Race to Mackinac
What can I say? This race was a great all-around experience, from the prep before through the race to the festivities on the island after the race. I don't have the exact logs in front of me, but here is approximately how it went down...
294 boats from a variety of classes started the 97th running of the Race to Mackinac on Saturday, July 16th. The boats ranged in size from Great Lakes 70s down to a couple of J-30s, I'd say that most boats were in the 35 to 45 foot range. The J-105 class well represented with a total of 19 boats. We prepped the boat with food and gear for at least four days and somehow managed to get it packed to the point that it looked like we were day racing. (There is more stowage on this boat than you notice at first glance, as I saw on Strategery during the delivery cruise.) The crew consisted of the owner / skipper, two other helmsmen (who are also J-105 owners), and three trimmers. We were divided into an 8 on / 4 off shift schedule, with the 8 hours divided 1 on, 1 off, etc...
We were expecting light conditions for the first couple of days, building Monday - Tuesday, and the forecasters were not far off the mark. The race started in sub-5 knot winds and it took everything we could think of just to get the boat moving. All of the gear that we had neatly stowed around the main cabin was unceremoniously tossed into the head and forepeak. We sailed out from land at first and then north towards Waukegan, which was to be our jumping off point to the Michigan side. This put us on the east side of the course, others from the fleet stayed in towards land and became the west side. The winds slowly built through the afternoon and evening.
We were not far from Chicago when we set the chute. With a couple of minor exceptions, we were to fly the chute for the rest of the trip.
Saturday night we were reaching with the chute in about 6 - 8 knots of wind and making good headway. We were still a few miles west of the rhumb line to our first waypoint, which was about five miles off Big Sable Point, Michigan. To put it in perspective, this waypoint is over halfway to the finish line, so there are a lot of different courses you can sail to get there. The trick is the shortest course with the best wind, right? Well, as it turns out the boats on the west side of the fleet had better wind, we wound up chasing our wind as it clocked around to the ESE.
Sunday morning at sunup (twi-dawn at about 0415 hours) found us alone on a glassy-smooth lake with blue skies above and fog all around. There was wind off the water, because we were still moving at about 5 - 6 knots. But
we were all alone, which was not a good feeling. During the night we had
sailed east of the rhumb line chasing the wind, and during the day we had to jibe a couple of times to take us back to the rhumb line and around Big Sable. Through the day we began to see other boats, and as we came to Big Sable we came in contact with three J105s, so we knew we were back on track by about 6 PM Sunday. The wind had built throughout the day (I think to about 12) so things were definitely looking better.
Sunday night into Monday morning things started getting really exciting.
We rounded our second waypoint - Point Betsie - so close that we were constantly watching the GPS and the depth meter. Only one boat tried to go inside of us, and they finally thought better of it and jibed out. By the charts and the GPS we had plenty of water, and had no issues. As we approached the Manitou Passage, the winds began to pick up and we could see thunderstorms to the NNW, so we got into our foulies and got ready, took down the spinnaker for about an hour. Turned out to be a good but unnecessary precaution - all the foulies did was make us sweat, but the storm brought a great change in the wind! We put up the chute and flew!
By this time we were in the Manitou Passage and it was well past midnight.
The spinnaker got to the point that you needed a grinder to help with trim.
All of the gear from the forepeak including the anchors was now moved as far aft as possible. We only had a couple of people on board with a lot of time in these conditions. I had never trimmed a spin in this kind of wind, certainly not in the dark, so I had a steep learning curve that the skipper helped me through. I trimmed for a couple of hours that morning and it got dicey for a few moments, but I never completely lost it. From the cockpit I was hearing "Let's go, fourteen five, fourteen six, fourtee - whoooo-hoooo", so I could tell the guys back there were having fun. When I asked later, we had gusts up to 32 knots and my response was that I was glad I didn't know that while I was trimming! Boat speed peaked during that run at 15.6 knots! We called in at the 45th Parallel during this run at 0430 Monday.
All of this time the wave action was not too bad - even as high as the wind got, the waves were manageable. Coming out of the Manitous we set course for the Gray's Reef passage, which is the last leg before the eastward turn to Mackinac. Conditions remained in the 20 - 30 knot area, boat speed remained around 10 knots steady. Coming into Gray's Reef we saw a bad sight - one of our fellow competitors, a trimaran, had flipped. We dropped the spin and called in a Mayday, but it was okay, the crew had been safely rescued hours earlier - was the first we had heard of it, although I now understand the Coast Guard broadcast a notice, we just didn't hear it.
Back up with the chute and we made the dash for the Mackinac Bridge and the island beyond. Same conditions as that morning, surfing in 25 - 30 doing
10+ boat speed. We beat our best peak speed, hitting 15.7 knots. The
trimmers were taking turns trimming and grinding, and the helmsmen were switching off as well - everyone was fairly exhausted by now. The boat was steady for the most part, occasionally wanting to broach. We weren't totally burying the bow, but water was occasionally coming over the high side to where I was standing at the shrouds. We were having to be very careful. From the cockpit, the skipper yelling "ease, ease, ease" and the helmsman yelling "no, no, no, I can hold it". We only got out of sync once where we almost lost it - my fault, I knew I was in trouble when I saw the clew go past the luff tape - but the twist came right out and we continued to the island.
We finished in 49 hours 17 minutes, about one and a half hours behind the leader of our fleet and about 2 hours ahead of the last boat, who lost both of his chutes in the conditions I just described. One boat retired after the Manitou Passage due to headstay issues. (Actually, two Chicago based J105s this year have had the same problem with the roller furler, the top lock nut comes loose and jams the system, and it can lead to a headstay failure - so you need to check yours as well.) The final 14 or so hours were an absolute rush! We finished 11th out of 19 boats, so, mid-fleet.
Once on the island, all of the Mac "newbies" - most of us on the boat - had to jump into the harbor to celebrate our first finish. The first cold beer was very welcome, as was the second and so forth. The island is a very beautiful place - no cars allowed - and for this one week is completely overrun by sailors. We were all short of sleep but were in no mood to actually try to sleep until much later that night.
Overall, it was a great experience - I'm already looking forward to next year!
This past Saturday was different and exciting as we tried match racing for the first time. As you know, match racing is boat-on-boat racing a-la the America's Cup, where two boats jockey for position at the start and then chase each other twice around a windward / leeward course. Another key difference from fleet racing is that all mark roundings are taken with the mark to starboard, not to port as in fleet racing. (This becomes important later on in the story.)
The racing was organized as two round robins of three flights each (a flight is a group of individual boat-on-boat matches, so since we had four boats there were two matches in each flight. The round robins were to be followed by a semifinal, best two out of three races, pitting 1st vs 4th and 2nd vs 3rd based on round robin results. This was to be followed by the finals, best 3 of 5 races, with the semifinal winners racing for 1st / 2nd overall and the semifinal losers racing for 3rd / 4th overall.
In match racing starts are key and you really have to watch the clock, because four minutes before the start you enter a box upwind of the start line that consists of the line and two imaginary lines perpendicular and to windward of the start line. You then have to cross the start line going downwind prior to two minutes before the start, and then "dial up" and jockey for position against the other boat for those final two minutes before the gun. One boat (blue) enters the box from the port side on port tack and the other (yellow) enters from the starboard side on starboard tack. Oh, and did I mention that the start line is just two boat lengths long? Given this, dialing up becomes a battle to establish and maintain rights, and avoid being stuffed into the "coffin corner" on the port side of the start line. Boat handling and sail handling are extremely important, you are luffing up a lot and the crew needs to be ready to backwind jib or main depending on the situation at hand.
After the start, the races were wind-sprints due to time considerations (you add up all of the potential races as noted above and it comes to 14).
The leeward mark was near the start line and the windward mark was maybe a quarter of a mile away. We were racing all day in 5 - 10 knots winds. So, after the start it was tack-tack-set-jibe-jibe-douse times two. When the wind was closer to 10 knots it went very very fast.
Spinnaker sets were critical - with the added degree of difficulty of setting on the starboard side. Each boat had at least one set and one douse that got fouled up because we are all used to a port side set. But the learning curve was steep, and after the first couple of races the bugs were worked out and the spin work went like clockwork.
At the end of the round robins we had two clear leaders and two clear contestants for 3rd / 4th, so the planned semis became the finals in the interest of time. We finished fourth out of four boats - our boat handling on starts was great and we had good boat speed, but our learning curve on sets and douses cost us, especially during the first round-robin. (We were
0-3 in the first round robin, 2-3 in the second, which shows how dramatically we improved.) Each boat ran nine races, which is 18 sets and
18 douses no matter the length of the course. We were all beat by the end of the day, but everyone felt that the intensity and pace of this type of racing really helped us fine-tune our crew work and develop a lot of intensity that will pay off down the road.