Chicago to Mackinac: The Oldest Freshwater Yacht Race Knots Up for 2010

A skyline of spinnakers will set sail on July 24 as 375 boats search for speed in the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac. The oldest annual freshwater race in the country, the Chicago Yacht Club’s 333-mile open water adventure crosses Lake Michigan and ends in the waters along Mackinac Island.  To get an insider’s perspective on this famous boat race, MyNorth touched base with Chicago Yacht Club’s Christie Denson.

MyNorth: The race is now in its 102nd year, which means race organizers probably have pre-game preparations down pat. What’s involved in getting ready for boats to hit the starting line?

Christie Denson: It’s a year’s worth of planning. In August of ’09 we began planning for 2010. It’s having a world-class race committee. It takes hundreds of volunteers and staff who work behind the scenes to pull off all the fine details—from sailing instructions to party planning.
 MyNorth: How has the race changed over the last century?

Christie Denson: Of course there are lots of changes of the course of 101 years. The size of the fleet—5 boats in the first race to 375 today. Yacht design and technology has evolved, rating systems have changed, and our race has grown to have multiple divisions which allow all kinds of boats to race. Another notable change is tracking technology that has allowed the race to become a virtual spectator sport. We’ve gone from race results being wire telegraphed in 1909 to today with the entire 375 boat fleet carrying GPS transponders that update online in near real time with data like boat speed, wind and wave conditions. Friends, family and colleagues can all watch the race unfold as the boats race to Mackinac.
MyNorth: How has it stayed the same?

Christie Denson: Ultimately the Mac has always been a test of strength, endurance and teamwork.
MyNorth: Are there favorite race or crew stories that have become the stuff of legend at the Chicago Yacht Club?

Christie Denson: One favorite anecdote is from 1970—the year Ted Turner competed with his America ’s Cup boat American Eagle—he’d scoffed at Lake Michigan sailing calling it a “mill pond.” After gale force winds hit the fleet in that race, he publicly retracted his statements.

There are also lots of great superstitions—crews that “feed the Bear” while passing Sleeping Bear point, a race landmark – crews who always tell a joke while going under the Mackinac Bridge—great stuff. 
MyNorth: What gives this race its staying power?

Christie Denson: The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac is truly a world-class event. There are those sailors like our Island Goats Sailing Society (men and women who’ve completed 25+ Macs) that do it every year—it’s the pinnacle of summer. There are amateur sailors who have it on their bucket list to professional crews that want to break records. We’re the “big dance” as far as freshwater sailing in the Midwest goes and we’re proud that we continue to grow. We have more than 50 new boats this year.