Good Luck Over Lake Michigan
This is the tale of the Mazal Tov, a j120, competing in the 2018 Chicago to Mackinac Race. This is the perspective of me, Stash, a bowman and novice sailor who joined the Mazal Tov in the late 2017 sailing season.
The weeks before the race, I was excited but afraid. I had spent four days out of the past three weeks sick from dehydration. After every long-distance race I had sailed this season, I had fallen sick. However, the Sunday before the race, Arne, our Skipper, reassured me. Over the week, the team, Dave, Igor, and Gary, was introduced to the race Navigator, Dan Lawrence, and the two Watch Captains, Christ Feret and Alex Malykhin. These three gents are seasoned offshore salt water racers who have competed in international races. The Navigator had the course plotted out using a sophisticated sailing software which used supercomputers to predict the wind flow and plot the optimum path. We spent Wednesday and Thursday learning about the Man Over Board procedure, flipping sails and reefing. Per the prediction, this was going to be an upwind race with us beating to Beaver Island after which the weather would ease up and we would be drifting at low speeds.
We woke up early on Saturday morning. I had spent the entire night anxious and unable to sleep in fear of getting bored and tired on the boat. I had never sailed more than eight hours continuously on a boat and was paranoid about functioning. We had a 7 am wake up with a 7:30 dock time. Dave, the other bowman, picked us up from my apartment and drove us to the harbor. The Navigator was staying at my place. On the way to the harbor, Dave suggested that we get donuts. So, we picked up a dozen donuts to have a good start. We reached the dock about 7:40 am. The weather was gloomy and dark, unlike the entire season of sailing we had since May. It had been a slow season where we were testing which boat floated the fastest during the beer-can and the long-distance races. Only the night race to Michigan city was a fast and reaching race. The weather, it seemed, that it would rain for a bit and let up. We got on board, placed our personal items, and waited for the rest of the crew to show up. Dave spent the night sleeping on board, so did Arne. A few minutes later, the rest of the crew showed up. We helped the crew to get the provisions on board and into the storage sections. It was a full house. The entire boat was filled with necessary items. Gary was responsible for the provisions and did an amazing job of picking up fresh and easy food for the race. He had ensured that there was enough food and water for the entire, speculatively, three-day race. We spent a few hours getting the boat ready and at 10 am, we motored our way towards the start line near Navy Pier. We passed by Blitzkrieg, a J-122 based out of Toledo, and WindQuest, a magnificent 86-foot boat. On our way to Navy Pier, the weather began to worsen. I got a feeling that we were going to be wet the entire time. As cold body who feels water at 75F is cold, this was out right freezing. The air temperature was about 55F according to the Navigator. It seemed colder than that to me.
We approached Navy Pier for the check-in and had to pass by the end of Navy Pier which had a committee announcing the boats. It was raining and there were quite a few race enthusiasts who were in their rain gear taking photos and cheering on the sailors. By the time we finished the mini-parade, the race had already begun for some of the boats. As I remember, we were motoring at 7 knots and the lake was choppy in the wake free section south of Navy Pier. It hit me that, this was the worst weather I had experienced sailing on the Mazal Tov or sailing. It had started raining and as the boat cut into the waves, water started splashing over onto the deck, getting the crew drenched. Unfortunately, my knack for being unprepared got me into a quite a foul stitch. Underestimating the weather, I had purchased a pair of “foul-weather” clothes which were not suitable for sailing or any condition where it would rain over five inches. Adding on to that, I had my slipped on my pair of water shoes, which are designed to get wet with a pair of transparent plastic boot covers that I had ordered over the internet thinking that it would save my feet from getting damp. By the time we had to start racing, I was cold and wet. My shirt and shoes were wet, and my swimming shorts were soaked. Water, like sand, was getting everywhere.
After we checked in with the committee boat, we headed into wind to hoist the main and the number 3 jib. This jib is used when the weather is rough and winds above 15 knots. I honestly don’t remember when we did this and what the conditions were. I remember the Navigator issuing the command and turning into the wind. I ran fore to the bow to jump the halyard and sent Dave back as I was excited to jump the main. Note, we were wearing PFDs provided to us by Arne, which were per the standard required by the race rules. He also lent us tethers which we connected to the PFD harness and latched ourselves to the safety line. I ran up in the sense of crawling quickly in what I imagine an orangutan running towards bananas. After hoisting the main and the jib, we were called back to the pit and asked to hike on the windward side to center the boat. This was sometime about 11:30/11:45 am, about an hour before our sections start time of 12:50pm. We were tacking back and forth in-between a few dozen other yachts, which were coming to check-in, waiting and heading to the start line. During one of the tacks, I took photos of a boat which was crewed by a friend. I want to point this out as the weather has lifted and I was confident to take a photo as I am fearful of losing my phone or spoiling it. About 15 to 20 minutes from the start time, we headed out to the start line and we directly took the second reef on the main as the wind had picked up and the winds were about 20-25 knots. We did not clean up the sail as we barely had 10 minutes for the start. The Navigator, who was at the helm, wanted to ensure that we started the race on a port tack (I think that is what he meant) and start at the buoy on the northern end as it gave us rights over the other boats. However, all the other boats in our section had the same idea. At the last moment, we were pushed into a starboard tack and had to tack again thru the start line.
We started the race by tacking to port, with the entire crew on the high side, hiking. As a bowman, I was sitting in front of the crew eating up the water splashing from the 6-foot waves. The weather was atrocious. All I thought was, “what am I doing here getting wet and cold?” I was shivering when we started the race. Our Navigator, Dan, was on the helm giving orders to the crew and the Watch-Captains sprang into action providing him information about the other boats. I have no idea of what was going on and was in a haze when we suddenly were ordered to execute a tack. Then we were sailing at 90-120 degrees to the other boats, it felt like we were sailing back to the shore. Turning around trying to understand what was happening, I realized the Watch Captains were trying to tie up the life raft box. The suspenders that were supposed to hold the box in place had failed and they had to tie it down, so it wouldn’t fall off. It took about 15 minutes to get the situation under control, to get the box secured and situated. The only reason why I can remember that it took 15 minutes is that I saw the next section sail towards us. We tacked back and rejoined the race. All my actions were in a form of autopilot trusting the Navigator and Watch Captains. While I did not know them, I have 100 percent trust in our Skipper. If he trusted them, then it was good enough for me.
It was about 1:30 pm when we got situated. I was cold and miserable. I was lost in thought about what I had gotten myself into and realized that this was sailing. It reminded me of sailing the tiny lasers and 420s, where 15 knots used to knock the socks of my feet and I would spend hours up righting the boat. At about 2 pm, the other watch team went below to rest for their shift. We were going to have seven shifts for every 24 hours. Split into day shifts and night shifts, the day shift lasted from 6am to 6pm and consisted of three shifts each of four hours. The night shifts were three-hour shifts breaking twelve hours into four. The Skipper, Navigator and Watch Captains had planned to have two teams, each consisting of one Watch Captain, one pitman, and one bowman. The Skipper and Navigator would be floaters helping and navigating the ship. Seven shifts were decided as the odd number would change the time when people started the shift and break the monotony of repetitive shifts.
My watch team consisted of Alex, Igor, and me. At the start of the first shift, everyone exceptt the Skipper and Watch Captains felt nauseous. As I got back on deck, I remember being terrified that I would fall sick and puke the entire journey. While I was on the brink of seasickness, I got surprised that I got seasick. I have been on the water for years and have flown quite a bit and never have I felt nauseous. I got on deck, sat on the high side with Igor sitting diagonally across me while Alex was at the helm. Alex had chatted with us earlier asking about our experience. I sailed for two small seasons on lasers and 420s, while Igor is a seasoned sailor having sailed for years and years. Igor is certified through courses where you sail with experts and learn from them. Seeing Igor in that condition sent my mind into a scramble. If he was feeling sick, this was bad weather. However, Alex was on point and did not look bothered. I was wet, cold, shivering, and tired. I can’t sit still and doing nothing. I end up micro-napping and getting worrying thoughts. A few hours into the shift, I went below to talk to Arne or I went down to get away from the weather for a quick bit. As I climbed down the companionway, I saw the second watch in their bunks and I saw Dan sleeping on the floor of the cabin. Dan looked like he was going to die. He was laying over some random bags that had fallen onto the floor and he was there in-between the bags and water. To our misfortune, our seasoned Navigator had fallen sea-sick. It freaked me out for a few seconds as it reminded me of the condition I was in a few days back and that if he was sick what were we going to do? Our Skipper is in amazing shape and knowledgeable but being a floater for 3 days would be strenuous. I got back on deck and sat there, still for hours. We were beating into the wind, maximizing the speed of the boat, which was about 8 odd knots. At some point I remember while hiking, water shoved me from one of the stanchions into someone at the other end of the stanchions.
Around 15 minutes to 6 pm on Saturday, either I or someone went below and woke up the second watch. It took them a solid 15 minutes to get situated and ready in the foul weather gear. Luckily, they liberated us, and we went below. During my shift, all I thought was, “when am I going to go below and what if I want to bail out and retire from this race?” As I weno below, I started to get nauseous. The boat was heeling at what I assume was an angle above 45 degrees, the cabin floor was filled with water and the boat was being thrown around at all angles. The boat was rolled to the side due to the wind. There was some yaw tilt as the helmsman was trying to keep us in a sweet spot. The large waves, at a frequency of 5 to 10 seconds, forced the boat to pitch. This 40-foot boat was lifted by a wave and then dropped right into the trough of the next wave. The boat dropped two feet making loud noises and every 30 seconds, we would be dropped 4 to 5 feet. The feeling was horrible and the noise was petrifying. I was amazed that a boat could take such a beating. Every action that usually took a few seconds took minutes. Getting off my shirt was a task. Getting into my shorts was a task. Monkeying into the top bunk was not an entertaining task. In simple conditions, I would have loved raising myself with my arms and dropping myself on to the bunk. Once I got into the bunk and decompressed, I was tossed from side to side every time the boat rolled. The weather was playing rag-doll physics with my body. At some point during my downtime, the boat tacked, throwing me from the edge of the boat to the inner edge safety netting of the bunk. I was almost thrown off as the liner was not tied up properly. Also, as the angle steepened, I started to grab the bed cushion to avoid falling off the bed.
At about 8:45 pm, we were woken up either by Dave or Arne. Waking up was horrible and everything up ’til now was crazy. Luckily, Alex was in control. I was knocked out of my mind and afraid to go on deck. I asked Arne if he had an extra pair of foul-weather gear, and by Poseidon’s grace, he did. That yellow foul weather gear saved me and drove off my fear. We were only eight hours into the race. I got into my pair of wet swimming trunks and changed into a quick-dry shirt. I remember putting on my Mazal Tov shirt, as I was cold. I got my base clothes on and put on the gear. While it took ages to get into, I knew it would be waterproof. After getting the gear on, I put on my shoes and shoe covers without wearing a pair of socks. I wanted to save the pairs of socks I had for a later time. I was carrying 4 pairs of socks, in hindsight, I should have carried socks for each shift and then some. I was rationing myself and waited till the fifth or sixth shift before I put on a fresh pair of socks. My first pair was wet and dirty, floating around the cabin floor. As I got the shoe cover on, I did not realize that if I put it under the legs of the gear it would remain waterproof. I realized that I would have to go thru the trip with wet feet and I had accepted it.
We got on to the watch. I think I was 5 minutes late. We then set sail remaining on the tack. Igor was still out of it and I was not in the right state of mind. We spent the entire shift in the pit, not hiking, as the fear of getting wet scared the two of us. Normally, Igor is on point and this was scary to see him in this shape. I was exhausted and ended up micro-napping in the pit. I was going in and out of focus with no idea what was happening and having weird dreams. As I was napping with my eyes closed, I kept slipping. If you recall, we were heeling at steep angles, so I was sitting on the side and using my legs to hold me in a position. I remember having back aches during every shift. We continued sailing ’til our next shift in silence. We did not speak and the rain was wailing around us as the boat screeched from the stress of sailing. Fortunately, this watch was okay with silence as we were sick. The Watch Captain kept the boat going up wind.
In retrospect, the path we sailed compared to the path plotted by the Navigator, we were off our intended course; either by midnight Saturday or 3 am Sunday morning. The Navigator’s plan was to sail North-North East towards the center of lake Michigan and let the changing wind force us east towards Michigan’s western shores. With the Navigator down and three crew members out of commission, I was glad we did not have any major casualties or problems.
Digressing to the start of the race, once we had repaired the life raft box and tacked, we heard a “Man Over Board” report over the radio. The wind was about 20-25 knots with choppy waves, rain, and dark skies. Sadly, the individual who fell over died. He was an experienced sailor whose PFD did not engage when he fell into the water. This accident happened close to Navy Pier. We learned more about the incident at 5 am on Sunday when we were close to the shore. After our 9 pm to midnight shift, our second shift, one of the PFDs inflated below, inside the cabin. Either it got wet or something pulled the pull cord. Honestly, with what was going on I have no idea to even speculate why it happened. There was water in the cabin and it was swooshing all around. I remember Gary telling me that he did not have a PFD, so I gave him the yellow one that Arne had lent me. I did not want him to wait below as I think Arne was sleeping. I changed out of my wet stuff and tried to dry myself with my damp towel. I removed my shoes and saw some black stuff on my legs above my ankle. I thought it was weeds that got onto my feet and got stuck. I rubbed them off and went to sleep. We weren’t in good shape, but we pushed on. Gary, Igor, and I had problem eating food or drinking fluids. I was getting paranoid that I would get dehydrated, as I was not able to drink a drop of water. I did not want to end up on the floor with the Navigator. On the breaks I never got bored. Getting bored was one of my biggest fears before the race. Sleeping was enough for me. The first 24 hours went by in heavy weather somewhere between 20-30 knots.
My third shift, from 3am to 6am, was a repetition of the 9 to midnight shift. I had to get another PFD from Arne as I had given mine to Gary. Arne, at some point during the race, fixed it up and stored it for later use. We had another one inflate later on. The main sail was reefed, and at some point, the reefs were shaken. We were trashed by the waves and water flowing on board.
During my fourth shift, I remember counting the number of hours we had sailed and calculating the distance we traveled. With the heavy winds, we were sailing at 7.5 knots continuously and twenty hours from the start. We should have travelled 140 nautical miles, which was half the point to point distance to Mackinac Island. After sailing for twenty-four hours, the weather had improved and my nausea was under control. I was able to eat the salmon, bagel and whitefish salad. I think the best meal I had was the cup-a-noodle. It was spicy and hot; it got me back in the game. While I was able to eat, I think Gary and Igor still had some reservations on what to eat.
As time went on and the shifts kept coming and going, I got the courage to get at the helm and sail for an hour. Alex was there to ensure that I pointed in the right direction and was maintaining speed. After that, things are a blur until Monday around 5 pm. Sometime late Sunday, we switched on the engine to charge the batteries only to realize that they weren’t charging. I remember that the other watch was preparing food and cleaning up the cabin. I distinctly remember Arne working on various things. At one point, I’m guessing about 5pm, Arne, Chris, and Dan started working on the engine. They figured out that the regulator or something was burned, thus preventing the batteries from charging. We were in power conservation mode. We needed the navigational charts and the propane tank solenoid to work. There was a possibility of losing the ability to start the engine if we lost electric power.
We were halfway through our 2pm to 6 pm Monday shift when the wind started to die down. We were about eighty nautical miles from the finish line and we were slowing down. The wind forced us to tack about between Manitou Island and Traverse city. The planned route was not supposed to take us through the passage, as the wind near the shore is low. Plus, the wind was going to be head on through the passage forcing us to repeatedly tack up wind. A thing I remember is getting ready to change to the number 1.5 jib but waited for 20 minutes as the wind picked up. The Watch Captain’s experience was showing as he saw the changing conditions up ahead and avoided the jib change. About 30 miles to the finish line, we entered Sturgeon Bay. We decided to switch from the number 3 jib to the number 1 jib. We were slowed down to 6 knots, which after sailing at 7.5 – 8 knots with boat heeling felt like crawling.
We had a shift change and the other watch got on the helm. I went below and tried to sleep but was not tired enough to sleep. The excitement of reaching the 80 nautical mile point was gripping me. I remember getting a network signal and messaging people across the globe that I was safe.
We started looking at the YB race app and realized that we were catching up to the other J-120s, which pumped us up. We knew we were close to the finish and could make it in 10 hours if we had good luck with the wind. About 15 miles from the Mackinac bridge, we started crawling. We had expected it as we saw the other boats had slowed down. It was an ambivalent feeling as we caught up and then slowed down to a mere 2-3 knots. There was a tugboat a mile and half west of the bridge in our path. It was super bright and humongous. We passed by it. At this point the entire crew was on deck as we couldn’t wait to finish. Since we were in light winds, the entire crew was sitting on the leeward site and I just slept on the deck. I think I passed out and woke up 20 minutes later.
While approaching the bridge, we were flanked by dozens of competitors and they were hard to spot in the dark. Luckily, we, the Navigator and the Watch Captains could spot them. We kept going down a certain path, trying to cross a green buoy. Due to confusion caused by fatigue, there was some miscommunication and slowdown of the boat. We continued east. We had just 3 nautical miles to go. I remember going to the bow and tethering in. I took a torch and tried to locate an unlit buoy. We did not want to travel 300 nautical miles to hit something. Chris came up front and gave me a red torch to figure out and point out the buoy. Once we crossed the buoy, we tacked and approached Mackinac Island. We had to tack again to be in between Mackinac Island and Round Island.
We finished in grace and called in our finish. We were exhausted and looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
To conclude, I have learned that all the sailing I had done before had been a breeze. I think that after this experience I am ready for the Mac next year. Except, I plan to work with the crew of the Mazal Tov and get skilled at tacking, hoisting, and sailing. Another point I take away is that I need to be better prepared. By that I mean, I will buy the right gear if I am doing this race. I need a set of foul weather gear which fit perfectly and don’t have openings in them. Other than that, I trust the crew to know that I would be safe.
A few screenshots from Racetracker. Taken by Billie, as she sat this one out.