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Whether the winds be mere zephyrs, like those nudging Osprey's headsails at right, or gales lo shiver hearts and spars, the Chicago-Mackinac is the queen of Great Lakes sailing races. Next week when some 300 boats set forth from the Chicago Yacht Club for the 68th Mac the event will be doubly notable. First, it is the 100th anniversary year of the sponsoring CYC. Second, most of the Mackinac fleet will have just completed the Lakes' longest race, the 628 miles from Port Huron, above Detroit, to Chicago. Now they must turn around and commence the 333 miles back to Mackinac. No one has yet managed to beat the schooner Amorita's 1911 record of 31 hours, 15 minutes—or convinced the competitors that the name of the island has a terminal "aw," as the natives say it. Turn the pages for more photographs by Eric Schweikardt, and a prose slice-of-the-Mac by Dan Gerber.
No Salt but Plenty of Pepper
Agibbous moon is reflected in the water astern and Taurus is rising to the east. It would be an excellent night for laying out the constellations of July, but I'm numb with the exhaustion of too many sail changes and too little sleep. I gulp soda from a can as if it were all that mattered. It is a mild evening, warm for any time of year on Lake Michigan, and the dry ice we took on in Chicago has made the aluminum can so cold it numbs the rope burns on my hands. I had held on to the spinnaker guy too long after the sheet was let go; then, gathering sail, burned my hands again on the sheet as the shifting wind carried the raging kite astern. My elbows ache from being rapped continually by winch handles.
I had done a fair share of racing in small one-design-class boats that require advanced gymnastic ability, and had always regarded yacht racing as a genteel sport for those who had gotten either too old or too feeble to do backbends off the windward rail. It was, in my mind, a kind of Better Homes and Gardens cruise on which you set your sails, broke out the beer and suntan lotion and hoped the wind might blow you to the finish faster than the other boats, that you wouldn't get a sunburn and that your hangover wouldn't be so severe as to spoil a celebration when you got there. Now, aboard the Islander 41 Osprey, my illusions are devastated. I keep telling myself I'm having fun.
I look up at the stars again and see our watch captain, George Stevens, at the helm. He has been manning it for more than three hours, sleighriding in a following sea, and the veins on his forehead are protruding like those of a weight lifter. We lose a wave, the stern sinks into a swell, and for a moment it feels almost as if we've stopped. The knotmeter falls to 5�, we hear the stern wake break as it catches us, then suddenly we rise as if cresting a hill and speed down the other side, our wake boiling and the bow lurching sharply to port. The needle of the knot-meter surges to nine. George spins the large destroyer wheel all the way to the lock, then backs off on it to bring the bow back on line with Point Betsie light.
We have been sailing for nearly 33 hours and in another 30 minutes the watch will change and George, Jeff Fisher (the captain's brother), Steve Chambers and I will have an opportunity to get some sleep. I find myself selfishly contriving to be the first below and to grab a leeward berth so I can sleep without having to cling to the mattress.
We have fallen below the rhumb line (the most direct course from Chicago to Mackinac Island) and are pointing hard, trying to clear Point Betsie, a rocky shoal on the Michigan shore. In half an hour it will be midnight Sunday, and ever since we took the starting gun at 2:30 Saturday afternoon the wind has been shifting steadily from east to southeast to south to southwest. The red glow of the relative-wind dial now indicates that the wind is coming straight out of the west, almost 80 degrees off our port beam, and I realize we'll have to tack to make the point. The sleighride is over.
A line of thunderheads becomes visible as lightning flashes to the east and south. It occurs to me that the smaller boats we passed during the previous night are probably back there in the storm, surrounded by the thunder that we can only imagine with each pink flash through the clouds. I have been hoping that there wouldn't be any more sail changes before my watch went off duty at midnight, that I could just hold on, try to stay awake and let the starboard watch tack around Point Betsie while I collapsed in my berth. But I can see that it's not to be. Meteor, another Islander 41 and one of the boats closest to us in the complex handicap system that determines who has to finish when to beat whom, is almost within shouting distance off our stern to the east.
Our skipper, Mike Fisher, and Hank Burkhard, skipper of Meteor, have established a special race within the class; they call it the Winnebago Cup, since both Islander 41s have enough freeboard to be considered the seagoing equivalents of those slab-sided motorhomes. Because of her extended spinnaker poles, Meteor has to give us two minutes, 39 seconds, and at the moment, being slightly ahead and to windward, we estimate that we have about two minutes lead on her. I see her blooper, a cut-down spinnaker, collapse and realize that she is making her tack for Point Betsie. Though it is his off-watch, Mike Fisher has been forward watching the Point Betsie light and hollering information back to the helmsman. Every time our starcut starts to curl, Mike calls back, George falls off on the helm to keep it from collapsing, and I reach over the leeward rail to take up the slack. Several times I've been almost jerked overboard as the starcut fills and the sheet snaps taut.
Our boat beat Meteor in the Port Huron-Mackinac race, and Burkhard is trying to even the score. I call to Mike to let him know that Meteor is making her tack, but he tells George to keep steady on the helm and to work upwind in the lulls. With only her jib and mainsail, Meteor has lost some speed, but she's outpointing us and beginning to move across our wake.