The Pink Pony Express
My warning from FOG's shore girls was to not let my skipper Mike Bird (above) consume more than three caffinated drinks at one time. The only shirt he brought clearly defined his place in the heirarchy on the boat. (by Dave Reed)
It's a soul thing . . . It's hard to explain," Charlie Wurtzebach tells me between forkfulls of his chicken pot pie at a noisy downtown Chicago eatery. "It's just something I have to do."
Wurtzebach, I will soon learn, is no different in this regard than any of the thousands of other sailors who put Chicago YC's annual Race to Mackinac at the center of their sailing universe. So obsessed with this 300-plus miler to North Lake Michigan are they that, like Wurtzebach, they plan work and life events around the mid-July event. There's the guy who put off his old man's funeral so as not to break a long-running Mac Race streak. These people live for it, and they pretty much do it until they die.
As pilgrims of this waterborne pilgrimage gather at Chicago's various clubs and city marinas in the days before the start, the question most often heard is: "How many have you done?" For me, the answer is both easy (I didn't have to count in my head) and unnerving (would they judge me?). "I've never done it. This is my first."
I've been invited to join Wurtzebach, on his Beneteau 36.7 FOG, which he and co-skipper Mike Bird bought over the winter. This was their first big race with the boat, but between them they have nearly 50 Mac races in the books.Upon accepting said invitation, it hadn't occurred to me that being a Mac Race virgin might come with some sort of hazing. But as we provision the boat on the morning of the start, filling every imaginable nook with water and caffeinated drinks, the topic surfaces topside. Every day, I'm told, I will be required to don a straw cowboy hat and gallop around the boat in a horse-like manner, slapping myself in the ass and singing, "I'm a Mac-Race virgin" to the tune of Madonna's big hit.
I nervously laugh it off, but later notice a ridiculous straw hat on the port-side shelf—I swear it hadn't been there 24 hours earlier. I cuss to myself and think about scuttling it to the dock box.
From what I've been told, the destination, the challenging racecourse, and the party at the end of the road seem a worthy trade for any amount of humiliation dished upon me. Plus, I was in for a unique Mac Race baptism. Lake Michigan's fast-growing Beneteau 36.7 fleet had pulled in 24 boats, so there were bound to be enough boats around to keep it interesting, and to keep the long eyes on deck. My crewmates include Wurtzebach's young nephew Trevor on the bow, assisted in the alternate watch by FOG regular Herb Weimann, an IT specialist. Steve Cairo, a veterinarian, his daughter Sarah, a pre-med student, and Sean Dwyer, a colleague of Wurtzebach, round out the easygoing bunch. The boat's acronym, FOG (expletive, old, guys), doesn't quite apply to our young crew, but for the conditions we will soon experience, the name is more than appropriate.
We start our soul-satiating journey with a respectable start (despite being a minute late) under a heavy, wet overcast sky. Setting our red spinnaker as we pass astern of the committee boat, we're in spitting distance of the early leaders who nailed the start. It's a slow drag race, but just before sunset a dark cloud rolls in from the north. Headsails go up, the fleet scatters across the horizon, and we head into nightfall with an easy 7 knots of wind coming across the bow. Where everyone is headed, strategically, is anyone's guess. A pre-race weather briefing had run on for the better part of an hour, only to conclude that anything would be possible out on the lake.
With a low-confidence forecast, the majority of 36.7s stick to the rhumb line, creating a busy little Mackinac Island expressway. But with darkness the wind progressively bottoms out. At 2:30 a.m. the GPS's speed over ground hovers at a single knot and dips to fractions every so often. At one point, as we sail a circle in our own fog-enshrouded space, the bow momentarily points toward Chicago. Wurtzebach, at the nav station, face lit by the display calmly points out that we're pointing the wrong way.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, our nearby competitors, Lou Sandoval and his teammates on Karma are sneaking off to the east, sliding up the track with a wake streaming off their transom.
The downside of heading off watch, particularly at night, is missing out on the sailing of the boat. It's hard to listen to the guys on deck having all the fun. And on my first night, the thought of sleeping through my first Mac race has me staring at the lee-cloth and tuning in to every sound. I resort to the iPod, and Jack Johnson's soothing melodies finally take my mind elsewhere.
It must have been the stillness that wakes me after a power nap, and I forgo the rest of my off watch to get back on deck. Quietly climbing up the companionway, I look out and see nothing but a glassy sheen and a thick shroud of fog. "My luck," I think. "This will end up being the legendary 100-year drifter."
But even with pea soup visibility we make out a masthead light, too tall for a 36.7. For hours we trade drifting tacks with this phantom light until passing mere feet behind the stern of a large multihull. In the stillness we can hear its ratchet blocks and the crew's hushed conversation, but in a single puff they vaporize into the night. Now we're racing only ourselves.
Sunrise on Sunday morning finds us in the company of a few 36.7s off in the long eyes—not as many as I thought I'd see. This lake is bigger than it appears on paper. As the day rolls on, however, a brilliant sunshine burns through the fog, and our red kite pulls us down the rhumbline once more.
At the lunch hour we discuss the fine art of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich (I learn to toast the bread first so as to prevent the dreaded jelly sog). The lake's legendary biting flies finally arrive, chomp at my ankles, and send me below for my pants and long sleeve T-shirt. Cairo points out how lucky I am, as he smacks one dead on his forearm. "This is nothing," he says with a laugh, "you're getting off easy."
The rhythm of the watch system settles in by this point, and in these easy conditions, everyone takes their four-hour respite. But I keep cutting mine short or blowing it off altogether. Sleep is overrated on a three-day race, and besides, the first waypoint of the race—labeled "OffBetsie" on the chartplotter is at the top of the screen. As slow as it's been I can't believe we've actually gotten this far.
With darkness on the second night comes another soupy fog bank, creeping up on our transom from the south. Ahead, off the bow, storm clouds are piled vertically and soon we're treated to a lightning show and the promise of an interesting night ahead.
As bolts dart across the north sky, a full moon, yellow and bright, hangs low to the east, casting its golden fan across the lake. There are stars above and a dozen boats around to keep us dialed into the race at hand. It's a magical watch, an amazing night at sea. That soul thing Wurztebach had told me about only days ago is quickly sinking in.
But the fog bank eventually buries us in its damp cloak, dropping visibility to mere feet. The bow disappears and the breeze goes haywire. Multiple sail changes keep our bow pointed at Point Betsie. "If Mike was up here, he'd be jumping off the boat," says Wurtzebach.
With all the clamoring in the cockpit above his head, Bird, cooled by a personal battery-powered fan and sheathed in the Batman and Robin bed sheets, knows exactly what's happening. Later, when he comes on deck, he grumbles something about elephants.
When I roll off watch, I finally plummet into my deepest sleep of the race and wake with a gentle nudge on my shoulder. It's just before 8 a.m., and we are near the green-capped, low-lying Manitou Islands. Throughout the day, Bird gives me the low down as we make our way upwind through the chain; how Sleeping Bear got separated from its cub. He rambles off yarns of races won and lost in this stretch, and in the next "leg" of our race. In the past 100 years there have been plenty of groundings and park ups that have shattered many a Mac race fantasy.
Onboard Karma, now leading unbeknownst to us, they know this firsthand having run aground 2 miles from the finish last year, coughing up second place and watching boats parade past as they were pulled off the hard. This time they're giving that shoal plenty of distance en route to a 54h:38m:38s win and a Monday afternoon finish.
The 36.7s are seemingly scattered across the lake, but the middle of the fleet, FOG included, finally compresses on Monday afternoon. It's as if we'd all pulled off the rhumb line expressway at the same time and onto the local road to the Straights of Mackinac. We're surrounded by 36.7s, and count a half dozen or so as we point our bow toward Gray's Reef Lighthouse—the first true turning mark of the course. After hours of drag racing we round overlapped, on the outside of a three-boat pinwheel. It's Tango and Stingray.
A three-boat tacking duel instantly ensues as we pass the lighthouse and head toward a nearby green can. Being on the receiving end of a Tango cover, we come up short on the duel, but just as we round the can, the storm clouds that had been threatening stream in overhead, bringing a cold 15-knot northerly, practically right on the nose. With everyone on the rail, we begin a long slog to the legendary Mackinac Bridge. It's the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere at 26,372 feet, but right now it's a speck. Hours later it's a ribbon across the horizon. En route, we scarf down what's left of the sandwiches and angle for the last of Sarah's coveted homemade cookies.
"Can you smell the horse **** yet?" Wurtzebach hollers out from the helm at one point. He's focused and intense, he's savoring the moment—the grin is a giveaway. The breeze builds outside the range of the No. 1 and we change to a No. 3 just before darkness, just as the heavens unleash. Passing under the bridge is as much as moving moment as I'd been told. I try to film it, but it's impossible to capture its scale in the viewfinder. But we still have more racecourse to go and a few boats to beat. We can't see them in the dark, but we hope they're there.
As we near the finish I'm bundled tight in my foul weather gear, bent over the lifeline like a taco, watching the lights of "downtown" glowing brighter under a low ceiling. It's the best breeze we've had in days; it seems ridiculous to stop now. But just before midnight, a floodlight from shore paints its beam across our sail number and flashes across my vision fuzzy from the torrential rain. In this moment I know exactly what Wurtzebach is talking about. All I can think about is how much I want to do it again. How much I need to do it again.