For the 2001 Chicago to Mackinac Race, I sailed in the Farr 40 Class aboard Helmut Jahns 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. Heres 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 Commanders Weather Service for Thursday and Friday. Both reports concurred with the final forecast that we got Saturday, which was good. It meant that Terrys 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.
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, Saturdays more immediate forecast indicated that the breeze would be a bit stronger along the shore, so we decided that we wouldnt be concerned if boats initially got to the right of us because wed 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 hardhiking more often and trimming more constantly than we figured our competitors would."|
Our intensity in sailing the boat also translated into a heap of sail changes. We operated under the five-minute ruleif the breeze changed and held for five minutes, we immediately changed sails. Later in the race, between North Manitou and Greys 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.
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 didnt 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 strategyto 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. Thats 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 hadnt 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 youre 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 wed 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, wed all sail away again almost even. This dynamic kept us tightly grouped.
In the end, we couldnt 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 its almost enough to make you forget about all the sleep youd 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 exhaustedmost 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 hes not sure about the other guys, but he cant wait to do the race again next year.
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