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At its 100th running, the Mac is more important than a sailboat race

2008 July 11

I was concentrating more on the remarkable aubergine hue of the wine in my glass, a muscular Chilean blend of carmenere, cabernet and merlot, than on the NBC news program on the tube. It was the opening segment, before the first commercial touting a drug to cure restless leg syndrome or some other dread baby boomer disease, the part where Brian Williams could be expected to report that gas prices were high, home prices low and the economy in dire straits, subjects about which my curiosity had long ago been sated. Then a stunning image grabbed my attention-a blue-hulled schooner, heeling to a fresh breeze under a spread of canvas from bowsprit to boomkin, cutting a white trail on a dark blue sea. I recognized the bulky figure at the spoked wooden wheel just as Williams intoned that Ted Kennedy had left the hospital, where he had been given a virtual death sentence with a diagnosis of a malignant brain tumor, and went almost directly to his boat to go sailing on Nantucket Sound.

What I took from this bracing snippet was confirmation that for some of us sailing is much more than a pastime, sport or recreation. For sailors like Senator Kennedy, who in a moment of crisis turned to the sea and his vintage 50-foot Concordia schooner Mya, it is an essential element of life, a fundamental expression of the joy to be found in living in spite of its inescapable tribulations.

It's not a stretch to get from there to the Chicago-Mackinac Race, which this summer is passing a significant milestone-the 100th race. For some, this passage from the south end of Lake Michigan to its union with Lake Huron in the Straits of Mackinac is more than a competition-it is a ritual of that essential element of life.

In each year's race, when our boat passes Gray's Reef lighthouse, several crewmembers toss handfuls of candy or other offerings overboard for former mates asleep in the deep. The ashes of many a Mackinac sailor have been spread on the water near this iconic mark of the course, suggesting the race meant so much to some sailors they couldn't abide missing it, alive or otherwise.

The only qualification for joining the Island Goats Sailing Society is taking part in at least 25 Chicago-Mackinac Races. When I began sailing in Mackinac races, I interpreted this easy membership requirement-just being in the races, mind you, not necessarily winning a trophy-to mean the organization was mainly an excuse for old guys to have parties and tell stories. Now, from a more seasoned perspective (from which the Goats don't seem so old anymore), I see that the group had it right all along-doing it is what really matters, being there, savoring the experience year after year, and that means more than a trophy. (Don't get me wrong, parties and stories are still a big part of the Goats' mission.)

Life-affirming experience or not, the Chicago-Mackinac is first a sailboat race, and what a splendid one it is. It's not a Great Lakes race, it's America's race, one of three that can claim that distinction. The others are the Newport to Bermuda Race and the Transpac. The Mac is the oldest of the three, dating to 1898. At 289 nautical miles, it is also the shortest.

The Mac differs most from the two ocean races in that much of the race takes place in sight of land. But it is similar in one surprising way. Depending on the mood you catch it in, Lake Michigan can mimic the North Atlantic or the Pacific, serving up hard, cold beating into square waves fully as nasty as any built by a gale blowing contrary to the Gulf Stream and Transpac-style surfing in hot breezes and following seas-sometimes in the same race.

Frankly, I'll take the Transpac option anytime. A few hours of this are fairly common; a whole race of it a rare and wonderful thing. The last time that happened was 1987, when the wind blew at 25 to 50 knots from dead astern from start to finish and a number of boats broke the 76-year-old course record. I was warm in a T-shirt during the entire race-that's a Mac record right there-but I still get goose bumps recalling that wonderful, wild, surfing, broaching ride to the island.

Bermudalike conditions are less rare, though usually short-lived. But when a weather system generating powerful northerlies sits over the Great Lakes region, Mackinac sailing can be nothing short of brutal. Written narratives of Mackinac gales mention 30-foot seas and, always, the unrelenting cold.

After recovering from these ordeals, Mackinac sailors are wont to express a certain pride in the temper tantrums the lake can throw. This is a reaction to the perceptions held by some clueless saltwater sailors that Lake Michigan is a gentle and well-behaved inland lake. Well, it often is gentle and well-behaved, with breezes that are more elusive than strong; in fact, finding them is often the key to winning the Mac. But not always, and that's the point.

Thirty-eight years after he famously disparaged Mac sailing conditions as more or less wimpy, Ted Turner remains the poster boy for underestimating the lake. He got his comeuppance in the 1970 race in monster seas and 60-knot winds on the nose. And he's still paying for it by being remembered more for his gaffe than for sailing his boat brilliantly in the gale-lashed race, which he and crew did, placing second overall.

Everyone who finished that race could claim a victory of sorts. Eighty-eight boats didn't make it. It's easy to drop out of the Mac because, unlike the other classic races, land is close by. This nearness of the shore is one of the race's most appealing characteristics and one of its challenges. Check your blood pressure before you sail into the Manitou Passage at night in a southerly blow with broaching boats and steep seas funneling in from the lake.

That's sporty sailing you'll remember for a while, but what is most memorable about these upper reaches of the Mackinac course is that this is one of the most beautiful places on Earth you can sail, in pellucid water, under crystal skies, beside pristine wooded shores that on a light air night scent the breeze with the essence of pine
and spruce.

I have a friend, the longtime navigator on a perennial Mackinac competitor, who when the boat passes Sleeping Bear Dune recites the legend of the grieving mother bear and her two lost cubs told by Ojibway Indians to explain the creation of North and South Manitou Islands.

His mates have heard it many times, but it's worth retelling because it is part of the lore of a summer ritual that is called a yacht race but is far more important than that.