Saturday July 14th will see the 94th sailing of the 333 mile freshwater Chicago to Mackinac race, one of the longest freshwater races there is. As the race has not been sailed to due wars, etc. this will actually be the races 103rd anniversary.
This offshore race is typically the largest of it’s type on Lake Michigan.
The Chicago stop of the Sailing World NOOD series had 285 boats this year. The Mackinac fleet can be expected to equal or top this entry number. As of 28 June 209 entries are listed, about half of which will race on a one design or level basis.
The outright record for the course was set in 1998 by by Steve Fossettís Stars and Stripes, which finished in 18 hours 50 minutes and 32 seconds. This is the 4th fastest sailing record when measured by average speed. The mono hull record is held by Pied Piper which in 1987 completed the course in 25 hours 50 minutes and 44 seconds. This is the 6th fastest mono hull sailing record measured by average speed.
For most of the fleet such outrageous speeds are out of the question. They either don’t have a big enough boat or the correct wind. What then defines this contest for them?
Perhaps most of all it is the course. In simple terms it takes the boats from one end of Lake Michigan to the other and often from one side to the other.
The race begins off Chicago one of the world’s great cities. You start in plain view of the immense Chicago skyline. The 1.5 miles from the Chicago coast is not enough to put it hull down. Race watchers sometimes head to the Sears Tower or Hancock building. From these heights they can follow the fleet for miles.
The starts tend to be under spinnaker. It’s the largest fleet of the year starting with spinnakers and often a dicey proposition. A proposed all at once mass start fell by the wayside. This could have been the high tension on the water moment of the year.
The first nite sees strategic choices being made. The rhumb line is drawn on the chart and on race participation plaques but not always followed. There’ll be more spread in the fleet if the conditions are upwind. If so, you can have starboard tackers off Milwaukee in Wisconsin and port tackers off the Michigan shore line. One way or the other on the order of 90 miles of leverage. If it’s off the wind you’ll spend more time near the rhumb line often jibing back and forth the imaginary line.
The fleet stays spread out. Between Ludington and Two Rivers the lake is at it’s widest a lot of area for even 300 boats. GPS’ are programmed to find Point Betsie. Once this sandy outcropping appears you are nearing the Manitou’s a compulsory passage point for the fleet. The Islands funnel the fleet together and you can begin checking in with competitors.
Often you are in this area during the Sunday afternoon call in. Boats call in and give their position. Whether this position is accurate is often a good question and an opportunity for gamesmanship.
The Manitou’s can be scenic and beautiful during the day giving a close look at the bright sand dunes of the Michigan shore. If you crossed over from the Wisconsin shore you saw a rockier and more forested coast line. For most of the fleet this is the area you are in for your 2nd nite. Hopefully the race is a 48 to 60 hour endeavor with only 2 nite2 of sailing.
Another routing option presents itself. This is to sail to the west of the Manitous. This option to the west a longer one. However, you may benefit from more wind or a more favorable angle. This option is favored by Mac vets who know the waters or those who are behind and use this gambit as a comeback mechanism.
Once past the Manitou’s you are on course for Greys Reef. The course is narrow here. A key decision can be whether to head inshore for the mystical, unpredictable shore breeze. There’s as many opinions on this as there are wind directions.
Greys Reef is a narrow light and buoy filled channel. You’ll meet up with the Great Lakes commercial fleet here. At the end of the Passage you swing right making for the Straits of Mackinac and the Mackinac Bridge. As with the Chicago skyline this landmark is visible for miles.
Often the last phase of the race from the Bridge to the finish line can be the most frustrating. You are in the lead of your class… the wind dies as you pass the bridge with the finish in site. For those behind the wind stays and 100′s of spinnakers come sailing up to you. It can be a situation where days of lead building can be cast away in an hours time.
Once you’ve arrived at the dock on Mackinac Island you not only have finished the race, you have likely completed a pretty complete tour of one of the Great Lakes.
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