The Chicago Race to Mackinac: A Look at the Island Goats Sailing Society

Northern Michigan Events: The 105th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac Island is just around the corner. With over a hundred running’s, the race has no shortage of wild tales, close finishes, and veterans that keep coming back for more.

This rich history of competition and camaraderie is embodied in the Island Goats Sailing Society, an exclusive group of sailors that have completed at least 25 races. The Island Goats have been around for over fifty years and are as much part of the tradition of the “Mac” as the race itself.

In 1959, three veteran sailors set out to create the exclusive group. The quirky name? Legend has it that the “goat” title was chosen for the appearance and smell of sailors when they finally reach the finish and for early Mackinac Island inhabitants, island goats. Intending to uphold the history of the freshwater race, these practiced competitors formed the IGSS, only thirteen members at the time.

Fast-forward to 2013 and the society is still going strong, with 345 active goats, 202 deceased and inactive goats, and 547 all-time goats. Last year, 212 active goats sailed yet again from Chicago to Mackinac Island. Gary Allie is the current Commodore of the Island Goats Sailing Society and is preparing to sail his 38th “Mac” on Touch of Grey, a boat he has raced on since 1993.  From an interview with Allie, it’s clear the society still champions those original values of camaraderie and preserving tradition. As the seasoned sailor puts it, “the basis of the goats is to keep the memories of the Chicago to Mackinac Race alive. The requirement for admission is to sail in at least 25 Chicago to Mackinac Races and that means there are a lot of memories.”

The goats have figured out a neat way to keep passing down those stories and precious memories on the water- at the Annual Induction in May. New goats aren’t exactly newbies to the “Mac”, with at least 25 years experience. Allie explains, “each new goat is asked to tell a story about one of their most memorable experiences racing on the Chicago to Mac Race. And the stories range from humorous to, in a way, bittersweet.”

He recalled one such story; from a woman in the society whose father and grandfather were island goats. “In her case both her father and grandfather were goats. She was going to take her father’s ashes and scatter them when the boat rounded Grey’s Reef. So they approached Grey’s Reef and she went on the foredeck with her father’s ashes and just as they rounded, the wind hit the boat pretty hard. The skipper was yelling ‘we got to change sails, we got to change sails’. Rather than saying the few words in memoriam to her father all she could do was to toss the can over and say ‘Bye dad!’ She thought, ‘Oh, he was a goat he would’ve understood’.” Just as her father would have understood her unceremoniously tossing his ashes overboard, all of the goats listening could identify with her thought. They all understand what it’s like out there. The last-minute changes in strategy, storms coming from the West, eating breakfast at dawn as they sail by South and then North Manitou. They share this incredible passion for sailing, craving for the race’s challenge year after year, and perhaps most importantly, the friendship of fellow goats.

Besides looking into the past, goats are still eager for another chance to sail in the “Mac” (even though the average has sailed through nearly a hundred thunderstorms on Lake Michigan). Allie describes the reason he keeps coming back for more. “A lot of it has to do with the challenge, but also the camaraderie. The guys and gals that sail the Mac are a different breed and there’s camaraderie in having done it and then sharing the experiences.”

Allie recalls one of his favorite points in the race, when he comes up near Sleeping Bear Dunes and the Manitou Islands. Each year, the route varies, depending on weather conditions and strategy, but most boats converge at the Manitou Passage. “It’s always exciting for me to get up there and start smelling the piney woods, that beautiful pine scent, that’s a little farther north. That’s kind of like a welcome home thing.”

Perhaps these well-seasoned sailors are also looking ahead to the next level of prestige, the Master Mariner Award, a prestigious honor that goes to those (only eleven at current count) that have raced fifty times in the “Mac”. As the permanent trophy at the Chicago Yacht Club reads, “The Master Mariner Award was established in 2002 to honor the memory of Dick Rodseth and his love for the sport of sailing and the people it attracted. The annual Chicago Mackinac Race was Dick's favorite. He would spend countless hours preparing… and use all his skill and cunning in his attempt to win this annual July event. Dick competed in 51 Chicago Macs and through this gift will be remembered for his competitive spirit, camaraderie and love of this race.”

Vallie is sailing his 38th this year, a boast-worthy record, yet he remains humble, referencing another goat, Muskegon-based John Nedeau, who plans to take off for the 66th time this weekend.

With sailors hailing from Washington to Florida (and even Switzerland), the older goats looking towards the Master Mariner Trophy, and (relatively) new goats, “it’s a good group, and there’s an honor…people say ‘only five more years, only four more years, only three more years’.”

Once you're a goat, you're always a goat, but to stay "active" in the Island Goats Sailing Society? Allie chuckles, replying that the annual dues are $25.

For more on the Island Goats, visit their website at islandgoats.org.

Want more of the 105th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac? Click here for MyNorth's 2013 guide!

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