The Lake Effect
The Lake Effect
Every year, hundreds of boats and htousands of sailors take on the Bacardi Mackinac Race. We brushed the salt off our seaboots and went to find out what we'd been missing. From our November/December 2006 issue.
"Sorry, JoJo," I say, "We have to get the heavy No. 1 up now." Joanne Tiborcz, the tireless bowman on Fran and Gerry Anderson's Beneteau First 40.7 Bushwacker, jumps off the rail with a grin and chirps: "No problem."
Then I finish the thought: "But you have to go up the rig and clear the halyards first." To her credit, the Canadian sailor doesn't even pause, and tightens her Petzl harness as if it were our first sail change of the day, not the 25th. If I needed any further reinforcement of the premise that the Bacardi Bayview-Mac is every bit as challenging as any ocean race I've ever done, this second day of racing is it.
Yet, my first inkling that Bayview YC's Mackinac Race is unique came two days earlier: I roll through the outskirts of Port Huron, past a liquor store with a huge banner. "Welcome Race Fans!" it read. I wonder aloud if there's a NASCAR race nearby. "Nope," says Walter Cooper, yachting photographer and Port Huron native. "It's for the Mac."
By the time we reach the banks of Port Huron's Black River, where most of the 244 entries in the 2006 Bayview-Mac sit waiting for the next day's start, it's clear that, unlike most yacht races, the general population is actually interested in what's going on. Radio and television stations have booths and vehicles stationed at vantage points near, or on, the docks lining the river. Crowds of people stroll by, looking at the boats and asking the questions non-sailors ask. "What happens at night? Do you pull over and sleep?" On a large powerboat draped with a local radio station's banners, a disc jockey emcees a beauty contest. Amidst this shoreside circus, crews load stores and sails.
It was 1925 when Bayview Yacht Club held the first Bayview-Mac. It's remembered as a stormy affair, with only four of 12 entries finishing the race. It's easy to see why Bayview chose Mackinac Island, it's a charming place, and relatively unchanged since 1925. Horse-drawn carriages and bicycles are the only modes of transportation on the 3.77-square-mile island. Victorian homes stand at the end of sweeping green lawns and overlook the Mackinac Strait where lakes Michigan and Huron meet. And as the first Mac racers learned, the island isn't that easy to get to, but getting there is worth the effort.
On the day of the race, the weather gods beamed benignly on the fleet. During an early morning weather briefing, skippers and navigators are shown a slide composed of two images that illustrate what the briefer believes the weather won't do during the race. On one side, a parking lot full of cars, on the other, a satellite photo of a particularly well-formed hurricane. Our race, said the briefer, will be neither a drifter, nor very windy. For Bushwacker, and a lot of the rest of the fleet, it was a bit of both.
On board the MaxZ86 Windquest, America's Cup bowman Geordie Shaver is convinced this year's race will be light. Bill Alcott's Equation took ownership of the race record the year before, taking 25 hours and change to sail the 253-nautical mile Southampton Course, but the entire race was windy. Most of the Windquest crew is excited about the boat's capabilities, but Shaver doubts Alcott's record will fall. "If we break Equation's record," he said, "I'll stand on the bar at the Pink Pony [where racers gather on Mackinac Island] and shave my head."
As the briefing carries on, thousands of spectators line both sides of the Black River. Seated in lawn chairs, standing on the porches of bars and restaurants, and riding in powerboats, the crowd is there to see the boats head out to the racecourse. One trio of elderly women holds up number cards, ranking crew uniforms as boats pass by. As we motor by the packed Port Huron YC, we're serenaded by a band of kilt-wearing bagpipers.
Light air plagues the fleet during the first few hours after the start. We're able to keep the boat rolling and are the second boat in our class around the race's only turning mark, the NGS buoy off Canada, about 99 miles from the start and 15 hours into the race. As we round, Lake Huron decides to throw hammers at us. The wind pipes up, and waves come at us from three different directions. An ominous dark cloud appears to our south, and as it approaches, the wind disappears completely, then blows hard from the north, then clocks, then backs, then goes down to zero, then up to 28 knots. At one point I take a break from steering and look at the scene around us. Some boats carry spinnakers in light air, others have storm jibs and reefed mains and are on their ears. If Escher had drawn yacht races, they'd look like this.