Tuesday, July 22, 2008
You know it's been a good race when you get to the other end and you want to wear the t-shirt. Even if the race was a little bit hard.
Of the three great distance classics in America, the Race to Mackinac most revels in how hard it can be: The length of Lake Michigan, Chicago to Mackinac Island, 333 miles almost annually since 1898, and we've just completed the 100th running. As Rich Stearns says, "open-ocean races run point to point, but this is four races in one."
He's talking about the geography of succeeding stages, often coinciding with weather changes and risks of reshuffling the fleet. Add random stops and restarts with passing weather systems, and most Macs are more than four races in one. Our race was that, aboard Bill Zeiler's J/122, Skye, where we went a couple of days without seeing sun, moon, stars. I have never before been on the water with so little visibility and so many boats (a record 433 or something such) and so much land to hit. I worshipped our GPS/chartplotter as we took our section and placed, we hope, pretty high overall. What a difference from the puckered navigation of yore.
But the basics are eternal. Midwest legend Dick Stearns made part of the crew (silver medalist '64 and much more) and when one of our younger guys hit on him for a sailing lesson he just said, "Close your eyes and feel the boat."
What's strange is the addictive nature of this Mac thingnot the only going cult in Midwest sailing, but it’s the 697.7-pound gorilla. The organization for veterans of 25 Macs or more, the Island Goats, describes the Mac experience using (remember, their words, not mine) these active verbs: endured, survived, suffered.
I get it.
We had it cushy, though, watching the cruiser divisions start in the rain, from our vantage point in Rich and Lori Stearns' apartment high above South Michigan Avenue. The plan to motor out early and explore up-course was abandoned in the face of reality: we wouldn't have seen a thing.
A day later, after a sweet, sweet hectic start, we were launched on what I called "the race that we know about." We had sailed through the cruiser fleet and on the rare occasions when other boats appeared through the mist, they were on the order of GL70s, TP52s, and other big, hot things whose crews must have been throroughly PO'd at the sight of our stock, 40-foot J. "We'll never know who it was that appeared out of the mist in the depths of Saturday night/Sunday morning on port gybe, and answered our "Starboard" call with what I suspect was an onboard emergency; I'm figuring that on account'a it would have felt like an emergency to us, if we'd been forced to gybe.
By and by I built up the conviction that it's not so hard to win a Mac. You just have to be fast enough and smart enough to deserve it, then you need to get lucky several times in a row, or more.
We were still feeling lucky as we made the first transition, around Point Betsy from the open lake and into the Manitou Passage where, true to Rich Stearns' prediction (he's Dick Stearns' #1 son and a sailor of accomplishment himself) boats appeared all around us as the ondeck murk cleared to an overhead cover. Somewhere in that process we passed the scenic Sleeping Bear Dunes, but I'll have to wait for some other occasion for a glimpse of it. This was my second Mac, but for Bill Zeiler, it was number 25, his qualifier as an official Island Goat. Here's Bill driving, with Star sailor Rob Maine and Rich Stearns, as a spot of sun broke through . . .
The arrival of a tiny sparrow (or near-cousin) was nothing new to me. Bird visits are common aboard boats out of sight of land, but this little guy was especially welcome. He arrived on Sunday, day two, right behind a wave of biting flies and other insects, and made regular and welcome counterclockwise circuits of the deck, chomping bugs . . . .
No fear. We named him Scrappy Skye. This was shot just before he hopped onto Zeiler's hand . . .
The arrival of a batScary Skyewas, however, a first for me on a boat. We chased him off the mainsail once, but he came right back and clung to the mast until we went into a sequence of back-to-back gybes and spinnaker peels that must come across like a WWI bombardment. The thing about sailing with Rich Stearns (J/Boats Midwest) is that he's an affable, genial Type A, and you don't often find that crossover. Never any stress, always with a sense of detached humor regarding this crazy obsession for making a slow object go through the water as fast as possible, and always ready to jump on the next job or the next sailchange. He'll invoke the five-minute rule on a shift of the breeze, then 90 seconds later he's ready to go for it. The way he recalled the process: "We went from the wrongsail to the wrongsail to the wrongsail." But truth to tell, we were always going to the right sail. It just didn't stay right for long. And the way you keep yourself eligible to get lucky is by facing up to every skirmish.
I had awakened in the morning with a great sense of well-being. I'm good with the sound of a rushing bow wave. But as we flowed on through the mist I fell to remembering that I'd just the night before had word from a friend out West that Mark Rudiger had lost his fight with lymphoma, and I remembered Paul Cayard now at sea with his family on the Pacific Cup and how fine it is that this giant of grand prix racing has seized the opportunity to sail with family and friends at a special, unrepeatable time in their lives and I have so many other friends also on the high Pacific right now, some of them alone in the solo Transpac but not alone because they yak it up every day on the SSB so they are "family" too, and all these miles pass under so many keelsand Rudiger navigated Cayard's round-the-world winand there are so many friends from all over that I'm running into here on the streets and last night the rain was bitter cold on Mackinac Island and most of the fleet was still out on the course and g'bless'em and now it's morning and I'm writing and boats are still coming in and time slips away from us and there is a sad beauty to that which seems to come directly out of this ephemeral, lovely thing that we do with water and boats and wakes that appear and disappear and there is no way to finish this sentence or as Kenneth Patchen would say, no way to begin. The sailing life is a good life. Thanks, Mark. Damn.
Rich Stearns asked Dick Stearns, as the half-hour ticked down, "Ready for a spell on the helm?" The response was a glance at a watch and, "Not for another 2 minutes and 43 seconds I'm not." In the mind of many a Star sailor, Dick's measure of accomplishment was not winning the Star worlds in 1962 but winning the North Americans something like 11 times in a row.
Father and son . . .
Come Monday morning, day three, we had horizons at last under a thick cloud cover, and one of the competors in our section was working hard to overtake us. Eagle's Wings, a Grand Soleil 44, owed us something like 45 minutes under ORR handicapping, so they were no great threat, trophy-wise, but the Skye team scrapped hard the rest of the day to stay ahead of that bigger, faster-most-of-time competition. Rich: "This could win the race for us. You know we're going to sail harder because we have them alongside."
First we got passed, slowly and steadily . . .
And then in The Race After the Bridge, Race Four, we would find a couple of shifts and get it all back.
I always go into a race expecting to win, but it was not until I had the Mackinac Bridge in sight that I allowed myself the emotion of imagining a win in the 100th Mac. Here's Lori Stearns and the bridge . . .
And a flashback to the crew that chose to sleep on deck rather than compromise . . .
Yep, to my milestones collection of Centennial Transpac and Centennial Bermuda I've added the 100th running of the Mac, and I trimmed spinnaker for Dick Stearns, and life is good . . .
Photo by Ted Martin
What was it I said that Dick said? Just close your eyes and feel the boat. Yeah, I'm still feeling itKimball