on end during the night in question. This, though, was one of them.

John trims the Code 0 early on in the race before the first of the storms hit

John trims the Code 0 early on in the race before the first of the storms hit

Work it on out

One of the fun things about being a sailing journalist is having the opportunity to hop aboard other people’s boats and join other people’s crews to take part in events like the Chicago Mac. At the same time, though, it can also be tough on occasion. New people, new boats, crews that may be in a state of flux: there’s often a heck of a learning curve in those same early stages of a race when even the smallest of mistakes can result in serious consequences farther down the track.

Fortunately, although Rich joked that with everyone being new to the boat we “didn’t really know what we were doing,” that didn’t mean we were lacking for experience from which to draw as we figured things out. (At the time were-were putting up the doomed A2 on the way to the starting line to see how it looked, it having never been out of its bag before.)

Rich, for example, in addition to being the Chicago-area J/Boats dealer, is also a veteran of both the Heart of America America’s Cup campaign and a whopping 44 Chicago-Macs, in four of which he’s been part of the crew that won the thing outright.

Similarly, Lori has nearly two-dozen Macs to her credit, and Ritchie, in addition to having a fine head of hair, is also the owner of Ritchie Geoghan Boatworks, a company that specializes in maintaining and upgrading various raceboats in the Chicago area. Finally, in addition to John, rounding out our crew was Bill Allen, a gold medalist in the Soling class at the 1972 Olympics, and his daughter, Amanda, a veteran sailor in her own right.

Bottom line, while it may have been true that the seven of us “didn’t really know what we were doing,” we had no excuse for not giving the race our best shot—especially given the fact of our well-found boat, the latest design from the brain trust at J/Boats Inc., aboard which the only things newer than the boat itself were the sails.

We also got a nice break in terms of the weather, which went light at the start so that it would have been hard to actually break anything even if we’d tried. As an added benefit, we also discovered that Mary Gail’s Code 0 was the absolute perfect sail for the conditions. Sailing the rhumbline, which was just east of north toward Point Betsie nearly 200 miles away, we found ourselves trucking along at roughly the wind speed in flat seas with a 7 to 10-knot breeze out of the east-northeast. Better still, we were fast leaving the better part of our competition in our wake.

We may have been hot and cold and sweaty and sleepy and soaked to the skin, all at the same time. But we were also aboard a raceboat, and when you’re aboard a raceboat changing out headsails when you’re not in the mood is just what you do: or at least it’s what you do if you want to call yourself a sailor

Unfortunately, it was only about two hours later that the race began in earnest as the first of what would prove to be a series of squalls that would roll across the fleet over the next 11 hours came blasting through, forcing us to change down to our genoa and tuck a reef into the main. It was also at this time, though, that the crew began to exhibit those same characteristics that I am convinced ultimately led to the race’s successful conclusion. Specifically, no sooner had we reefed down than we were looking for an opportunity to increase sail again—which is exactly what we did only a short while later, shaking out that reef and plugging in our ill-fated A2, despite there still being storm clouds and flashes of lightning at pretty much every point of the compass.

Truth be told, looking back on that night I think we got lucky. Despite the torrential rain and fireworks, we were never once hit by anything we couldn’t handle. I’ve experienced squalls on Lake Michigan where the wind went from zephyrs to 50-plus knots in mere seconds, but not this time around. Not for nothing do sailors racing north continually look over their left shoulders to see what might be brewing in the hot summertime air over Wisconsin. I certainly was throughout the night in question! Aboard Mary Gail, though, top wind speeds never made it out of the 30s.

Which is not to say it wasn’t still a heck of a lot of work, especially for John, Bill and Rich at the helm. Nor were the conditions especially conducive to a good night’s sleep. Seven sailors ain’t much when you need to have an alert pair of hands tending the spinnaker and mainsheet at all times, not to mention a designated grinder and someone positioned to blow the vang in the event of a broach—a job not to be taken lightly when you’re doing 16-plus knots downwind in zero visibility and building seas aboard a 36-footer.

Still Racing

And so it went, hour after hour. Every so often, the winds would fall light and the rain would taper off. But then the next thing we knew one of those green and red blobs on our radar feed would come rolling in, and we’d once again be struggling to keep the boat on its feet—and not always succeeding. Indeed, it was the arrival of one such blob that proved to be the demise of our A2. One minute, the wind was blowing a reasonable 18 knots or so. The next it was climbing quickly into the 20s, and over on her side Mary Gail went as she rounded up into the wind collapsing the spinnaker.

Moments later, we were back on our feet, the spinnaker filling with a bang, only to start rounding up again, after which the chute would fill with another bang and we’d do the whole thing all over again. Of course, it would be hard to imagine a better way of destroying a perfectly good headsail, and after going through this cycle maybe four or five times our A2, not unreasonably, decided it had had enough and burst into shreds. Luckily, the Code 0 was still on deck, so we were able to promptly hoist it back up and get the boat moving again. But of course, it didn’t take long after that to realize it was not the right sail for the conditions, and we found ourselves contemplating the aforementioned headsail change.

It was then, in the course of the brief debate preceding said change that Rich said something I believe sums up not only Mary Gail’s 2016 Mackinac race but racing in general and maybe even life as a whole: “We’re still racing.”

Safe and sound

Safe and sound at Mackinac Island (from left) Rich, Amanda, Ritchie, the author, Bill, John and Lori celebrate a job well done. Photo by Adam Cort

Yep, we were still racing. We may have been hot and cold and sweaty and sleepy and soaked to the skin, all at the same time. But we were also aboard a raceboat, and when you’re aboard a raceboat changing out headsails when you’re not in the mood is just what you do: or at least it’s what you do if you want to call yourself a sailor. Not only that but being hot and cold and sweaty and sleepy and soaked to the skin all at the same time and still answering the call is one of the things that not only makes sailboat racing the adventure it is, but one of the things that makes being a sailor one of the most satisfying things you can know.

And so, we put the sail up, and not only did it refuse to disintegrate, it faithfully carried us all the rest of the way to Mackinac Island. The wind went east, sucking us in toward Big Sable Point and Manistee, forcing us to throw in a number of heavy-air gybes, and still it held. The wind went even further east off the towering sand cliffs of Sleeping Bear Dunes, forcing us to throw in yet more gybes—both there and in the gusting winds and building seas of the Manitou Passage where John managed to edge the speedo up to an eye-popping 18.2 knots—and still it held.

It even managed to stay full as we zigged and zagged our way through the fog surrounding Gray’s Reef later that night, with the moon only breaking through the clouds after the worst was over, after which it faithfully carried us straight through to the Mackinac Bridge and the finish line off Round Island. By then, with the wind having fallen to a mere 10 knots, the flurry of nighttime gybes required to put ourselves in position for the final sprint past the race committee seemed routine.

Afterward, sitting in the cockpit along with much of the rest of the fleet alongside the Mackinac Island “coal dock,” I found myself marveling at how different the world always seems in the immediate aftermath of an offshore passage. Hours earlier, we’d been picking our way through a series of treacherous shoals, worrying about keeping the boat moving in a fading breeze. Now here I was watching the sunrise while drinking a beer.

Although we didn’t yet know how we’d finished—in fact, we assumed we were in third place at best—I think it’s safe to say we all still felt pretty good about what we’d just accomplished. Not only had we managed to con a powerfully rigged sailboat up the length of Lake Michigan through some pretty hairy stuff, we’d done a darn good job of it. Better still, we’d just taken part in one of the world’s great sailing competitions, and though we’d been hot and cold and sweaty and sleepy and soaked to the skin all at the same time, we’d never once stopped racing.

And I’m here to tell ya, it doesn’t get much better than that.

See more photos here…

The Sinking of WhoDo

For the 1D48 WhoDo it wasn’t even close to being the first broach, having already blown out both a spinnaker and a pair of tack lines the night before. But it was definitely the last.

The crew of 10 was just entering the Manitou Passage midway through the second day of the race in a 20 to 25-knot breeze under overcast skies, when the boat went over on its side again. This time, though, when it popped back up onto an even keel, the helmsman immediately called out that he’d lost steerage.

Worse yet, looking below the crew saw water gushing in through a 10in hole where the rudder post had been only moments earlier.+

WhoDo

WhoDo at the start of the race. Photo courtesy of zachary Johnston/Chicago YC

“I really don’t know why it broke loose,” crewmember Russell Madsen said afterward, dismissing the idea that the boat had hit some kind of floating debris, maybe a log, as was rumored in the immediate wake of the accident. “I just know it was unbelievable how fast the water came gushing in. It was up to our knees in no time. By the time we got into the liferaft it was up to our waists.”

Luckily, at the time of the accident it was not only broad daylight, but the fleet had compressed appreciably in order to make its way through the Manitous, so that there were a number of boats in the vicinity that immediately diverted to lend assistance following WhoDo’s first Mayday.

As a result, Madsen said no more than 10 minutes went by from the time the boat lost its rudder to when the entire crew was safe aboard the C&C 30 City Girl, owned by Mark Bremer of the Macatawa Bay Yacht Club. City Girl then motored to Leland, Michigan, where it dropped off its unexpected passengers.

As for WhoDo, she remained afloat with her decks fully awash thanks to the fact that her water ballast tanks were empty, eventually grounding ashore in 30ft of water, where she was salvaged and towed to Charlevoix, Michigan.

According to Madsen, the veteran crew remained calm throughout the incident, being fully prepared thanks to both their decades of combined sailing experience and the fact they had gone through a man-overboard drill and some other emergency procedures only a short while before the start.

Madsen also said he had nothing but good things to say about the seamanship and integrity of not only City Girl, but of all the boats that diverted from racing when they learned WhoDo was in distress. “They’re the real winners of the race if you ask me,” Madsen said.—AC

Map by Pip Hurn

November 2016

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