Chicago’s Summer Racing Season Commences

The big regatta to kick off the Chicago summer racing season gets underway this week with a few new twists to the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series lineup.
The foredeck team of Brian Kaczor’s Tartan 10 Erica deploys the human pole en route to winning the division at the 2022 Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in Chicago. Paul Todd/Outside Images

When the calendar in Chicago finally rolls over to June, the entire city, from the Lake Shore to the West Side comes alive with an unmistakable urgency and hustle: like, hey man, summer’s too short, so let’s get to it, and make the most of it. There’s a seasonal switch for Chicago’s sailors, too, because once the annual Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series kicks off the action in a big way on June 8, summer—and all the sailing that comes with it—bursts to life. And this year especially, with an early departure of Lake Michigan ice and seasonable weather for on-time yacht launches, the regatta will welcome more than 150 teams set to race in 14 divisions.

“Team Mojo is as prepared as it can be,” says Yvonne Ruhlander, co-owner of the regatta’s past winner of the Beneteau 40.7 division. “The boat has received all the love we could possibly give her: the bottom, the woodwork…you name it.”

Mojo’s sailing squad of 14 sailors has gotten its season off to a good start with a few practice days to acclimate two new additions to the team. The new sharp-looking team uniforms are in, and all the pieces are in place for another successful regatta, adds Ruhlander, especially the crew. “I think our secret has really been the greater Mojo family over the years,” she says. “We’ve been consistent in our positions—we kind of believe in position specialties if at all possible.”

The Beneteau 40.7 class lineup includes most of the Chicago area’s regulars, and as the entry window was closing, the fleet was calling in at six boats, with a possible seventh, which will guarantee the close racing the fleet has enjoyed for many years.

The Tartan 10 class has been a permanent fixture of the regatta series since its inception in the early 1990s, and while the fleet numbers aren’t what they used to be in the heydays of the T10 era, past champion Brian Kaczor, says the crème of the fleet that exists today is what makes it one of the toughest one-design classes on Lake Michigan.

Kaczor’s Erica is one of the most immaculately maintained T10s of the fleet, but even for this perfectionist, the long offseason has given him a chance to make a few upgrades to make the yacht even better after winning last August’s Tartan 10 North American Championship title. “Hopefully we’ll have another good season,” says Kaczor. “Last year was remarkable. I didn’t expect it to be that good, so we’re hoping to at least make it the same as last year.”

Greg Polek’s J/88 Alchemy rounds the mark at the 2022 edition of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series in Chicago. The J/88s this year have a smaller fleet, but the competition will no doubt remain high. Paul Todd/Outside Images

What was the magic of 2022?

“Everything started to click,” he says. “We were just really in tune to the boat and to each other, making it go fast, and I think it was just the amount of sailing we did every weekend. Sailing with the same seven people makes a big difference.”

Other prominent one-design classes in attendance include the J/70, which remains the regatta’s largest one-design fleet, at 24 entries. The class is sailing at a particularly high level these days with the J/70 World Championships to be contested in Florida this fall. For the top and professional-laden teams of the class, the next several months are about getting maximum races ahead of this rare domestic championship opportunity, so the Helly Hansen Regatta in Chicago marks the beginning of the big summer push toward perfection.

One key initiative of the regatta is to provide access to keelboat racing for junior sailors at all stops of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series, and in Chicago, three all-junior teams will be competing in the J/70 fleet—two for their first time. Three 15-year-olds will skipper these entries, alongside their respective yacht club and high school teammates, and will be mentored by other fleet members.

Jarrett Altmin’s Beneteau 36.7 Soulshine, last year’s winner in this highly competitive local fleet, which will be training hard ahead of the class’s North American Championship in September in Chicago. In 2022, Soulshine won the Helly Hansen Sailing World regatta in the final race, with a winning delta of only 3 points after seven races.

The Beneteau 36.7 fleet always close racing in Chicago, and with their North Americans on the calendar for September, the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series will provide the first hint of the runners and riders. Paul Todd/Outside Images

“It was a heck of a regatta last year,” Altmin says, “and obviously, it was hard fought and we were awfully proud to get that one. This year, we have a similar lineup, but we also have two new boats that have joined the fleet. The boat called Tried and True won the Beneteau 36.7 championship here in Chicago for years and years when the fleet was new, and now the owner’s son has taken over the boat, so this will be their first regatta after a number of years. We’re excited about that, and that our fleet numbers remain strong.”

Altmin, who has raced Soulshine for longer than he can recall, says he’s confident going into the season because his team of regulars “continues to rely on our strength, which is effectively that the same crew has raced together for more than a decade. That has certainly been the secret to our success—consistency with the crew work is so important in these boats.”

While many recurring regattas often feature returning fleet winners like Soulshine, one interesting trend to note for this year’s Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series stop in Chicago is the absence of several 2022 winners on account of their boats being sold outside the area. Last year’s winner in the J/111 fleet, John Kalanik’s Pura Vida, for example, has traded hands, as has the winning J/109 Callisto, of Kate and Jim Murray, and last year’s top J/88, Banter, of Ben Marden, will not be sailing, opening the door for other teams to lay claim to their respective class titles.

Two days of distance racing for the area’s ORC and PHRF teams will serve as a warmup for this summer’s Race to Mackinac. Paul Todd/Outside Images

While the event’s founding in 1989 as the National Offshore One-Design Regatta Series reflected the yacht racing scene of the time—that being larger one-design keelboats—the growth in popularity of handicap and distance racing in the US has since skewed the entry lists of the events toward the mixed fleets of PHRF and ORC. Host Chicago YC’s Race to Mackinac later in the summer is the bucket list sailing experience for area sailors, so the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series’ addition of two days of long-course racing around navigational marks is an opportunity for teams to rattle the off-season rust, train new crew, and prepare new sails and hardware for the big race to come.

In Chicago, these 31 teams will navigate day-long courses on Saturday and Sunday only, with only one race per day starting and finishing in the vicinity of the Chicago YC, allowing competitors to stow sails and gear and head straight to the nightly parties at the club, which are considered the best sailor parties of the summer.

On Thursday night at the Club, Sailing World will host and roast six-time Kiteboard World Champion and four-time Rolex Yachtswoman of the year Daniela Moroz, and Saturday night, alongside the bulkhead of the club, the regatta’s smallest fleet of racing yachts, the 25-inch remote controlled DragonForce 65, will provide dockside competition for those with controls in hand, and party side entertainment for those with Mount Gay cocktails in hand.

While all the action and entertainment will be hosted at Chicago YC’s Monroe Station, regatta organizers have added dinghies to the mix as well, with ILCAs and ILCA6s sailing out of Montrose Harbor further north and closer to their racecourses.