A Chat with Chairman Lou Sandoval of the CYC Race to Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island Events: As one of sailing's most celebrated freshwater events, the Chicago Yacht Club's Race to Mackinac has a long and storied past, a rich tradition and lots of new developments. To get an accurate view on all aspects of the Mac, we sought someone who has both authority and personal experience—Chairman of the 104th Race to Mackinac, Lou Sandoval.  

Owner of Karma Yacht Sales, and 14-year veteran sailor of the Race to Mackinac, Lou is an expert on all things nautical. As he races with his brother and best friend, and one day hopes to have his young daughters (who are currently sailing scholars at the CYC) onboard with him, Lou has turned his passion for sailing into both a successful buisness and a family affair.

Read on to get Lou's take on what makes a winning crew, the most beautiful part of the course (Northern Michigan readers you won't be surprised!) and the strangest good luck ritual you could ever think of!

MyNorth: So participating in the race is by invitation only—how does a sailor manage an invite?

Lou Sandoval: Usually we invite people who have participated in the past as members of the crew—as they gain experience they move up the ranks. We also invite all the skippers who have participated in the past four years, but  6-10% of the racers are new, and apply for an invitation. Acceptance is based on a certain level of seamanship, which is necessary as the course is difficult.

MyNorth: Yes, I remember that Mackinac was origianlly selected as the destination because such a difficult course would be a real challenge. But since it is so tricky, do you have a plan if something goes wrong?

Lou Sandoval: As Chairman of the Race, I'm usually the first person to go to in case of an emergency. But, since the Mac has a long tradition of the Chairman racing, when I'm on the water command goes to the next principle race officer on land. They work with the Coast Guard to develop good safety plans. Also, thanks to technology we can now text about any really important issues—SMS works on the water!

MyNorth: It's clear that the course is challenging—so what makes a good winning strategy?

Lou Sandoval: Well lots of things- but I think one thing that surprises people, especially from the coasts, is the vastness of Lake Michigan. When they think of a lake, they're expecting to be able to see land, but Lake Michigan is a massive body of water. It stretches on and on.  A winning team—and a safe team—will have a general respect for Mother Nature and a level of balance with the lake. Also picking a good course.

MyNorth: So there is more than one way to sail the Mac?

Lou Sandoval: You can choose to sail either the Wisconsin coast or what sailor's call the "Rhumb Line." It's the Michigan side, which is what we sail. On the Michigan side, the race can be divided up into a few sections—the starting line, to up around Point Betsie and the Sleeping Bear Dunes, then the Manitou Passage, then the last marker buoy before the bridge and the final stretch into the finish line.

MyNorth: I've got to ask about the name—the Rhumb Line. Where does that come from?

Lou Sandoval: I'm not entirely sure, but I think it may be a play on words for the sailor's favorite drink, rum.

My North: What is your favorite section or sight along the Rhumb Line?

Lou Sandoval: Probably when you come around Point Betsie, and on one side of you is the Northeastern shore line, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and on the other just the open lake. Usually we arrive here on Sunday around dusk, and that's where I've seen the most captivating sunsets. If the weather isn't rough, it's the moment when we all take out our cameras. I have the most amazing pictures from that area.

MyNorth: Has anyone ever thought about changing the finish line from Mackinac Island?

Lou Sandoval: A long time ago, a Rear Commodore of the Chicago Yacht Club tried to change it to Charlevoix. I think he had some personal interest, like his boat was kept there, but it was changed back pretty quickly. Mostly because people couldn't imagine racing to anywhere else. Mackinac Island is beautiful and it's been a huge part of the race's tradition throughout its entire history.

MyNorth: Are there any particular superstitions that racers have? Any little good luck rituals preformed before take off?

Lou Sandoval: Everyone has their own little superstitions. Personally, I never wear that year's Mac hat on the boat until we get to Mackinac Island. And for some reason no one allows bananas. I don't know why exactly, but you won't find one on a boat in the Race to Mackinac.

MyNorth: You've sailed the race before—let's talk about some of your personal experiences.

Lou Sandoval: Yes, this is my 14th Mac. I sail with my brother and business partner, on our boat Karma, which is a syndicate of our company Karma Yacht Sales.  We've won our division 6 out of the past eight years, and a lot of that is due to having a crew that works well together.

MyNorth: Do you do anything in particular to prepare the crew before the race?

Lou Sandoval: We try to put everyone in a position that is best suited to each crew member's strengths and internal clocks, since someone has to be manning the boat 24/7. For example, my brother is the quater-master. He's really good at preparing all of our meals beforehand, making sure they are the perfect balance of carbs, ruffage and protein so no one crashes. Other than that, before the race we start to get our bodies into the rhythm of boat life. But being well rested is the most important thing—when there is rough weather we need all hands on deck, and when you're already behind on sleep it just compounds.

MyNorth: It sounds almost like you really train your bodies and prepare like athletes do in contact sports. Do you think that's a fair comparison?

Lou Sandoval: I think sailing the Mac is like running a marathon. We have the same competitiveness, and it's all about strategy. Plus, when you're out of energy in the last stretch from the bridge to the finish line, its just like hitting the wall on the twenty third mile.

MyNorth: I can imagine you're all exhausted. So what does it feel like to finally land on Mackinac Island?

Lou Sandoval: A huge sigh of relief that you've made it safely. Also, for the most part during the race you're by yourself, there are very few places where you can see other boats. And then all of a sudden you're surrounded by everyone else. It's a really celebratory atmosphere.

MyNorth: Are there any traditional finish line activities?

Lou Sandoval: We like to enjoy a cold beverage of some kind after the race. Other than than, we get out cigars and just enjoy the party.

MyNorth: Do you think there are any common characteristics amongst Mac racers? Like a shared trait?

Lou Sandoval: I think there is a competitiveness in everyone. People always say that a sail boat race is just two boats next to one another. And also a sense of adventure, and wanderlust—I mean, what took Christopher Columbus across the world? Adventure and curiosity. 

MyNorth: And this sense of adventure is what keeps people coming back?

Lou Sandoval: That, and the sense of camaraderie that we develop. When you experience events together, like the challenges of the Mac, you make these deep connections. I really believe you have a better chance of winning if you race with friends.

MyNorth: What is your favorite memory from all the Mac's you've raced?

Lou Sandoval: This isn't allowed anymore, but on my very first Mac I took part in this tradition where all the newbies would jump off the docks at Mackinac Island into the water. After so long on the boat, that cold clean water felt amazing. I could have stayed there all day. I think it was started by the Island Goats [ group of sailors who raced the CYC Race to Mackinac at least 25 times], as the fastest way to clean off. And it does—cleans you off, wakes you up, and cools you down.

MyNorth: Well Lou, good luck to you and the Karma crew this year!  What is your estimated time for the race?

Lou Sandoval: Probably somewhere between 46-49 hours, but you never know. The first time we won our division, we won by 60 seconds. So timing is pretty crazy.

Stay the course with the CYC Race to Mackinac at MyNorth.com!

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