Fair winds and following seas- story of the 2013 Port Huron to Mackinac Race

Competitors for the 2013 Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race head down the Black River in Port Huron, Mich., at the start of the annual race July 20, 2013. The race, spanning 204 nautical miles, starts in Port Huron and ends in Mackinac Island, Mich.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Joe Dillier

Competitors for the 2013 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race head down the Black River in Port Huron, Mich., at the start of the annual race July 20, 2013.
The race, spanning 204 nautical miles, starts in Port Huron and ends in Mackinac Island, Mich.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Ensign Joe Dillier

 

Every year on Lake Huron a prestigious yacht race is held. The Bell’s Beer Bayview-Mackinac Race is one of the oldest long-distance freshwater sailing races in the world. Since 1925, sailors have raced from Port Huron, Mich., to Mackinac Island, Mich., using only the power of the wind. On July 20, 2013, more than 2,500 sailors on 200 boats gathered in Port Huron for the start.

There have been at least three changes to the course throughout the race’s history. All of the race’s courses start in the waters of Lower Lake Huron, 4.5 miles north of the Blue Water Bridge near the American shoreline, traverse the length of Lake Huron, and finish in the Round Island Channel off Mackinac Island. Currently, the race features two courses, one shore course sailing up the Michigan shoreline, and a Cove Island Course that takes boats around a buoy off Cove Island in northeast Lake Huron.

The Coast Guard plays an important role in this race, acting as safety advisors for the organizers and providing a cutter to act as a safety vessel along the race course. All of the competitors are required to adhere to Coast Guard regulations governing vessels in the Great Lakes. In addition, racers had to complete a thorough safety checklist, which included such items as Coast Guard approved life jackets, flares, bilge pumps and knives.

This last requirement was added after the 2011 race, when two competitors died when their vessel flipped over and they were trapped underneath by their harnesses. All competitors are now required to have a knife attached to them at all times and must be able to open the knife one handed, in case such an accident might occur again. Crews are also required to complete an annual man overboard recovery practice and have all equipment on board for such a recovery.

The Coast Guard Cutter Bristol Bay, a 140-foot ice-breaking tug homeported in Detroit, acted as a safety vessel for the race, keeping spectators and racing crews safe. The cutter also hosted 20 guests from the Bayview Yacht Club at the start line in lower Lake Huron. Afterwards, the cutter sailed with the fleet as they moved up the coast, crossed the mouth of Saginaw Bay, continued around Alpena and then sailed the home stretch to Mackinac Island.

This year was definitely memorable for the sailors. While the Chicago to Mackinac Race, which occurred earlier in the month, was painfully slow this year due to no wind, the Port Huron to Mackinac Race broke records.

This was the fastest overall race in the past 25 years, with the majority of the racing fleet making it to the finish line on the evening of the second day or early morning of the third day.

 

Competitors for the 2013 Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race exit the Black River in Port Huron, Mich., on their way to the starting line.  The annual race, spanning 204 nautical miles, started in Port Huron and ended in Mackinac Island, Mich., and was overseen by Coast Guard assets.  U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Joshua Bozarth

Competitors for the 2013 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race exit the Black River in Port Huron, Mich., on their way to the starting line.
The annual race, spanning 204 nautical miles, started in Port Huron and ended in Mackinac Island, Mich., and was overseen by Coast Guard assets.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Joshua Bozarth

That’s a full 24-48 hrs ahead of schedule as the sailboats are usually cruising around five knots due to the wind conditions. However, this year, the winds were sustained 15 knots out of the west, which really allowed the fleet to progress north at a much faster-than-anticipated rate. In fact, some of the larger sailboats made it to the finish line in 24 hours.

Fortunately, with the sailboats racing to the finish line, the accidents were minor this year. A lot had to do with the safety preparations taken by the sailboat crews before and during the race itself.

This preparation goes hand-in-hand with the great boating safety habits inherent to the sailing community and also with the public outreach the Coast Guard employs for boating safety.

Preparations taken before the race include inspections of all life jackets, emergency beacons and general sailing gear on board the sailboats. Emergency measures are practiced by all sailing teams including fire response and man overboard scenarios. The teams are also trained to respond to more significant events such as losing a mast or rudder, which did occur to a few boats in this race.

Safety gear is also checked at the conclusion of the race.

“The safety aspect is a paramount part of the preparation process for this race and any other organized events,” said Cmdr. John Henry, commanding officer of the Bristol Bay.

“From the Coast Guard’s perspective, that’s reassuring because we know the mariners will be able to take initial action to handle situations upfront or at least provide initial action to prevent a situation from getting out of control. This benefits everybody, as it greatly reduces the chance of injury and also gives the Coast Guard time to arrive on scene, if needed.”

In this year’s edition of the race Coast Guard Ens. Joe Dillier, assistant industrial manager at the Industrial Production Facility in Detroit, was able to race on the Carrera, a 36-foot sailboat. Dillier has sailed with family throughout his life and was part of the Coast Guard Academy sailing team.

“We started on Saturday afternoon and immediately encountered very light wind, which can be frustrating in a sailing race,” said Dillier, who was participating in the race for the first time.

“After a few hours the breeze started to build as did the waves. We were very grateful for our life jackets and practiced good seamanship by keeping one hand for the ship, one hand for you.”

 

Competitors for the 2013 Bell's Beer Bayview Mackinac Race wait for the race to begin in Port Huron, Mich., July 20, 2013. The competitors competed in several different categories based on boat type during the 204 nautical mile race to Mackinac Island, Mich. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Joshua Bozarth

Competitors for the 2013 Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race wait for the race to begin in Port Huron, Mich., July 20, 2013. The competitors competed in several different categories based on boat type during the 204 nautical mile race to Mackinac Island, Mich.
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Joshua Bozarth

It was a very challenging race for the first 18 hours because the boats were headed upwind which can be very tough on the boat and the crew.

“We spent Saturday night huddled together on the windward rail of the boat, trying to keep it going fast while wave after wave of cold lake water washed over us,” said Dillier.

On the last day of the race, the wind began to shift to a more favorable direction, and the rest of the race was a fast-paced sprint to the finish.

The crew of the Carrera finished the race around 11:30 p.m. Sunday night, which was the shortest time any of the crew had finished the race.

“Sailing is a team sport and communication is vital to the success of the boat,” said Dillier.

“My team was very dedicated to racing; the most sleep anyone got was around four hours during the 34-hour race, because we were focused on making the boat go as fast as possible.”

For many of the competitors in this year’s race, it was a very difficult time. The crews had to face cold weather and seasickness.

One boat was dismasted and another lost one of its support wires that hold up the mast and was barely able to keep the mast upright.

Despite the tough conditions, however, everyone made it safely to shore, thanks to the seamanship of the competitors and the safety requirements put in place by the race organizers. If anything had happened, the Coast Guard would have been on scene to help coordinate rescue efforts and provide another level of safety and support.

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