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Mackinac Race Strategy

The Mac Race fleet gets underway in front of the Windy City.

For the 2001 Chicago to Mackinac Race, I sailed in the Farr 40 Class aboard Helmut Jahn’s Flash Gordon. This year we had nine boats in the class. Complementing our normal crew on Flash, we imported world-class racer Terry Hutchinson as our tactician, putting him in charge of our overall race strategy. Here’s an overview of our approach to the race and how we executed the plan.

Arriving in Chicago on the day before the start, Terry had a weather report from Commander’s Weather Service for Thursday and Friday. Both reports concurred with the final forecast that we got Saturday, which was good. It meant that Terry’s job of conceiving a pre-race plan would be a bit easier. He decided that our intention would be to start to the right of the other boats and drive them to the shore. Our first target zone would be an area 10 to 20 miles offshore of Racine, WI. The most recent weather forecast called for the breeze to fill in this zone by Saturday night, and we were confident that we would be there when the wind arrived.

As most sailors realize, in distance racing you need a long-term game plan, and you need to consider some contingent options as well. Targeting the zone off of Racine was the beginning of our plan. As we progressed up the course, if the breeze allowed, we would work from this spot off Racine across the lake diagonally on Saturday night to a zone 10 to 20 miles off the Michigan near Big Sable Point. Again, our weather forecast indicated that this would be the area to sail in on Saturday night because that's where the best breeze was supposed to be. By that time, the information we had indicated that the breeze should be from the southwest and we should be sailing hard up the course, hopefully in front or our eight class rivals and maybe some of the other boats starting ahead of us. After this juncture, the forecast told us that the wind would hold out of the southwest for the remainder of the race.

Flash Gordon makes tracks in a previous event.
A critical part of Terry's pre-race strategy was based on sailing the boat hard. The Farr 40 Class is an extremely competitive one-design group, but Terry thought we had the skills among our crew to simply sail the boat faster and more aggressively than our competitors more of the time. Once our aggressive sailing allowed us to take control of the race, Terry's job would be to keep us between our competition and the finish. To do this, he decided to break the race down into a series of smaller races. We plotted various marks 10 to 20 miles off the Wisconsin shore near Racine and Milwaukee. And we had Big Sable, Point Betsie, the Manitou Pass, Grey’s Reef, the Bridge, and finish line each as "marks" that we would use for shrink the racecourse into segments. If we were ahead, Terry said, we’d try and beat our competition to these spots.

On Saturday morning before the start of the race, this plan still looked pretty reasonable due to the consistent forecast. However, we had to make a few small last-minute changes. First, Saturday’s more immediate forecast indicated that the breeze would be a bit stronger along the shore, so we decided that we wouldn’t be concerned if boats initially got to the right of us because we’d be in better breeze on the left side of the course. Second, it ended up that the starting line pin mark was quite favored.

So, just minutes before the gun, we changed our initial starting strategy and decided that we wanted to win the pin, which we did and headed north on starboard tack. Throughout the day the breeze continually clocked, freeing us from a close-hauled course onto a reach and finally to a spinnaker leg. As sunset approached we were in the middle of our fleet with three boats to our left and the rest to our right. Things were running quite smoothly so far, and pretty much according to our overall plan. That night we ended up just outside our 20-mile mark off Racine, gauging further from shore as the breeze continued to clock.

"He wanted us to maintain a full-on buoy-racing mentality for 330 miles up the lake, to really push the boat hard—hiking more often and trimming more constantly than we figured our competitors would."
According to the plan that Terry had developed, we were to begin moving from that zone across the lake on a diagonal course. The breeze angle allowed us to do this, so we began heading up. This is where the other aspect of Terry’s strategy began to plug in, the part about sailing the boat hard and fast, which we did all night. He was convinced that we could sail the boat closer to its potential than our competitors. I guess it was just a feeling of confidence he had, a confidence he tried to instill the crew. He wanted us to maintain a full-on buoy-racing mentality for 330 miles up the lake. So we were really pushing the boat hard all the time—hiking more often and trimming more constantly the we figured our competitors were. To continue this intensity, we didn’t break the crew down into watches, we simply had as many crew up on deck as often as possible unless we were sailing downwind. It was pretty common for us to wake people up and make them sit on the rail, even if it meant waking up Helmut, the owner. We wanted to win this race.

Our intensity in sailing the boat also translated into a heap of sail changes. We operated under the five-minute rule—if the breeze changed and held for five minutes, we immediately changed sails. Later in the race, between North Manitou and Grey’s Reef, we did 10 straight-line headsail changes between the jib top and the Code 1 jib.

As the sun rose on Sunday, things looked good for Team Flash. Just off Little Sable Point we saw two boats behind and to leeward, with two more boats in on the Michigan shore. So we figured at that point the worse case was that we were tied for first.

The Farr 40 fleet gets off the line in this year's Mackinac Race. Flash Gordon started at the pin and thus isn't visible in this shot.

Terry wanted to remain roughly 10 to 20 miles offshore as we proceeded north. One reason for this was to avoid the friction of the wind against the land, especially near Sleepy Bear Dunes. Unfortunately, this part of the plan didn’t work too well. We found ourselves caught in a convergence zone and the boats on the Michigan shore passed us and extended their lead.

Recognizing what was happening, Terry knew it was the time to re-emphasize the performance aspect of our strategy—to sail faster and better than the competition. Targeting the boats ahead, he began stressing small-boat tactics and got us racing toward our waypoints one at a time. This part of our strategy began to work pretty well and by dusk on Sunday we had ground down our competition in the Manitou Pass. That’s when the race really got exciting for us because we were 110 miles from the finish after sailing for 30 hours and five boats in our class were within 30 minutes of each other. Sunday night would require another big push.

As we moved through the Manitous, the weather changed quite a bit. The forecasted southwest breeze never developed and we had to contend with what became an easterly wind. This had been one of the options presented by our weather forecast, but it hadn’t been a strong one. At this point, Terry opted to ditch our pre-race strategy altogether. He was intent on buoy-racing the competition, which can be an extremely tiring process when you’re sailing long distances against one-design boats. His thought was to continue using conventional buoy-racing tactics to grind down the boats, and once we where ahead we’d simply stay between them and the finish. With several wind holes on the course in this zone, we ended up having to endure multiple restarts with our group of five. The leading boats would sail into a hole and the boats behind would catch them, regroup, and when the breeze ultimately filled, we’d all sail away again almost even. This dynamic kept us tightly grouped.

The author (left) and the strategist take time out from their pre-race skull sessions to pose for the media.
Despite the wind holes, the strategy seemed to be working. Around dawn on Monday, however, two or our rivals passed us and we passed two other boats—no net gain or loss. Steve Mash’s Hot Lips, the eventual class winner, managed to have an excellent night and passed several boats to take the lead. As we went through Grey’s Reef, there were five Farr 40s within 20 minutes of each other—not bad after 300 miles of sailing. Before us stood a 30-mile beat to the finish. The wind was finally stable at about 15 to 18 knots, almost right on the nose, so it ended up as a thrilling way to finish the Mac. Among the lead five boats we staged an extensive tacking duel five miles from the bridge. First Heartbreaker, in fifth place would tack, so Contentious tacked to cover and then Sorcerer tacked to cover, so we tacked to cover Sorcerer and then Hot Lips tacked to cover us. We even did some downspeed tacks just to cover the boats behind.

In the end, we couldn’t catch Hot Lips and had to settle for second place. It was a close finish among the top five boats, all crossing the line within 12 minutes of each other. That makes for some exhilarating action, and it’s almost enough to make you forget about all the sleep you’d lost for the previous 40 hours.

As for our plan and execution during the race. I thought we carried it out well, making the necessary adjustments when needed. Though we sailed the boat hard, we were actually pretty conservative in our tactics, never trying to hit the home run. After the race was over, the crew agreed that one of our biggest assets in this event was sailing the boat better than the competition, and we think we did that pretty well. At the dock, the entire crew was exhausted—most of us had been on the rail all night with almost no sleep. Personally, I have never slept less on any previous Mackinac Race. As I write this, it makes me tired simply thinking about our efforts. Tired and content.

Along with the author, the rest of the crew on board Flash Gordon included owner Helmut Jahn, Gordon Beckman, Billy Warterfield, Geoff Ewenson, Than Dykstra, Nate Hollerbach, and Terry Hutchinson. The author says he’s not sure about the other guys, but he can’t wait to do the race again next year.

Suggested Reading:

Surviving the Collision by Dave Gerber

A Lesson in Navigational Strategy by Dobbs Davis

Newport to Bermuda, The Navigator's Race by Bill Biewenga


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