Front Rudder – by Mark Reid
A Way Forward
This year will be one for the books for sure. We’re still not there yet and we have a long way to go. This summer though, there was a way forward. A glimmer of hope in the sailing and sporting world. A brave front in the face of overwhelming odds and skepticism.
Normally the July pilgrimages to Mackinac Island, Michigan from Chicago and Port Huron (Detroit basically) provide a solstice for sailing souls from a broad spectrum of life. There are your devoted yacht club members, sailing junkies, families and friends, and last but not least, rock stars.
The Mackinac races have attracted almost anyone and everyone who competitively sails from around the planet at one time or another. The list includes a who’s who from Ted Turner to Larry Ellison. This year though, there were serious questions on whether the races would be able to take place in the face of the coronavirus that is ravaging the world and disrupting life as we know it in almost every aspect.
First it was the NBA season, the NCAA basketball tournament, MLB baseball and the list went on and on as one event after another was scratched for obvious safety reasons. Even my beloved Indianapolis 500 was moved to a seemingly safe distance to the end of August from its traditional Memorial Day date. Now here we are, just a few days away and there is no guarantee that in spite of the best of intentions and science that it will even take place.
Which brings me back to the Mackinac “miracle.” This year for our magazine I was going to give my coverage a rest, because being a West Coast publication much of the interest in the races was largely my own, despite the fact that most of our revered local sailors have participated in the fresh water event at one time or another in their sailing careers.
But this year became an exception when the Bayview Yacht Club (BYC) in Detroit which hosts the race from Port Huron figured out a way forward, with a mix of 21st century technology, a rabid willingness from participants, collaborative efforts of a whole host of local communities, governmental agencies and departments and a ton of small miracles.
The passion of race Chairman Chris Clark almost paved the way on his own. Without Clark’s singular focus on how to move this race forward, it would not have taken place. As you read on the how, why and ways. It did take place and very successfully at that.
As I have written and creatively at that, Mackinac Island is an extremely special place for me. The yacht races can be anything from wave bashing, spinnaker ripping events full of terror tales to fly swatting floaters. But, by the finish everyone looks forward to at least one drink at the Pink Pony and all the reunions of friends and families who have raced up the Michigan shorelines in their cars to meet their loved ones on the island, regale in their lofty adventures and give them well deserved hugs and high fives!
My first Mackinac yacht race as a journalist came in 1987 when Dick Jennings on Pied Piper (SC70) shattered a 76-year-old race record from Chicago. There was stunned reactions by all when he came surfing under the Mackinac Bridge during the CYC’s Grand Hotel Porch Party a mere 25 hours and change after the start.
That year the race was most definitely a Great Lakes’ “Trans Pac!”
A couple of years later, while the America’s Cup languished in court and all of us were “furloughed” in different ways with very little to write or report on, I ended up working on the island for a very adventurous summer which culminated in meeting my future wife and more importantly getting the opportunity to actually sail on Pied Piper down to Harbor Springs after the races were over.
I vividly remember being at the helm as we sailed back around Grey’s Reef Light station which is the turning mark towards Mackinac for racers on the way up.
Most of the guys on board were asleep below and the steering reigns were in my hands aboard this legendary yacht of legendary design! Needless to say, we made it safely and towed in a wayward boat on the way. Anyway, back to this year.
On June 5th, about a month out from the scheduled start of their race to Mackinac the Chicago Yacht Club (CYC) had to make the difficult decision to pull the plug on this year’s race because of the COVID-19 virus crisis.
The biggest challenge the race committee faced was the fact that Chicago at the time was still in a lockdown phase of quarantine even though by then parts of Michigan and specifically Mackinac Island had partially reopened. Organizers were faced with different fates in different states. At least that was one obstacle that the BYC didn’t have to overcome. The race started and finished in Michigan. What they did have to do on Lake Huron was alter the racecourse, which traditionally reached into Canadian waters. More on that later.
As far as Chicago goes the CYC and the Race to Mackinac (CYCRTM) Committee had to announce that the difficult decision was made to cancel the 2020 Race to Mackinac due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Known as “The Mac” to everyone in the region, the 333-statute mile (289 nautical mile) race typically starts each July just off Chicago’s Navy Pier and finishes at Mackinac Island, Michigan.
“Since late February, our committee has been following a patient, pragmatic approach to understanding the imposed limitations required to comply with governmental guidelines as a consequence of the pandemic.” said Martin Sandoval, race chairman. “Unfortunately, the crew limitations required to maximize social distancing which were adopted by the state of Illinois; no release of boating guidelines from the city of Chicago; and uncertainty as to when the Chicago lakefront and harbors will open impacted our ability to conduct a safe race for all competitors.”
Starting in 1898 with a mere five boats, the Mac has evolved into a world-class sporting event. The last year the race was cancelled was 1920, due to the strains of World War I. Since 1921, the race to Mackinac has run consecutively every year, drawing up to 400 boats to the starting line each summer.
“We share in the disappointment of the sailing community, having to postpone the 112th running of the race until next year, but certainly understand the paramount safety concerns,” said Ed Wehmer, Wintrust CEO. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Chicago Yacht Club this season with its philanthropic activities focused on Chicagoland’s many communities.”
“We’re thankful to Wintrust, our presenting sponsor, for supporting us in this process as well as our many other sponsors. Many thanks go out to our friends on Mackinac Island who welcome us all each July,” said Lou Sandoval, Chicago Yacht Club commodore. “It is with heavy hearts that we cancel this year’s race, but the ability to run a safe event with consideration of the health and well-being of all participants and volunteers needs to take precedence.”
The 112th running of The Mac will be scheduled for July 16 and 17, 2021. Race organizers are asking invited competitors to consider donating all, or a portion of their 2020 entry fee to the Mackinac Island Community Foundation Essential Needs COVID-19 Response fund.
Which leads us back to Detroit and all the obstacles they had to overcome. One fact that Mac Chair Clark pointed out was that the Port Huron to Mac I race even took place during WWII because the War Department felt competition was good for morale, and that it bred a healthy activism. (Maybe more protesters should be out on the water sailing?) Just saying…
Anyway, as outlined in pre-race post and instructions, Clark outlined what the numerous challenges were and what specifically needed to be done to make the race a safe success.
In what was a litany of memos of cautions and precautions for all participants and their family members, Clark notified all that “As all racers are aware Michigan along with the rest of the world is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. While the number of cases in Michigan due to shelter in place has markedly decreased, it is still present.”
The “World Sailing recommends those over the age of 65 and significant morbidities should not race. That is a personal decision,” instructed Clark. “I would recommend that racers really isolate as best as possible starting 14 days before the race. You may want to test the crew but realize that each test is only 70% accurate and is less so if the person is not symptomatic. Self- quarantine is effective.
“Use of social distancing and masks when out of the house and in any potentially confined area is recommended. If at any time prior to the race, including up to race day a crew member feels sick, they should not race unless they are asymptomatic for five days prior to the race. If you become sick the day of the race, do not race. If you test positive you cannot race until all symptoms have abated and five days elapse.
“Per the Governor’s executive order, social distancing is still required even by racers on a boat. That means maintaining as best as possible six feet from others. In addition, in the cabin and on deck at less than six feet masks should be worn. COVID-19 spreads primarily via respiratory droplets, the mask protects others not you. The CDC states if social distancing is not possible, then masks are ok and required.”
Things you can do to limit exposure include or allow more flexibility:
- Foredeck crew, no mask needed when on the foredeck, no others on foredeck.
- High winds and/or heavy rain probably masks are not needed; exposure risk probably minimal.
- Light air, exposure risk is higher so distancing as best as possible and mask will limit risk.
- Sleeping on deck will limit potential transmission.
- For winch handles, contact risk is minimal but not zero. One can assign a winch handle per crew per shift and clean it at the end of the shift or clean between uses as best as possible. As long as your hands do not touch your face prior to washing, risk is low. But you have to keep hands away from your face.
- Have cleaning wipes on board and hand sanitizer to protect the crew.
- For food, cleaning dishes and utensils with soap and water is sufficient, but you can use disposables to decrease risk and time down below. Consider minimal cooking, using hot water only and freeze-dried food or MREs. Use fresh food (veggies, fruits, etc.) without heating requirements. Package after cleaning into per person or daily bags.
- For sleeping in berths, since hot berthing is the norm, if you have couples on board, they should hot berth together. Decreases exposure. If not, enough couples then pick wisely as to hot berthing mates. But also consider boat safety with on deck crew requirements. Remember as ventilation in the cabin for the most part is poor, the risk is highest, so mask use by all down below is necessary. Consider decreasing the need to be down below, make sure everything is stored correctly, chance of messes is decreased, bags are closed, etc.
- The head should be wiped down really well after every use with wipes or cleaning spray and paper towels.
- As best as possible try to air out the cabin and head as much as possible given the conditions.
“If at any time during the race a crew member has COVID-19 symptoms, isolate them as best as possible. Everyone needs to use protection all the time. If someone becomes ill, withdraw from the race or other area where contact with others is possible and make way to an area with a hospital,” as guidelines set forth by Dr. Marc S. Rosenthal, GPSC Fleet Surgeon.
“As we all are aware, this is a very unusual year,” advised Clark in a memo less than three weeks to the planned start of the race. “On June 19, 2020 I went to Mackinac Island to meet with the key people we depend on to help us run the race. The good news is Shepler’s Ferry, Grand Hotel and the Mayor’s office are prepared and excited to have the Race come to Mackinac Island.
“I am very disappointed to report that the DNR who operates the harbor has not completed the plans and policies that are necessary for us to use the harbor as we have in the past. It is possible that they may rescind our Contract for the harbor.”
“This does NOT mean we are canceling the race,” emphasized Clark. “We are working with the DNR to determine how many boats we will be able to put in the harbor, if any. One thing that is certain, if we are able to access the harbor the restrictions will be in excess of the normal social distancing guidelines. Given some rough guidelines that have been discussed by the DNR, we could be limited to 15ish boats in the harbor.
“The DNR is looking at other DNR harbors in the area like Mackinac City and St. Ignace to determine if there is any way to use those harbors to accommodate boats. The DNR has informed me that harbors have damage due to the high water. Some harbors are closed, others are severely limited. If at any time this year you plan on going into a State-owned harbor, it is strongly advised you check with the local Harbor Masters.
“We have secured the coal docks on Mackinac Island, but these docks will not be able to accommodate all the boats. Currently the plan is to allow very short term tie ups at the coal docks. The time may be limited. You will be able to tie up, drop off crew, organize the boat and then the boat MUST leave so we can accommodate other boats.
“The lack of clarity from the DNR may impact the plan for awards on the island. We will just have to be patient and see how this all develops,” said Clark in advance of the race. “I want to make it very clear that this is a DNR issue and NOT a Mackinac Island issue. The Island is open for business, looks great and raring to go. Some businesses have not opened yet, but most are open. There are very few that have posted signs that they will not be opening in 2020.
“I completely understand that this amount of uncertainty may be the last straw for some of you,” said Clark. “I strongly encourage everyone to focus on the positive. We are racing and very few others are this season. Let’s sail hard, have fun and stay safe. Stay Patient and StayFlexible. The only known this year is there will be more changes!”
As with every alert Clark always emphasized: “The race is NOT canceled!
“I am very disappointed to report that the Mackinac Island Harbor will NOT be available to the race this year,” said Clark. “After months of promises, the DNR has finally sent the requirements that the race must comply with. After reviewing the contract, we have determined that it is impossible to comply. In our opinion the requirements go well beyond all other controls currently in place at any other place on the island and other state facilities.
“Since the issue with the DNR is specifically related to the ‘Event’ and not private citizens, we have officially informed the DNR that we will not be utilizing the harbor and have requested that the docks be released and made available for private reservation. It is now in the DNR’s hands to make these docks available.
“Everyone competing in the race is now responsible for individually arranging docking for their boat after the race. The DNR has provided cursory availability at nearby state harbors.
“Currently, I do not trust that data enough to share it,” stated Clark in a memo less than two weeks to the start. “I strongly encourage everyone to go online or call the harbors directly to make reservations. I strongly encourage calling the Mackinac Island Harbor to make a reservation. As stated above we have requested that these docks be made available for reservations.
“Based on this information, any boat that wants to withdraw because we will not have access to the harbor at this time can do so by June 30, 2020. You can choose to have a refund or apply your entry fee to the 2021 race.
“The awards on Mackinac Island are cancelled. The flag awards will be given at Bayview Yacht Club as soon as this can be practically arranged after the race,” wrote Clark. “We have received the following warning from customs border patrol. The border closure has been extended to July 21. Any pleasure boats, including the sailors are NOT allowed to cross the imaginary border line. They are considered Non-Essential Craft. Please make sure all the skippers understand this issue.
“There will be no finish line trailer on the Island. We will be 100% utilizing the “Yellowbrick” technology to score the race,” continued Clark. “The sailing instructions require every boat to note in the ships log their time of finish. Please read the NOR, all amendments, and the SI’s to make sure you understand the finish line. It is a bearing from the Abandoned Round Island Light House.
“If it were me as the navigator of any boat, I would recommend sailing (racing) until well past the finish line. This method of finish is not new, just new to us. Many races are finished by a bearing. Many races are finished by ‘Yellowbrick.’
“As always, the safety of a boat and its crew is the sole and inescapable responsibility of the Person-in-Charge. The publication of these precautions in no way limits or reduces the complete and unlimited responsibility of the Person-in-Charge.
“I think I can finally say, See you at the Coal Docks on Mackinac Island!”
I talked to Chris on several occasions prior to the race while he was making all the tough calls and jumping through continuous hoops and hurdles, meanwhile staying completely focused and positive.
I went up to the Island myself a few weeks before the start of the race to talk with the DNR Harbormaster and with Mayor (for life) Margaret Doud to get clarifications on events, but also and more importantly to catch the lilacs in bloom! Even though the Lilac Festival fell victim to the virus, the lilacs themselves were resplendent in pink, purple, white and violet in a gorgeous translucent varietal of colors.
We were all keeping our fingers crossed because the goalposts kept changing. But at least in my mind if not others we were fortunate to be in this place because of the vigilant efforts of “Big Gretch!” Our governor, Gretchen Whitmer, forcefully though not entirely without controversy unilaterally has guided us through this crisis.
So, with all the efforts of Clark and many others the race did take place and though the party in Port Huron was rather muted compared to other years, we were lucky that of all things the weather cooperated!
The Port Huron to Mackinac Race was first held in 1925 with 12 boats. This was the 96th consecutive race which is sailed on Lake Huron, and is approximately 245 miles in length give or take. There usually are anywhere between 200 to 300 boats in the race. This year for obvious reasons there were 105 on the starting line, which was pretty amazing considering all that the BYC had to go through to get the show on the road.
Clark was sailing this year on Tor Hough’s Santa Cruz 70, Ohana (ex-Equation.)
“It was a ton of fun, an absolute fantastic race!” exclaimed Clark. “The old girl got us up here in great shape as we finished 3rd in the race and 3rd in class.”
There were four SC 70’s and four TP (GL) 52’s in what was the “turbo” class for all practical purposes.
“When you get that many big boats on the starting line together it can be a little sporty,” said Clark. “But it was very civilized. The race was upwind the entire way. No ‘party’ sails (spinnakers) at all.
“It turned into a real slog,” said Clark. “It was breezy and bumpy, but it was a fantastic sail! A lot of work, but well worth it.
Owner Tor Hough, who just bought the boat and crewed it with parts of his own past crews and a patchwork of Equation sailors as well, said that, “It was 15 to 20 knots at the start with a little bit of light air in places at the beginning, but we lined up as many people on the rail as we could to keep it flat and go.
“We spent six hours of the race a quarter mile from Evolution and had all the other 70’s in sight throughout the race,” said Hough, who has raced in 28 Port Huron to Macs. “It was boat vs. boat matching with a false tack here and there to try to get a little separation.
“I just got to the boat about a month ago,” he said. “I’m kinda like the deer in the headlights guy trying to figure out how to put the whole program together in a short amount of time.”
The challenges for the race were immense, first and foremost; don’t stray into Canadian waters!
Al Declercq from Doyle Sails Detroit was sailing on the Melges 37, Jerome, and was one of the many who parked their boats in St. Ignace this year because of the limitations of dock space and social distancing at Mackinac Island’s marina.
Normally, most but not all of the boats would raft together at the marina’s 70 or so odd slips which were all reserved by BYC and the party would get started. But not this year!
St. Ignace is a small industrial port city in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Ferry boats to the island run from there and Mackinac City.
“The Bayview Mackinac race was the first major race in North America this year. All of the traditional races had been cancelled or rescheduled,” said Declercq. “I believe Chris Clark and his team at Bayview deserve a lot of credit for getting us all to the starting line. It was evident that most of the competitors really wanted to race. The logistics associated with this type of race are substantial.
“It can be difficult to plan when you are not certain a race will be run. In the end, the competitors did not care what hoops they needed to jump through. If they couldn’t dock on Mackinac Island, that was okay. Some of the boats crossed the finish line and proceeded home or to Harbor Springs. Some boats docked in St. Ignace or Mackinac City. At the last minute, the state of Michigan opened the Mackinac Island Harbor up and any boat that wanted to was able to get a slip on the island.
“This year’s race was a challenging one. We sailed upwind for the entire race. This was my 53rd Mackinac race and I never remember beating for the entire race in the past. Most of the time the wind speeds were between 13 and 18 knots,” said Declercq. “For approximately eight hours we encountered 25 to 30 knots of wind. The waves built during this time period and it was pretty miserable. Gradually the wind dropped down to 15 knots.
“I was sailing on Fred Detwiler’s Melges ILC 37, Jerome. The boat was named after our longtime friend and Bayview bartender who passed away last year. It was nice to win one for Jerome, who I am confident was looking down on us smiling as only Jerome could do and saying: “That’s my boat.”
“Fred and I have sailed over 20 Mackinac races together. Fred’s son, Ward and our son, Matthew, were part of the crew as well. They have become the best of friends as well. This is the 12th Bayview Mackinac race that Matthew and I have sailed together and I cherish all of them. Sailing is a special sport, in part because of the bond it creates with families and crew,” said Declercq.
“This event would not have happened without Chris Clark,” said Jeff Maier, the BYC’s principal race officer. “He did all the heavy lifting. The abuse he had to take, whether it was from competitors, city officials, DNR and governmental regulatory authorities etc.; he put it on his shoulders and did a remarkable job!
“He was always upbeat and always very CLEAR on his email updates that were sent out on how we can do the event legally and safely,” said Maier.
“One of the huge obstacles for the race was the International border, which was the out of bounds line. If you’re stopped by anyone be it Homeland Security, Border Patrol, Canadian authorities etc. you are on your own. You’ve been warned. If you get stopped, don’t expect to file for a redress.
“Since the race began on an upwind beat, there would have been plenty of opportunities to go into Canadian waters to gain an advantage. A lot of competitors called in and said ‘our software is telling us we have to go Canada,’ but the rules are usually used as a sword, not as a shield and we decided to take that sword away by taking protests out of the hands of the competitors and placing them solely in the jurisdiction of the Race Committee and Race Jury.”
The race went as well as it could have been expected, being an upwind beat the entire time with the spinnakers kept in the bags!
The weather on Mackinac Island for the finish was picture perfect. Blue skies and emerald waters! The streets were packed and everyone was adhering to mask and social distance guidelines.
If you went into a restaurant or bar you had to keep your mask on until you were seated. Most of the sailors were relieved to be on the island with their families in tow, biking, hiking, beers and fudge!
The only hiccup was a stupid blog post that came out by the “you know who” hack website that took a crew photo out of context to create a false narrative. I took a lot of heat for calling them out on it, but it was a BS article written 2,000 miles away from here with the express intent of delivering fake news.
The Bayview Yacht Club should be commended for running a real regatta in COVID-19 times by utilizing a creative combination of virtual meetings, electronic scoring and in many ways creating a “green” event.
“The focus should be on the good things we are doing,” said Clark. “This event in the long haul is break even for us, and this year it was not break even, not even close.
“But sailing is what we do and we tried to run what we call a real safe, ethical event. The island was incredible! I have to congratulate Mayor Doud. Every time we made a phone call to her, she was right there saying ‘What can we do?’ ‘How can we help?’ Also, the staff at the Grand Hotel and Shepler’s were incredible.”
Clark was able to finally take a breath and reflect saying: “The race was a bit of a blur for me. Running as hard as possible before the race. Jumping on Ohana and then getting off the boat and right back into race chairman mode. What I remember most was that everyone had fun! It was not the typical event on the island, but everyone made the best of it.”
When asked if the event turned out as planned, Clark explained that the “conditions, requirements and issues were changing so fast that no matter what we planned and what contingencies we made, a good portion of them would change before they could be executed on. The event happened exactly as I hoped, great race and lots of responsible fun!
“We have long lasting relations with our sponsors. I expect most if not all to be back next year. We do know our presenting sponsors Atwater Brewery and The Bayview Mackinac Race Foundation were thrilled with the event.”
The ultimate winner was Bob Hughes from Ada, Michigan on TP52, Heartbreaker, taking elapsed time honors in 27:55:56 while claiming the Division 1 and Overall titles.
So, there you are, world. A safe COVID-19 regatta. It can be done. But unfortunately, as we go to press the unthinkable happened here in San Francisco.
“Due to the ongoing global pandemic, the 2020 Rolex Big Boat Series hosted by St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, California, has been canceled.”
“These are difficult times, and this was a difficult decision, but as a socially responsible member of both our local community and the greater sailing community, it was the right decision for St. Francis Yacht Club and all involved,” says Commodore Ken Glidewell.
The premiere West Coast regatta draws sailors from around the country, and was scheduled for September 17-20, 2020, with four days of racing for invited one-design classes, ORR boats greater than 30-feet, and a Classics division for boats built prior to 1955 and at least 48-feet in length.
“Up until the final decision was made, we were fully vested in planning to safely race in 2020,” says Rolex Big Boat Series Regatta Chair Susan Ruhne. “We were encouraged by the 51 skippers who had registered to compete and we had plans in place to mitigate the risk of contracting COVID-19. We weren’t giving up, but reality is not something we can avoid.”
The event was also to serve as the J/88 North American Championships and the Express 37 Pacific Coast Championships. “This would have been the 30th anniversary for the Express 37s, a class that’s been incredibly competitive on our racecourse,” said Ruhne. “We’re sorry we won’t see them this year, but we look forward to next year.” The next Rolex Big Boat Series is scheduled for September 15-19, 2021.
Since 1964, Rolex Big Boat Series has been cancelled only one other time, in 2001 after the attack on the World Trade Center, which occurred two days before the start of the regatta. Competitors flying in from New Zealand were turned around midair with no explanation until they landed back in Auckland. That year would have been the biggest field of boats competing in the regatta’s history.
“The St. Francis Yacht Club and Rolex Big Boat Series have been around for a long time, and we will be here well past the era of COVID-19. We can take a year off in the name of safety for our sailors, our members and our community,” said Commodore Glidewell. “We look forward to seeing you in 2021.”
So, we end on a sad note.
But everyone, mask up, stay safe and write me a letter at firstname.lastname@example.org