The 105th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac: Interview with Lou Sandoval

Northern Michigan Events: As the 105th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac Island is set to begin this weekend, sailors from as far as Hong Kong are getting ready for the historic freshwater challenge. Since 1898, crews and their boats have assembled in July for the dash from Chicago to Northern Michigan's Mackinac Island. Nearly 3,500 competitiors and 350 boats plan to take off Friday through Saturday afternoon for the 2013 running of the "Mac". 

Even with all the excitement in these days leading up to the start, Race Chairman and "Mac" veteran himself, Lou Sandoval, took time to answer some questions about this year's race, sailing strategy, and the newest ways for us land-lovers to stay updated on what's going on out on the lake.

Can you describe the atmosphere in Chicago, with all of the boats getting ready?

Right now I am looking out at the harbor and sailors are making the final preparations. Soon the docks will be replete with boats.

So as I understand it, the race goes off in waves depending on the boat type. When will the first wave take off and the last?

Two crusing divisons take off on Friday and on Saturday the first wave will go off at 11 am and the last wave will go off at 1:40 pm. They go off in waves every ten to fifteen minutes.

What is the size of the smallest crew and largest crew?

We have a couple of 31, 32-footers that have about eight people on board and then one of the larger boats is an 86-footer and they’ll have about twenty-one people on board. It’s a pretty broad range. I mean the average size for a boat for the fleet is around 38 feet, that’s an average of all the large and small boats.

Can you tell me more about the route? What do you consider the most beautiful section and is there a particular spot people rave about along the way?

Well, it depends what the wind does for the path people will take. Traditionally, we take what’s called the Rhumb Line. Depending on the wind conditions, they’ll either go up the Wisconsin coast or go up the Michigan coast. The majority of the fleet will hover around that Rhumb Line to the convergence point, which is the Manitou’s.

I think I remember having seen boats between the Michigan coast and the Manitou Islands. Is it favorable to go in between the Michigan coast and the islands?

Again, that depends a lot on the strategy. I can tell you that, of the years I have been out, we’ve either worked to favor one side or the other of the Rhumb Line. You definitely don’t want to go in to the shore too close. During the doldrums of the afternoon there’s probably going to be very little breeze in there, so you could get stuck (run out of air) in there. At night, under certain conditions if it’s a hot day and the dunes get very warm, at night, you could get thermals that come off those dunes so that would favor an inshore position that you could go in and catch stronger breeze. Looking at the weather report now, it looks like everything’s going to emanate from the south-southwest. If that forecast holds true, you could see a lot of people working the Rhumb Line, maybe keeping a bit east of the Rhumb Line.

You mentioned the weather forecast, up here the weather changes quite a bit, so how do you prepare? What happens in the case of a storm or inclement conditions?

You’re looking ahead at what the forecast is telling you and where we think the wind’s coming from. And obviously if there is inclement weather, all of the boats are prepared to make a judgment call. And it’s upon each person, if they feel comfortable sailing in certain conditions, they might sail it through and if they don’t, they may go for safe harbor. But then again, it’s an independent decision each boat makes based on their capabilities as a crew and their experience.

Is there any way for people on shore to figure out when boats will be passing their towns?

Each boat is equipped with trackers, which are GPS enabled devices that basically hang on the stern rail of the boat about the size of a smartphone. Effectively, what you could do is log on to our website where you can see the tracking page (race tracking on navigation bar). The other option, if you have a smartphone, is go to the App Store and download something called the Yellow Brook Tracker to your phone. That app is free and it will allow you to get the race subscription. This year we are offering that race subscription for free. So you can actually keep track of boats on your smartphone or tablet and be able to follow the boats as they are going up. So you can actually see where the majority of the fleet is and where you want to go to see them.

Can you describe the atmosphere on Mackinac Island when the race is finished. What’s the celebration like there?

It’s a very festive atmosphere; our family members are up there waiting for us. There are friends and family that’ll be waiting, watching the boats as they come in across the finish line. So that’s a big sigh of relief as everyone comes in safe and all. More importantly, it’s a very celebratory atmosphere. Obviously, there’s a little bit of tired and there’s a little bit of worn out, but that very quickly dissipates as people realize “hey we made it, we’re here, let’s celebrate”. That whole atmosphere will culminate in what we call our Sailor’s Celebration, which takes place on Tuesday afternoon. That’s when we hand out our awards- we call them Brag Flags- to each of the section winners. It’s a big party at the Grand Hotel. It’s very nice, figure there are over 3,000 crewmembers and if you factor crewmembers, family, friends, and the like, it’s quite a party. It’s a lot of people. Very celebratory, and then Wednesday morning everyone heads out to get back to regular life.

I was going to ask you about that. It is an amateur race, so I am assuming a lot of the sailors have other jobs?

Yes, the majority of people are amateurs; I’d say 98% are amateur. There are people that hold down regular jobs- homemakers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, business owners- you name it. They’ve got to get back to their regular lives. Sailing is a hobby and a pastime for them. It happens to be a passion of theirs to do this race every July, as we’ve done 104 times and counting.

Do you have any more resources for people wanting to catch the action?

We have a Facebook page and a commentator, who is a seasoned sailor himself and will be giving a play by play of what’s happening out on the water. This year we are also equipping fifteen boats with two directional trackers so they will have the ability to Tweet what’s happening on their boat. “We had dinner off of Leland or we had breakfast off the Manitou’s this morning.” So people can follow that on Twitter.

For a 2013 guide to the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, click here!

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