29 JULY 2005 • Let's do the Chicago to Mackinac Race in the Melges24... The questionable idea was born late one evening in February at our regular Thursday-night hangout, McGee's Tavern. Although questionable, the idea was appealing to us because we knew the performance capabilities of the Melges24 after sailing her in one-design competition. Those of you who have sailed on an M24 know that when given the proper conditions, the boat can reach speeds comparable to a 40-footer. The only problem; we'd never really "stretched her legs" on a distance race and we couldn't find anyone who had.

Our window of opportunity for a distance test on "Wham-O" USA41 came with the Chicago to Waukegan, a 30 mile port-to-port race in late June. The boat was not registered to race in the LMSRF Area III schedule so we decided to treat it as more of a cruise than anything and yield to the boats that were racing. During the trip there and back the following day the boat proved herself as an offshore-worthy distance-racing sailboat. We were dished out rapidly changing weather conditions and were able to extensively test the boat on all points of sail. At all points we were able to keep up with the fleet with no problems.

As the weather got warmer and the sailing season moved to full-swing we continued to discuss the idea and put the necessary details in place. The crew of five was finalized and consisted of the owner, Justin Neal, Nick Marson, Joe Romero, Christian McNeilly, and myself (Chris Murray). The five of us are all long time friends and are confident in each other's sailing abilities. Everyone involved possessed strong dinghy backgrounds and various offshore experiences, including 25 Chicago to Mackinac Races between the five of us.

July approached fast and before we knew it we were swamped with boat preparation for the Mac Race. Boat Prep included wiring navigation lights, installing webbing to hold us in the berths, and devising a system in the bow to support our gear to keep it dry. We also thoroughly inspected all the hardware on the boat to ensure it was in good working order.

Our main focus for the trip was safety and weight reduction. Safety equipment for the boat included a 6 person life raft, Emergency Positioning Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) and flares. Personal safety gear included offshore harnesses and tethers along with positive flotation devices (PFDs) outfitted with strobes. We also provisioned the boat very lightly and took only five military issued Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) entrees, two boxes of granola bars, two cases of water, and a 30 pack of Old Style beer.

Race day came and it was "Go Time". Since the boat didn't have a PHRF Certificate we decided on a rating of around 90 PHRF, as other M24's have raced with this number. This number put us in Section 7 with boats such as Celerity, C&C 40, Most Wanted, New York 36, Ozymandias IV, North American 40, and other similar 35-40 footers.

Since we were an "unofficial" entry because we didn't make the 30 foot minimum requirement, we all agreed we should start outside of the RC box to respect those officially entered in the race. We started with Section 7 ay 12:30pm CST and began the race uphill in 4-6 knots of breeze. Upwind in light is the worst condition to race a M24 in a PHRF section but we were able to hold our own with the fleet and averaged 4-5 knots of boat speed.

The forecast for the race called for breeze inshore out of the North East, clocking East by evening, then South West overnight and building to 10-20 knots. We were hoping the blow would come earlier than forecast so we could stretch our legs on the fleet. Off the mark we were able to hold a NNW course and as the shift came in we planned to take the lift which would bring us up onto the rhumb line (NE) then allow us to put up the kite once we were freed up enough to do so.

At dusk on Saturday we were on the rhumb and shortly after were able to put up a kite. Our boat speed immediately jumped 2 knots and we were averaging 7 knots of boat speed. We held this course most of the way across the lake until Sunday morning at 5am when the breeze died off and the fog set in. We were about of the way across the lake and down to 2 knots of boat speed. We crossed gybes with a couple of big rigs in the fog so we knew we were still in good company.

Around 8 am Sunday morning the breeze filled in and we were back up to around 8 knots of boat speed. The breezes continued to clock and build all day. Evening arrived as we were approaching Pt. Betsy. We were now up to about 12-14 knots of boat speed in around 15-18 knots of breeze. We gybed out to clear Pt Betsy and the breeze jumped well over 20 knots. We were really trucking at this point as the boat speed was reading 18-19 knots on the GPS. I was on the helm with the kite trimmer sitting beside me. The third guy on deck was periodically reading the heading on the mast as the wave action was beginning to toss the boat 5-10 degrees off course. The breeze continued to build and the waves doubled in height. The waves would literally pick up the boat and throw her down the face of them, causing the boat speed to jump as much as 4 knots. I drove another hour or so in these conditions until the end of my watch. We then woke up Justin to take the helm as I went below. Before I left the helm we were seeing the bow periodically bury when we were sailing down the steep faces of the building waves. Not more than 2 minutes after I went below we jumped off a monster wave and buried the bow all the way up to the mast. This incident was followed by the on-watch crew screaming at the two of us off-watch to get back up on deck and sit on the transom.

At this point we were seeing constant speeds over 20 knots of boat speed. The boat began jumping off the top of waves, digging the bow in, then popping back up and launching off the next set of waves. This was happening around 1:30 am between Pt Betsy and the South Manitou Lt. and this is where we hit our top race boat speed of 24 knots. Not more than a minute or two later the boat launched off of a huge wave, buried the bow, rounded up hard to weather and broached. I clearly remember turning to Christian and simply saying, "Here we go!". The kite immediately ripped from the foot to about the center line but was still under load and was holding the boat on her side. Nick was finally able to blow the halyard and get the kite down on the water at which point the boat got back on her feet. We blew the tack line and tried to recover the kite but we were already moving at 12 knots of boat speed with the main alone. The kite suddenly dug into the water and acted like a sea anchor. We ended up running over the kite and getting it wrapped around our rudder. Now we had no helm and to make matters worse there was a 40 footer bearing down on us under full kite only of a mile astern. Joe grabbed his knife and hung over the transom cutting the kite off the rudder while the boat sailed wildly out of control. Once he cleared the kite we decided to run headless until dawn. We dubbed that night "Night of the EPIRB".

Helming the boat in the building waves was a handful and after Justin was done on the helm Joe took it for the next 3 hours in some of the biggest waves I have experienced on a 24 foot boat. We were doing 12 knots of boat speed and shooting up to 14+ with the main alone. I believe Justin set the record at 14.8 with main alone.

When dawn came we could see for the first time the size of the waves which only continued to build. We decided that although we could probably handle the breeze, the wave action would bury the bow again if we put a kite back up. We decided to sail headless and ended up doing so for the next 10 hours through the finish. We lost a lot of boats because we were only averaging 12-14 knots with the main and could have doubled our speed if we put the kite back up but in the interest of safety in the offshore conditions we decided to maintain survival mode and focus on simply finishing the race without breaking the boat or hurting anyone.

We lost our kite around 1:30am CST Monday between Pt. Betsy and the South Manuotu Lt. just south of the 45th parallel and before we did so we were sure the other boats around us were mostly Section 3 & 4. Looking at the 45th parallel check times I believe we were ahead of a few big boats. I'm guessing we were probably somewhere near the pack of boats who checked in between 2:30 - 3:30 am. Here is a sample of some of these boats and their Check-In times: Painkiller 4 - Sydney 38 (45th Check-In 02:25), Blu Interlude - Beneteau 47.7 (45th Check-In 02:31), Jahazi - J120 (45th Check-In 02:34), Relentless - Tripp 40 (45th Check-In 02:50), Prima Donna - Tripp 40 (45th Check-In 03:14), Fandango - J109 (45th Check-In 03:27), Das Boot - Beneteau 40.7 (45th Check-In 03:37).

At the entrance to Gray's Reef we noticed an upside-down hull of a 35 ft Trimaran and sailed by to offer assistance. Once we saw an anchor line on the bow we knew the boat was abandoned and we continued on through the reef, around the corner, and down to the bridge. We later herd she went over in a 60 knot squall which missed us by about 30 miles. We lit our cigars as we passed under the Mackinac Bridge and crossed the finish line Monday, 3:18pm CST. Our total elapsed race time was 51hr 18 min.

We entered Mackinac Island harbor and the harbor master hailed us with his bull-horn and told us to proceed to the docks in front of the Chippewa Hotel and raft off the boats inside. When we entered the harbor we were shocked by our welcome as we received a standing ovation from the entire fleet. Before we could finish tying off the boat we were boarded by about 10 or so people bringing us gifts of beer and rum.

The celebration was short lived as we were informed by race officials that we were not allowed to dock in the harbor since we were an unofficial entry. We then had to throw off our lines and move the boat to the private coal docks where we rafted alongside the 50-footers!

Although the race was somewhat controversial and publicly denounced as unsafe by race officials, many of them came up and privately congratulated us. Off the record, of course.

Chicago to Mackinac 2006 Vanguard 15's... Anyone up for it???


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