Well, I checked an item off my bucket list: I sailed the Chicago-Mackinac Race.
Elixir – a Catalina 400 – and her crew finished next to last in her section and 122nd overall (out of 334 boats). Not a stellar finish, but not too bad for a new skipper, boat, and crew – and a boat that underwent major repairs for weeks before the start of the race, which not only significantly limited practice time but threatened to keep the boat out of the race altogether.
We made the trip in 2 days, 9 hours, and 43 minutes (uncorrected), averaging 123nm/day. Winds were generally southerly, averaging about 10 knots. We saw everything from flat calm to a sustained 20-25kts and moderate seas. Both boat and crew did well with no significant complications (although yours truly managed to fall butt first through the forward hatch…lame). We ghosted under the Mackinac Bridge Monday evening in light air and slowly worked our way to the finish line at less than 2 kts with about 20 other boats.
The Elixir crew at the awards ceremony Tuesday afternoon. From left to right: Kurt, Me, Tim, Ron (captain), Scott, Bob. Although we didn’t receive an award, a safe trip with a good group of guys was rewarding enough – and I think most of us learned a lot on this trip, which certainly made it worthwhile.
Under the bridge!
Ron, Tim, and I delivered the boat to Chicago prior to the race late Wednesday evening in an attempt to beat some weather forecast to arrive Thursday morning. As luck would have it, I had come down with a nasty cold the previous weekend and made it worse by putting in 12-hour days rebuilding our front porch. Admittedly, I wasn’t too keen on pulling an all-nighter or heading over to Chicago so early. We departed St. Joseph under cloudy skies at 2155 and motored for Chicago in flat seas and light wind. Ron and Tim were kind enough to let me go below and rest. I turned in about 0100 and slept till 0500. When I awoke, we were about 5nm off of Chicago, the wind northerly about 10-15kts, a light rain falling. We motored past the outer light and rafted up on Tsunami, a Swan 42 tied up on the sea wall just north of the Chicago Yacht Club.
We spent most of Thursday scrubbing the deck, stowing and organizing gear, and taking care of last-minute items as a steady stream of boats arrived and rafted up in the harbor.
Early morning in Chicago, the day of our arrival.
Ron had originally intended that Elixir would have her mandatory pre-race inspection weeks earlier as part of the Queens Cup race, but an earlier night race to South Haven exposed a serious defect in the boat when the bilge suddenly starting fill with water. Ron returned to St. Joseph, had the boat hauled, and discovered that the aft end of the keel was separating from the hull. I’m not sure of the whole story, but it seems that Elixir had sustained serious damage during prior ownership and been poorly repaired, leaving a number of voids in the keel stub and loads of fairing filler that provided no structural integrity. The severity of the damage suggested that Elixir and crew might be out of the race; however, thanks to Ron’s determination and a fast repair, Elixir was in Chicago on Thursday and passed her inspection with flying colors.
Running up new sails to check fit and sheeting angles.
The forecast for race day wasn’t looking too promising: light winds out of the south about 5kts. As we headed out of the harbor and approached the starting area, the wind filled in nicely at about 8kts. We popped up the asymmetrical, cruised across the start line, and began a long diagonal toward Point Betsie on the east side of the lake. The wind continued nicely out of the south at 10kts for most of the day, falling off around dusk and then picking up after sunset. The weather turned out to be great. The lake was flat, and the wind held steady at 10-13kts out of the south, swinging SE and SW at times. We sailed just west of the rhumbline all the way to Point Betsie. At one point, we were in 6th position in our section, but we were becalmed on Sunday night and watched helplessly as lighter boats with more extensive sail inventories ghosted past us.
Heading to the starting area.
Tim and Scott
Mr. Foredeck Tim.
End of the first day.
Asymmetrical pulling nicely.
By Sunday night the wind filled in and we sailed past Point Betsie and entered the Manitous with a looming thunderstorm over Wisconsin flashing lightning and threatening to overtake us. The wind backed, coming forward of the beam, forcing us to douse the asymmetrical and pop up a gennaker. As we rounded the point at Sleeping Bear Dunes, the wind piped up and we decided to douse the gennaker and fly under main and genoa. It was at this point that the sock jammed and we spent a few interesting minutes trying to sort out how best to drop the sail while Elixir dipped her rail a time or two. Eventually we blew the tack line and hauled the gennaker in under the boom and down the companionway. The excitement over, we sailed on through the night, arriving at the North Manitou light just after sunrise. We continued the rest of the way north toward Grays Reef under main and genoa with the wind off the starboard quarter at 25kts. Elixir cruised right along for hours, touching 9.6kts at one point. Sadly, several other boats were able to fly spinnakers during that long downwind passage, allowing them to slowly work their way past Elixir.
Although the wind was forecast to be light through the Straits of Mackinac, we had a steady 13kts on the beam once through Grays Reef Passage, allowing us to once again hoist the asymmetrical and make a steady 7.5kts toward the Mackinac bridge.
Just a few miles from the bridge the wind went light and came aft. We did our best to jibe our way toward the bridge, dodging the occasional lake freighter. Finally, accompanied by a few other boats, we ghosted under the Mackinac bridge.
On the west side of the bridge. Almost under.
We played leapfrog for a bit with this beautiful Offshore 36, Flying Buffalo.
Eventually the Offshore 36’s massive sail inventory gave them the edge.
Dozens of boats wait patiently to cross the finish line.
After 2 days, 9 hours, 43 minutes, we crossed the finish line at less than 2kts at 2144, fired up the diesel, and headed for our assigned dock. Inside the harbor, music from The Pink Pony thumped and pulsed over the water as racers celebrated their finish. The music made it impossible to hear anything aboard Elixir, but I went about readying dock lines and fenders in preparation for the raft up. As Elixir nosed down a narrow fairway and sailboats fell into line behind us, awaiting their chance to tie up, we heard someone on the dock yelling and flashing lights at us. Just audible over the Pink Pony music, “Elixir! Don’t dock here. Don’t dock here. Turn on your radio!” Ron got on the radio and learned from the harbormaster that he had heard the wrong slip assignment. After some close quarters maneuvering, we eased Elixir into open water and turned her bow toward her proper dock, finally rafting up around 2230. The crew enjoyed appropriate celebration and congratulations before calling it a night and falling into a well-earned sleep.
Rafting up in Mackinac on the Arnold Transit Company dock.
Tuesday morning Bob, Kurt, and I headed into town for breakfast and some sightseeing. It was my first time on the island (I’d sailed into the harbor a couple years ago). We spent the remaining time eating good food, napping, and hanging out on the boat. Racers are forced off the docks by 1000 Wednesday morning, so Ron, accompanied by his brother-in-law, Mark, left the raft up around 0800 and pointed Elixir’s bow toward Grays Reef and St. Joseph while the rest of us boarded a ferry for Mackinaw City and home.
Church on Mackinac.
Saying goodbye to Mackinac Island.
Back home with my boys!