By Peter Lagergren
From the Breeze and Fueler
Fort Worth Boat Club Newsletter
Yes, dear hearts, sailboat racing is still alive and well north of the Mason-Dixon line. Why that should be is sometimes open to question. Rain, cold, high wind, no wind, hot ... actually, this sounds like racing just about anywhere. Why would any rational person want to do this? Ah, the mysteries of life.
This spring Bill Miller (Miller Time) had the bad luck to move to Milwaukee, right in the center of cheese-head land. He hadn't been able to commandeer a local crew yet so he had to call on the dregs from Fort Worth to put together a Chicago to Mackinac effort. the stalwarts he chose were Chris Bird, Lee Cash, Lori Grab, Lee McNulty and yours truly. This crew was carefully picked by Bill for the maximum compatibility and the least likelihood of sniveling during sail changes during the off-watch.
The Chicago Yacht Club had their famous party the night before the race where the serious and not so serious racers could display their drinking and interpersonal skills to a huge crowd of yuppies wandering the grounds, staring at the boats and making comments like, "Wow, I really like your boat!" to one of the paid hands on a 70 footer, whose response went unrecorded. After dispensing with all of that foolishness we went downtown to our hotel to get some shuteye. Bill's sleep was interrupted in the middle of the night by a call from the harbor where there was a five foot surge from a strong east wind. Boats were banging around and bashing each other and shedding apparently unnecessary pieces into the harbor. So Bill spent Friday night bronc riding and tightening lines and all that other owner stuff. Boy, did he look good in the morning.
We trundled out to the start Saturday morning in really sloppy stuff that turned most of the crew green around the gills, and schlepped around waiting for our starting sequence. With only 287 boats signed up this year, the line was set fairly short, just to keep things interesting. The starts for the Mac are inverted with the slower boats going out first and the fastest sleds starting last. When I talk about fast sleds, I really mean it. The one Design 48s, the Santa Cruz 70s, the 70 raters, the hot IMS boats, and to top it off, Stars and Stripes, the Americas Cup catamaran doing a demo blast up the lake to the island. Let me tell you how insignificant this makes you feel in a J/92. Oh well, there is some Walter Mitty in all of us, so why not do 333 miles in open water on the smallest boat in the fleet?
When it was our turn to go we started that most wonderful and fulfilling of all sailing maneuvers, barging. (I find it extremely gratifying that even such paragons of racing virtue as Bill Miller are starting to see it my way.) We had one of those EVENTS that you just live for. We were barging down the line with about 40 boats all jockeying for position and everybody pushing and shoving. Since we were the smallest guys and the weather boat, this should have been categorized as big trouble. Lee Cash told Bill, "Just turn down the line and see if anything happens." Bill did, the guys below panicked and turned back into the fleet, all sorts of yelling started, boats were scattering everywhere 30 seconds before the gun, a regular California freeway thing piled up and we, dear hearts, were completely alone on the line at the gun at the favored end. You should have heard all the invective behind us, all directed at boats other than ours. It was like having your kid brother blamed for something you did. We blasted off in the lead with a couple of Hobie 33s and an Express 35 for company. Since we were the bottom boat on the handicap sheet, this was good.
We sailed north with the wind progressively dying and shifting left, which was forcing us and everybody else to the western shore at Milwaukee. The bad part was that this was not the place to be; the course was 70 miles east of there on the other side of the lake. It was looking like one of those years when we should have stayed home, but the fat lady doesn't even begin to sing until Monday and it was just Saturday, so we determined to keep trying hard and dig ourselves out from under. The good news was all of the big boats were still behind us, which meant we were killing them on corrected time and they were all on the wrong side of the lake.
As night fell the wind died and we started struggling to maintain two knots on the clock, and we were getting closer and closer to Milwaukee. We took a hitch out toward the east just to get a little distance between us and the beach. I was steering the boat and was particularly unimpressed with the 120 degree tacking angles that we had in light air. It was getting cold, the moon went down, we were sailing on a header no matter which way we went, we had just been rolled by a 50 footer as if we were anchored, and life was stinking pretty bad. So Lee McNulty suggested, "Why don't we go left one more time and see if we can't catch a lift off the west shore?" So we rolled left, the wrong direction, one more time. The wind stopped. We stopped. We sat. We cursed, all except for His Highness the Lord McNulty, who has the strength of his convictions. Five minutes later the wind started, lifted 60 degrees, and we were pointed straight at the eastern landfall that we needed to make. We were alone, which was bad. But we thought we were golden, which was good.
As the sun rose Sunday morning the eastern shore came up over the horizon and we were surrounded by 70 footers and other esoterica. There weren't nobody small anywhere around. This was either really good or really bad and there was no way to tell. (This is why offshore racers have gray, or no, hair.) As the day wore on the wind began dying again. We had the gennaker up and there was no way to sail towards where we needed to go. Lord McNulty says, "Let's's jibe out to the west and get another lift." This maneuver had absolutely no chance of working twice, but we jibed anyway and pointed back to Chicago sailing west while everyone else pointed north heading for the Manitou pass. Would we never learn? The wind got lighter and lighter, the boats inshore just sort of stopped, and we could barely see them off to the east as we headed back towards Fort Worth. Then the wind filled in, we jibed, the wind lifted 45 degrees and we were pointed directly at where we wanted to go. We were the only boat moving within eyesight.
This was good. Everybody on the beach side of the course was sacrificing useless crew members to the wind gods, to no avail. As the sun fell the wind built and headed and we, dear hearts, were on a beam reach into the Manitou pass as the weather boat on the rhumb line. Nah, nah na nah na. We entered the Manitou pass between the Manitou Islands and the Michigan shore as it got really dark. You could almost see Scylla and Charybdis if the star light was just right. We fought our way back up the channel all night long and in the predawn darkness the wind gods took back what they had given.
From the Manitou Pass to Grey's Reef was a flat out drag race; no tactics, no strategy, just boat speed. We had a real problem. The gennaker only flew well in the building seas if we kept on nearly a beam reach. If we turned down the boat corkscrewed over the waves and the gennaker collapsed. This forced us off the rhumb line to the west as we reached up into the building wind. A serious situation, since we were on a straight downwind run and couldn't hold the course. Obviously, everyone inside of us would be making back loads of time as we sailed hot jibing angles. The other boats were going straight down the rhumb line, dead downwind in 26 knots of wind and surfing 6 to 8 foot seas. We began assembling our secret weapon, that most novel of all things on a J/92, a conventional spinnaker.
Mind you, this was the middle of the night, there was no moonlight, the wind was blowing pretty darned hard, the boat was crashing about in the seas and we were taking green water over the bow on a regular basis. Lee Cash got the spinnaker rig assembled mostly by feel and when the sky lightened enough to see what we were doing, we launched our secret weapon. We turned the boat downwind to the bearing to Grey's Reef and just started flying. At this point all we wanted to do was reestablish contact with any other boats so we had some idea of how bad we had been hurt during the night.
Right after sunrise Monday morning I was asleep below and Bill called me up on deck to see the scratch boat in our class, a Hobie 33 named Jonathan Swift cross our bow about 50 yards in front after 280 miles of racing. Since he owed us almost two hours and had won the Mac before, this was seen to be a good thing.
That morning Lee Cash and I had the requisite boat speed contest, where you get to drive until you go faster than the other guy, then you give it back and he tries to best your speed. This is a wonderful way to keep the boat moving and is very akin to having a bag of adrenaline hooked up to your arm. The goal is to position the boat so that a breaking wave catches the transom and you slam the boat downwave, pump the main, pump the chute and then ride the wave like a surf board. I would recommend that you only try this after being cleared by your physician. Proudly, I won by .03 knots. Bill then took the helm, a huge gust popped through, and he wiped us both out by about 2 knots. Hmmm.
We arrived at Grey's Reef early in the morning amongst a whole mob of really big boats and a few of our own. A quick run down the channel into the Straits of Mackinac, a nifty little jibe and a jib reach down the last 30 miles to the island. We stayed up high in the channel on the hope that we could eventually put the gennaker back up. and so it was. We popped the gennaker out of the bag, Bill took the helm, the wind built to about 27 knots, the seas were almost flat and we never saw the downside of 10 knots for 20 miles toward the finish. Bucking bronco time - bow either submarining or pointing at the sky, bloody great sheets of water spraying out from the beam, everybody as far aft and as far out as we could get, 12, 13, 14, all of those good numbers on the speedo the sun shining, the lake sparkling, all on the last leg to the finish line; this is why you write those checks. About three miles from the finish the wind bled off and we went back to nearly drifting through the finish line. The Mac is always different, always exciting, and never predictable.
We finished 4th in class and 10th in fleet, out of the money by about four minutes. This was a fine achievement and as a reward, we all got some sleep. Who needs dry clothes, food, sleep and all that other stuff of civilized living? That last 20 miles will make up for almost a whole year's worth of comfort. In the afterglow, the misery is easily forgotten and the truly sublime parts latch into permanent memory. And so it is.
Miller Time completed the Chicago to Mackinac Race in just over 48 hours on July 22, 1996 at 1330 hours.
Back to the Top