Something in the Water

A berth on one of this year's 300 Chicago-Mac boats brings on good times and old memories

Walk the docks of the Chicago Yacht Club's Monroe Station on a busy Friday in mid-July, and there, wire-tied to the transoms of many of the boats, you'll find signs that read "Walter Heinichen, 48" or "Gene McCarthy, 51" or "John Nedeau, 57." And if the numbers seem curious at first, they certainly won't for long, for on these docks the lore behind the numbers pervades every conversation. They're notches in the belts for sailors who've devoted summers by the dozens to rollicking in that great movable feast that is the Chicago-Mac, the annual 333-mile race to Mackinac Island.

The names on the signs belong to members of the Island Goats Sailing Society, whose minimum entry requirement of having sailed 25 Chicago-Macs suggests other lifetime accomplishments: that these sailors have been on and off watch some 250 times; that they've probably sailed through 50 or 100 thunderstorms; and that they've spent over 60 days and 8,000 miles sailing from Chicago to Mackinac. But the name confers more than dignity alone; it also recognizes the musky whiffs that so likely emanate from those who've accomplished so much in sailing.

The mere existence of the Island Goats Sailing Society tells you something about the Great Lakes, and probably about Chicago in particular. For some reason-maybe it's the short sailing season, or maybe there's some divine madness that flows like fluoride in the Lake Michigan drinking water-one thing is clear: These sailors are as besotted a bunch as you're likely to encounter anywhere. Sure, Annapolis and Newport can duke it out for yachting-capital honors. New Zealand and Sweden can tout their sailorly per-capitas. But for sheer love of sailing, you'd be hard-pressed to find a higher density in any crowd.

"This is my 15th Mac," says Chicagoan Jan Promer, sitting beside me on one of the several crowded school buses that run up Lake Shore Drive to Monroe Harbor from the Field Museum, where a meeting was held for the afterguards of this year's 294 entered boats.

"There are nine people on our boat," Jan says, "and we have 177 Macs among us." In two weeks, she plans to race from Port Huron to Mackinac, on Michigan's eastern side. Then it'll be back to work for a short spell before she's off to the Azores to help a friend sail his boat to Portugal.

For this race, Jan is sailing on the Sydney 38 Eagle; my berth is aboard the C&C 115 Guaranteed. Period. By the time we part, we've established that we're fellow competitors in Section 3, so Jan says, "I won't tell you 'Good luck.' But have fun!"

I've been among these people for only a couple of hours now, and already it seems impossible not to.

A Long Fetch
I've never sailed in the Mac before, but in truth I already knew firsthand some of these things about Chicago sailors. In a sense, I am one-at least insofar as being nearly drowned twice in the local waters confers some of the rights of membership.

I was 8 and we lived outside Chicago the year my parents bought our first boat, a MacGregor Venture 25 called Lilas. Upon taking ownership, my folks promptly loaded my little sister and me in the car and hitched up the trailer and took off for Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, thinking-presciently-that a first stab at this sailing thing might be safer on a lake less Great than Michigan. It was after midnight by the time we arrived, and we kids were zonked. My folks bedded us down in the settees of the boat, still on its trailer. Next they set about learning, in the dark, how a person rigs a sailboat. I don't remember much about that night, except the steep incline of the launch ramp, then the sudden loud voices and the bustle as lake water in the cabin rose up over the sole and my parents realized we were sinking.

Fortunately, my family's sailing career improved dramatically after that first outing, but I was always an ambivalent sailing kid, often frightened of the water. We spent all our summers on Lake Michigan, sailing first out of Chicago's Burnham Harbor, then out of New Buffalo, just across the Michigan state line. I loved anchoring off those spectacular beaches that stretched on for miles and miles out of sight, and climbing those towering sand dunes, and watching the hang gliders leap so thrillingly off the edges of them. But the sailing? I could have done without that. Especially the heeling.

For five years we sailed that Venture hard, until one snowy October day when we sank it for keeps. A gale was blowing waves longways down the 300-mile-long lake and stacking them up on the end we'd committed ourselves to crossing: an 85-mile passage from Michigan back to Chicago for winter hauling. I was in the cabin when my dad and two others decided to abort and return to New Buffalo-never mind that our ride had dropped us off and driven back to the city. When the fateful wave came, I'd already donned a life jacket; my dad was in the cockpit wearing a harness with its tether passed through an eye splice at his end and clipped in across the boat. From a long way off I could see that wave coming, a single cascading breaker that was out of step with the rest of the train. Slowly Lilas lifted, and as the boat canted, all I could see out the ports was white-then the world inverted and became a deep, translucent green. Sitting wrong side up, with the shocking-cold water rising and the hatches closed, I thought the strong smell of gasoline was the strangest thing.

Somehow, and I truly don't know how, I popped to the surface and reached under the icy water to grab a handrail. On the other side of the boat, my dad was being half-drowned by his harness and struggling to find me. He eventually wriggled out of his trap, and as the waves were onshore, we all four made our way through the surf to the beach and the waiting ambulances that took us to a hospital in Michigan City, Indiana, where I first learned the word "hypothermia."

Twenty-five years have passed, and since then I've lived aboard boats and worked aboard boats and sailed across several oceans. The one thing I haven't done-till now-is go sailing again on Lake Michigan. Yet the more I think about these Chicago sailors who keep coming back year after year to this event, the more I understand something about that source from which we've all drunk. For without a doubt, that snowy day my dad took me sailing in October 1979 made me a sailor for life.

The Duluth Mafia Meets the X-Factors
It's sometime before dawn on Sunday morning, July 17, a little more than 12 hours into the 2005 Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, and I find myself thinking about that last sail on Lake Michigan and how tonight's conditions could hardly be more different.

"We're getting slobbered on," says Gerry Gavin quietly. Through the haze, we can barely make out the running lights of two or three boats-which is odd, because somewhere out here are 290 more that we can't see. Every few minutes, a low thunder of jets to the west suggests Milwaukee. Condensation drips from a point-six-ounce chute that occasionally fills just enough to lift its sheets out of the lake. Sodden black flies collect in the scuppers, and the speedo reads triple zeros.

And yet, for no clear reason, the mood among my mates is bright. We are nine aboard the 38-foot C&C 115, a band of mostly strangers who were brought together by Lands' End Business Outfitters. Having sponsored the whole event, the Lands' End marketing team also wanted to put a boat in the race. The first thing they did was tap Randy Adolphs to run the boat. Some 20 years ago, he'd skippered boats-a Frers 44, an Alden 54, a custom Frers 80-for Gary Comer, the man who founded Lands' End and who won Star-boat championships before that; now Randy directs the company's in-house fitness center. And so the first seed was planted.

A photograph hangs in Randy Adolphs' office of him as a younger man at the helm of one of Gary Comer's boats, holding an infant son in his arms. David Adolphs, now 22 years old and an avid JY15 sailor, traveled from northern California to go sailing with his dad-an impulse I can certainly understand.

To put together the rest of the crew, Randy contacted his old sailing buddy, Gerry Gavin, a former Lands' End employee who'd spent an earlier career selling North Sails from its Wisconsin loft. Gerry proved to be our tactical guru. Among other good decisions, one of his first was to call in a trio of pals from Duluth, Minnesota: Chris Juntunen, Susan Mattis Turnham, and Keith Stauber. These three, having sailed competitively together and against each other for decades, will come to be known collectively as the Duluth Mafia. They keep the boat tight and efficient and fun.

Then there are the X-factors among us: four, including me and young David, who'd never met the others before the eve of the race. To fill the other two slots, Lands' End held two competitions: one from among its employees, and one from the public. Kari Rekoske is a Lands' End technology manager who recently returned to the Midwest after having lived for long stretches in Norway, France, and Texas, where she sailed often.

The celebrity among us is Elizabeth Scheyder, winner of Lands' End's "Thrill of the Mac" essay contest, announced last February and open to the entire U.S. public. Her essay, selected from 680 entries, gained her a spot on the boat. During a pre-race parade before Navy Pier, her name was announced to the applause of the Chicago crowd gathered there, and all through the starting sequence-two hours of controlled chaos as nearly 300 boats divided into 14 sections set off at 10-minute intervals toward the north-crews of other boats kept shouting over to us, "Hey, which one's the winner?"

In fact, Elizabeth and I have a lot in common. For one thing, we're the same age, 39, and we were the same age the year our dads made lifelong sailors of us.

"For a bookish 13-year-old," her essay begins, "it had been a good Christmas-books, clothes, and even a science-fair kit. 'Just one more present,' my dad said. 'You know we're going to spend this summer at the shore, so the last present is in the garage.'

"When I reached the garage, I was amazed at what I saw: a small sailboat, bright orange, on a trailer. My dad's face was beaming almost as brightly as the colors on the boat. 'It's a Sunfish,' he said, 'and we're going to learn to sail this summer!'"

For her, the hook was set. Elizabeth mastered the Sunfish in a week and, by her account, spent a magical summer poking into every corner of New Jersey's Barnegat Bay. Her father bought a series of larger boats, and by the time she was in college, he'd bought a 41-foot Morgan that they'd planned to sail often together. But a few months later, he died unexpectedly.

"The boat was sold," she wrote. "I didn't sail much after that."

With Sunday morning's sunrise comes the breeze, and now Elizabeth and the rest of us are going sailing for sure.

Humming Toward Mackinac
The first time we hear the Five-Knot Hum is just into our 1000-to-1400 watch-a lovely harmonic that resonates up through the C&C's rudderstock. After such a long and drifty night, that hum is an unimaginably happy song.

Off to port through the morning's remaining haze, we identify Stripes, one of 10 Great Lakes 70s, the ultralight-displacement granddaddies of the fleet. "Either we're doing something really right," says Gerry, "or they're doing something really wrong."

When Stripes disappears, and for several hours afterward, we are utterly alone on this crowded lake. A warm southerly builds all through the morning. Five knots, six knots, seven knots: Hour after hour under a full main and three-quarter-ounce spinnaker, our boat speed rises as we steadily knock off the miles toward Point Betsie, our first waypoint on the Michigan shoreline.

I share a watch with Keith, Susan, and Kari. Through the four-hour hitches, Keith keeps us belly-laughing with short quips and intricate tales whose taste spectrum runs from bawdy to positively uncouth. Six times he's won the San Juan 24 North American championship, yet he's quick to point out that he isn't a professional sailor. He drives an ore train for the Canadian National railroad, and in this yachting crowd, he readily touts his blue-collar credentials. Susan is a computer consultant who campaigns a J/22 and a San Juan 24; she was a 2000 finalist in the U.S. Women's Sailing Championship. We quickly come to appreciate her keen eye for anticipating the particular ways that hell is most likely to break loose. With a skill that looks like intuition, she keeps the cockpit clear, the lines ready to run, and her mates prepared for the next move.

By late afternoon, over the horizon and just off the bow, we catch a new suit of sails. When we finally draw near enough to see sail numbers, with our binoculars we find ourselves looking down the barrels of another pair of 7x50s aimed straight back at us. The boat is Ozymandias IV, a North American 40 that won Section 6 in the 2003 Mac. It belongs to Kim Flagstad, whose company, Flagship Integration Services (www.flagshipis.com), provided the transponders to 75 boats, which send hourly position reports to computer screens back home.

In fact, I spoke with Kim at some length before the race, and she's as boat-mad as anyone out here. She was 38 years old and running her own technology company the first time a friend took her out sailing. "I used to golf," she said, "but I always found I took my business with me on the golf course. Out here, you're in a different world and away from all that." She sailed her first Mac in 1997 as crew on Ozymandias IV. It wasn't long after that when she bought the boat and put together her own winning crew.

The presence of the transponders, which transmit via ORBCOMM satellites and come with their own power supply, raises an interesting question about the tactical information each boat can fairly receive. Kim reckons 20 percent of the fleet has the technology on board to reach the Internet.

"The rules of sailing clearly state that no communication to a boat is permitted if it isn't generally available to all race participants," she said. "But the Internet is a ubiquitous data platform available to anyone who wants to make the effort to access it. Hence, it's legal."

For us aboard Guaranteed. Period., we don't know these particulars in the rules, which doesn't stop us from debating them. Upon closing with the Michigan shoreline and re-entering cellphone range, we choose to err on the conservative side and continue northward, oblivious to our own standing in the fleet. Meanwhile, the breeze all Sunday afternoon and evening is everything a sailor can wish for. My mates and I spend our sunset watch and Sunday's first dark hours savoring the simple beauty of pure boat speed. Later, we fall asleep to a new sound altogether: It's the Nine-Knot Hum, a harmonic in the steering system that's even lovelier than the midday Five-Knot Hum had been.

Never a Dull Moment
Before a broach, there are signs: the wild yaw, the unusual heel, the raised and accelerated voices from the cockpit. During ours, on Monday morning, Kari and I are in the coffinlike aft cabin trying to sleep. For my part, old memories die hard, so I'm still wearing my inflatable life vest (the manual model; I don't want it to pop till I'm out of the boat.). By this time, we're dead downwind with 20 knots of breeze in the chute, and we're hearing cheers of "Thirteen!" from the guys watching the speedo. That being well over the boat's theoretical hull speed, and with our helmsman threading a needle downwind, aerobically working the helm to avoid a spinout or a jibe, the guys on deck have called everyone aft, even those of us sleeping below. By now, the lake around us is manifestly crowded, each boat racing inside the islands of northern Lake Michigan and setting up for the half-mile-wide channel through Gray's Reef.

At 0620, we hear "Mayday, Mayday! There's a catamaran capsized near Gray's Reef." Several boats divert to give aid, and within minutes reports indicate that all three crew have been recovered safely. Still, over the next four hours, boats that haven't heard the earlier reports call in securites and Maydays to report one or several capsized trimarans, giving the impression that the narrow passage through Gray's Reef will be littered with inverted multihulls. Afterward, we'd learn there was in fact just one incident: the Corsair 31 trimaran Emma.

With so much going on and with the end of the passage so near, it's difficult to sleep. Instead, Kari and I tell each other stories. Hers are bittersweet. Before this trip, she'd done most of her sailing with a man named Doug, her husband of 25 years, whom she lost to cancer just over a year ago. He was an adventuresome guy, a professional diver, and the two of them had spent their years traveling all over the world together. On his gravestone she put four letters-"NADM"-for his favorite expression and the motto that governed their shared life: Never a dull moment.

"I can really feel him with me out here," she says. "He would have loved this."

As if on cue, the yawing and the unusual heeling and the shouting commence. Seconds later, the boat is on its ear.

It's a broach of the "disaster narrowly averted" variety. We don't jibe, thank Neptune (though, for a few hairy seconds, that seems the likeliest outcome.) And Susan saves our bacon not once but twice: in real time, as she dives from her midships settee and stops a full coffee pot and larger pot of chicken stew from adding their slippery contents to our already tossed salad of a cabin. More important than that, though: She'd planned for this event four hours earlier. Thanks to her, every line that's cast off on deck runs free the first time.

From this moment on and for the rest of the passage into Mackinac, all our drama is of the sustained and thrilling variety that besotted sailors live for.

"Geez, it's blowing near 30 up here in the Straits," says Randy, as we and a half dozen other boats scream through Gray's Reef. "No wonder those boats ahead don't have their kites up."

We douse our chute just after 0900, round New Shoal, and steer east toward the center span of Mackinac's impressive suspension bridge under main and jib-a move the crew will come to regret. Near the bridge, the wind moderates and drops to lightish on the eastern side. We get another chute up, but probably too late. Before noon and just over 46 hours out of Chicago, we cross the finish line with Elizabeth Scheyder at the helm.

How did we do? Among my mates, the answer to that question is mixed. In fact, we took third in our section-but a tantalizing two minutes behind the second-place finisher. The boat that beat us for that spot was none other than the Sydney 38 Eagle. Jan Promer's blessing-"I won't tell you 'Good luck.' But have fun!"-has landed spot on.

That Familiar Feeling
Walk the docks of Mackinac Island's inner harbor on a busy Tuesday in mid-July, and there among the rafted boats you'll find any number of the sailors who've just arrived from Chicago. Perhaps you'll meet some of the 200 members of the Island Goats Sailing Society. Or maybe you'll run into 96-year-old Karl Stein, veteran of 30 Macs, or 9-year-old Bruce Lye, who with his dad has just completed his first. Chances are good that you'll find the Duluth Mafia or the X-factors. Every one of these 3,000 sailors has reasons, private or public, for making this trip the hard way. Whatever those reasons are, they probably don't sound entirely different from what Elizabeth Scheyder wrote last March in the essay that brought her to the island.

"Something about the first twitters of spring this year, and the brighter sparkle of the river as I walk across the bridge to work each morning, has stirred that familiar feeling inside me. I smile to myself as my doodles reveal it-I must go sailing again!

"So my boss, my students, my friends-everyone will have to do without me occasionally this season, because I'm going to find a club nearby and get on the water again. My skills may be a little rusty, but I know they'll come back. I'll definitely be ready by July, sailing on again, for the thrill of the Mac!"

Tim Murphy is CW's executive editor. For more about the 2005 Chicago-Mac, including Elizabeth Scheyder's full essay, visit the Chicago Yacht Club website (www.chicagoyachtclub.org).