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Mac 101

2009 July 15

The year after the centennial anniversary race, the Chicago-Mackinac offers another chance at the record

ast year's 100th running of the Chicago-Mackinac Race was the biggest ever. More than 430 boats crossed the starting line of the centennial anniversary of what is arguably the world's most famous freshwater distance race. A giant post-race party on the lawn of the Grand Hotel, a fleet including some of the highest-tech boats in the world and a cast of happy sailors, were all part of the scene.

Given the production that the 2008 race was, the Chicago Yacht Club could be forgiven if it chose to take the race back to a simpler format, with fewer boats. But that was not in the cards.

Interest in the race, undoubtedly buoyed by the hubbub surrounding last year's event, will make for another large fleet this year. About 350 boats are anticipated to be on the starting line of the 101st "Mac" race July 18 for the annual trip up Lake Michigan to Mackinac Island, 333 statute miles away.

In fact, interest in the race was so high that entries closed months in advance of the published deadline.

The cruising division will return in 2009, in addition to the traditional handicapped divisions (divided into slower- and faster-rated boats) and multihull division. This year also brings the new doublehanded division, sure to be a popular option in a place where shorthanded sailing is gaining in popularity. Twenty-seven will also participate in the intermittently run Super Mac, from Chicago, through the finish line of the Chicago-Mackinac Race and continue to Port Huron, Michigan, a distance of 490 nautical miles.

The highly organized format of a large sailboat race is a necessity for a successful event, but it bears little resemblance to the origins of the Chicago-Mackinac Race. Just five boats competed in the first Mac race in 1898, which was an informal gathering of friendly competitors. Vanenna won that race in 51 hours, and the race wasn't sailed again until 1904. It was running intermittently until 1921, when it became an annual event.

The popularity of the event, more than 100 years ago and now, is due in part to the charm of the destination. Mackinac Island, Michigan, located where lakes Huron and Michigan meet, is a walk back in time, where cars are not allowed and horses and bicycles are the primary modes of transportation. Although it is a major summer tourist destination, when the Mac fleet pulls in, the downtown is overrun with jovial sailors celebrating their victories, mourning their losses and sharing the tales of another race. Even before the boats arrive, the party is well underway, as friends and families enjoy the island usually starting on Sunday, attending the annual Ladies Cocktail Party at the Grand Hotel.

For the sailors, though, the finish line off the historic Round Island Lighthouse is the goal but the journey is where the fun is. Lake Michigan is known for its temperamental weather, serving up everything from roaring storms to days-long calms, biting flies, pea-soup fog and anything else Mother Nature can dish up. And the course takes the fleet through some of the lake's most beautiful and navigationally challenging areas before passing under the impressive Mackinac Bridge and sailing the final miles to the finish line.

For the 100th running of the race last year, Chicago Y.C. organizers pulled out all the stops, assembling a record-setting fleet full of some of the best sailors in the world, throwing monumental parties and coordinating a massive effort. But the one thing they couldn't control haunted them: the weather. The start, where professional photographers and television crews looked for beautiful pictures, was shrouded in fog and chilly rain. Light air hounded the fleet, threatening the on-island festivities planned for Tuesday afternoon and causing dozens of boats to drop out. Some hearty souls stuck it out, including Little Miss Magic, a Catalina 36 Mk II, that had an elapsed time of 83 hours, 16 minutes, in the Chicago-Mackinac Trophy division, and Unknown Lady, a Newport 30 Mk II in the Cruising division, which must have packed a lot of peanut butter and jelly to make it to the finish line in just under 95 hours.

No one broke the race record, but that's part of what keeps them coming back. There's always another Mac.

For more on the Chicago Yacht Club's Race to Mackinac and to follow the fleet, go to www.chicagoyachtclub.org/racetomackinac on the Web. SAILING Magazine will be providing live race updates from Chicago, Lake Michigan and Mackinac Island at www.sailingmagazine.net.