There are always boats in the waters around Mackinac Island. But twice each summer there are so many racing yachts in the harbor that it almost feels like there are more boats than bikes on Mackinac Island!
Where do all those sailboats come from?
Mackinac Island’s 2 Iconic Boat Races
Each year two epic boat races conclude in the Straits of Mackinac, bringing hordes of sailors to Mackinac Island’s bars and restaurants after 40 hours or more of non-stop navigation through the two of the world’s largest freshwater lakes. Some years the races go off without a hitch in calm weather. In other years, storms kick up and the teams face treacherous conditions that are made all the more perilous as the races continue through the dark of night.
Whatever conditions confront the sailors, they always make time to unwind after reaching Mackinac Island.
“I hang around for a few days just cause the weather’s nice up there in the summer,” said Skip Ryan, a Tampa, Fla. man who has sailed in more than 50 Chicago Yacht Club Races to Mackinac. “As many times as I’ve been there, that island’s in a time capsule. It doesn’t change, which is a nice thing about it. It’s nice at night when all the day-tourists leave and things quiet down, and you see friends and have a few dinners and swap lies. It’s its own unique atmosphere not replicated anywhere else.”
The two races that bring sailors to Mackinac Island each summer are the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac and the Bayview Mackinac Race. Here are the basics of each event:
Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac
The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac starts in Chicago near Navy Pier and traverses Lake Michigan on the way to Mackinac Island. It’s the oldest annual freshwater distance race in the world, dating to 1898 when it took 51 hours for the winning boat to finish!
These days, the boat technology is just a wee bit better, and boats sometimes complete the 333-mile journey the next day. As Ryan says, “if you start on a Saturday afternoon and get to Mackinac before the bars close on Sunday, you’ve done pretty good.” The July 23, 1956, issue of Sports Illustrated includes a photo essay of the Chicago to Mackinac yacht race, noting that after the race yachtsman “treat themselves to a succession of parties aboard their boats and ashore on rustic Mackinac Island.”
The race features more than 300 boats from around the world, some with all-professional sailing crews. The boats start in waves and race through the night, with their times getting adjusted based on size and style so that boats of different kinds can race against each other. In 1998, a “Stars and Stripes” boat that sailed victoriously in the America’s Cup set the fastest time ever recorded in the Race to Mackinac, at just under 19 hours. A few years later, a boat owned and captained by Walt Disney’s nephew set the race’s record time for monohull boats at a little under 24 hours.
Bayview Mackinac Race
The Bayview Mackinac Race starts in Port Huron and runs north through Lake Huron on the way to Mackinac Island. It’s organized by the Bayview Yacht Club in Detroit and dates to 1925, so it’s almost as old as the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac. It’s almost as long, too, measuring just a little under 300 miles. In fact, the Bayview Mackinac Race actually has two courses these days: one that runs nearer the shore and one that crosses into Canadian waters and around a buoy near Cove Island at the entrance to Georgian Bay.
In Port Huron, where the race starts, the sailboats are feted during the Blue Water Festival, the community’s premier downtown party that includes a parade, fireworks, live music, and a carnival. About 200 boats – from smaller than 30 feet to more than 100 feet long – depart to cheering crowds wishing them “bon voyage.”
Most years, the boats make it safely to Mackinac Island. But a Great Lake is no “mill pond,” as media mogul Ted Turner once called Lake Michigan before taking part in a 1970 Race to Mackinac with 60-mile-per-hour winds that prompted more than half of the boats to withdraw. The wind has blown even harder in other years, sweeping crews overboard, breaking masts and capsizing boats. The July 14, 1986, issue of Sports Illustrated shares a harrowing first-person account of a yacht that sank on the way from Port Huron to Mackinac Island the previous summer.
“It’s a challenging race, not too long and not too short,” Ryan said. “You always get a variety of conditions, and you generally get a variety of conditions in one race. A lot of times, you have fronts coming across the lake. You have a big temperature difference between the land and the lake, and that helps the fronts build in intensity. When those fronts come across, you can get some very intense squalls and thunderstorms.”
As the Chicago Yacht Club says about sailing the Great Lakes, the wind is “the dearest friend” of all sailors and their “most menacing foe.” For all who complete either “test of strength, endurance, strategy, willpower and a little sailor’s luck,” a deserved stay on Mackinac Island awaits.
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