A few hours before we spotted Emma, we were passing Beaver Island and my dad was reminded of a story from one of his first Macs eighteen years earlier. He told us how the boat got too close to St. James Harbor, the wind was blocked by the land mass, and they were stuck there for hours as they watched the boats further out fly by. As he recounted the story, we noticed that we were sailing towards the island as if answering the call of the sirens...and the wind was slowly shutting off. As soon as this was pointed out, we jibed back and immediately regained our former velocity.
Throughout that race, we had been involved in a very exciting chase with the inevitable class winner that year, Gigi, and we ended up finishing within a few minutes of her to take second. It was a huge boost to finish so well after our sad race the previous year. The ride through the Straits that Monday morning was one of the most exciting moments in our history of this race. My brother Graham was on the chute, and within minutes he had transformed into a roaring, cackling powerhouse reminiscent of Lieutenant Dan from "Forrest Gump." We had Big Mike on the main and my youngest brother, Patrick, on the vang, and the rest of us hiked as hard as we could through the spray for three hours. At one point we turned around to see the spinnaker of a 40 ft boat literally explode from the mast into three pieces – it was amazing. We set our first speed record at 15.9 knots in about 20-25 knots of breeze, and we were one of the few boats who could carry a chute at such a hot angle to the finish. That year we had plenty to celebrate, and even made it on the CBS Mac Special when we accepted our flag at the awards ceremony. I have never seen my dad so proud.
Our third Mac brought a new addition to the team: a good friend of the family, Corky Weber, was invited as the seventh person and official "buffer" on our family boat. Corky’s great attitude and sailing background make him a perfect fit, but most importantly for my accident-prone family, he is a doctor.
The decision to add a seventh could not have come at a better time – the 2006 Mac brought a massive thunderstorm, 30+ knot winds, and 8-10 foot waves. Luckily, that winter Dad had bought a pilot-quality weather tracking computer that was dead-on in confirming that we were, in fact, in the middle of a massive thunderstorm. As the waves picked up on Sunday night, I was acutely aware of the three inches of fiberglass that protected me from the raging water as I pretended to sleep; after hearing my brothers & Dad complete a terrifying jibe, I threw on my foulies and joined the crew on deck. I have never been seasick in my twenty-six years of sailing; that night, I was closer to tossing my cookies out of pure fear than I am willing to admit. As the crew clung to each other on the windward cockpit bench, Banshee raced and roared her way through the waves. I had one arm tightly around the primary winch and the other arm even tighter around my youngest brother: Mom will kill us if we lose the baby.
Throughout the night, as our broaches became less and less frequent and Lieutenant Dan resurfaced to fly the spinnaker, my dad and Mike took turns surfing the huge waves to a record speed of 21.9 knots. It was incredible. We watched the lightning flash all around us and as the sky lightened around 4:30am, we saw for the first time how huge the waves actually were...and quietly prayed for it to get dark again.
We bravely carried our spinnaker all night long, but took it down for a few hours on Monday to give the crew some much needed sleep; at this point, we were used to the rocking of the boat and massive waves. As we rested in the cockpit and attempted to eat, we heard a tiny little "whoo-hoo!" coming from the stern. We looked up to see Big Mike’s back to us as he was relieving himself and a wall of water twice the size of him threatening to break over our stern. It was hilarious.
Last summer, my older sister Meaghan could not race with us because of a scheduling conflict with her MBA program. We unanimously voted for Katie McGauley, a veteran sailor and friend from Harbor Springs, to temporarily replace Meaghan. That year we were fast off the line and started in high breeze and great conditions – our little red chute was pulling ahead of the J105 fleet, and for over two hours we kept up a steady and promising pace. And then the wind died, never to be seen again. It was at this point that someone went down below to make a quick lunch for the crew, and was shocked to find a dozen bananas in our food supply – known to be bad luck on a boat. We decided that the only way to reverse our misfortune was to eat every single banana on the spot; it may have temporarily solved our wind problems, but the race in general was a disappointment.
As we face the 100th Mac Race and our fifth as a family, I would like to highlight how amazing it has been to share this time with our team of ever-improving sailors. I have a new respect for everyone that I have raced with – the skill and the lack of panic that have turned the most dangerous times into great adventures. I have a deep appreciation for the abilities of each of my siblings, and have become closer to them because of the ‘gotcha’ scenarios into which our parents are fond of putting us – throwing us into stressful situations has, against all reasoning, made us inseparable. And a word for the "buffers" – I apologize for our sibling clashes, but thank you for your bravery in electing to sail with four volatile and outspoken Farrells and one idealistic parent.
It really has been a great ride.
By Bert Vander Weele
It was around the summer of 1958 on a Sunday morning when vacationing at our cottage north of Little Point Sable when I noticed all the sailboats on the horizon. I asked my dad, why are all those boats out there? Being from Portage, Michigan, a small suburban city just south of Kalamazoo, we were not familiar with the Mac. Sorry, but it will always be Chicago-Mac to me. As the morning aged, I walked along the beach and encountered another cottage owner who had been around a lot longer than us.
Did he know why all the sailboats were out there? "It was the Chicago to Mac weekend," he quickly responded. As a 7 year old, I had about 20 more questions for him. Computers? What were those? If you wanted to find out something, you had to look in an encyclopedia or ask a boatload of questions, as I did.
It took several months and several conversations before my curiosity was satisfied. I credit my mother for my interest in sailing. She gave me books, and told me about our Dutch heritage and how our families had sailed in The Netherlands. The same fellow who told me about the race the year before thought it would be fun to put a sail rig on a canoe. My dad went out with him once in about three-foot waves and 15 knots of air on a hot July day, and he spent the whole time bailing with a big sponge. He only did that once and refused to let me give it a try.
A few years later, another neighbor bought a Super Porpoise and I watched him sail with his dad and then some by himself. I couldn’t stand watching any more and asked whether I could go with him. It was blowing pretty well that day and he needed the extra weight. After about two weekends of sailing with him, he let me go out by myself. My first single-handed sail...I was 11.
Two years asking my dad if I could get a boat of my own finally got me a response. One day he brought me the newspaper want ads. There it was...a used Super Porpoise for sale. I could call if I had the money. The price in the paper was $450. I had $300.
My dad worked during the day at the then Upjohn Company and also farmed on ours and rented land. I had been selling sweet corn and baling hay, but had not figured a boat would cost so much. I still laugh about that. He said to call and we could at least take a look at it. The owner was a fireman with the city of Kalamazoo. He worked 24 hours and then was off for 24 hours. We set a time to meet the following week.
I mentioned the fireman part because we found a boat that looked better than when it was new. It had about 50 coats of varnish and the top side was so shiny that when a fly landed, it would slip onto its back and fall off.
As I looked fondly at the Super Porpoise, my dad talked to the owner. Finally, I asked the logical question...what is the least you would take for it? Thinking back now, I never asked my dad what he talked about, but I can only imagine. He made me work hard but always made certain there was time for play.
The owner hemmed and hawed for what seemed like forever, but said he really couldn’t take much less than what he was asking. By now this 11year old was just about in tears, and not because I thought it would get me the boat. Dad pulled me aside and said, "offer him $400. and see if he’ll take it." I’ll give you the $100.
My strategy changed a little from that point. My dad had barely got the words out of his mouth when I blurted out, "Will you take $400? He said "yes" and I was the owner of my first boat.
So how does this relate to the Mac? I had dreamed from the first time I had seen all those boats that one day I would get a chance to race in the Mac. The following year the boats stayed way out in the lake as they slipped past our cottage, but the year after that, they were within 10 miles of shore...so was I.
The morning started out like many Sunday mornings on the Mac., light air from the south. By noon it was picking up and the boats were beginning to show up, coming in for the off-shore breeze. I rigged my Super Porpoise and started sailing toward the fleet.
By the time I arrived, the boats I had seen were almost out of sight to the north, but others had taken their place. I yelled and asked how they were doing and they yelled back, "What the @#$%#$%$%*&$#$% are you doing out here? Get the #@#$%&%@#$ out of the way."
Thinking back, I would say that was my first exposure to sailing rules as interpreted on a race course! By then I’m a teenager and sailing all summer long, but with no idea there are sailing fleets and organized races. I have only a guy with a Sunfish to race against. We would anchor a plastic Clorox bottle about a mile out and race around it.
When Pentwater was going through its first growth spurt, I drove in and berthed there was the Northern Light, an Americas Cup boat from the 1930s. A friend whose grandfather had a cottage on Pentwater Lake became a crew member on the boat. He got me on board for a few Sunday afternoon sails. Then the word came she was going to do the Mac. I had been dreaming about it for years, and now I actually knew someone who was going to sail in it.
I didn’t get to sail with the Northern Light and pretty much gave up trying. I had gotten married and was also working for The Upjohn Co. My dad passed away and Lake Michigan was so high I couldn’t get the boat in the water in front of the cottage. I had never lost my desire to sail in the race, but thought that chance would never come.
In 1978 I was standing at the cashier’s window at work (I can still see that as if it were yesterday) when one of the men who worked in one of the Upjohn buildings I took care of came to the window. We acknowledged each other when the cashier asked the $64,000 question: What are you doing this week-end?
He said he was going on a sailboat race. My ears picked up and I said, "Where?" He said, "Chicago to Mac." I’m not sure how long it was until I asked, " Do they ever need extra crew?" "Maybe," and he would call me that night at 6.
I prayed the phone would ring and it did! Crew were needed and if I wanted to go, be ready the following afternoon for the trip from Holland to Chicago. So my first true sailboat race was a Chicago to Mac. I was 27. I don’t believe many people can say that there first sailboat race was Chicago-Mac, and I bet even less were farm kids from Portage.
I can remember everything that happened on that race from start to finish. Sunday morning I received an extra biscuit and 2 extra pieces of bacon from Cookie (yes the cook) cause he thought I needed the extra energy. We woke up Sunday morning not knowing where we were for sure. Remember, this was before GPS and plotters. It was RDF’s and dead reckoning. Our navigator was a pipe smoker and the smoke was billowing out of the nav station. He did that when he was excited or nervous.
I looked toward shore and to my surprise we were right in front of our cottage 10 miles out. Reluctantly I said, "I know where we are." They all looked at me like who does he think he is. I pointed out the sand dunes and what we called the 3 sisters which are 3 hills between Pentwater and Ludington. Fred the navigator said there should be a radio tower at such and such degree and sure enough there was. He said "the kid’s right" and I was one of the team from then on. A few years later I was given the nick name Mackinac Rob by the crew. Our section went up the lake together. We flew the spinnaker for the first 32 hours then went to a No. 3 with a reefed main. From Grey’s reef to the bridge we made 8 sail changes. We finished just behind Bay Bea and just ahead of Northern Light with my same old friend on it which had said he would save us a slip. It was a story book ride like no other.
You can’t describe the way the stars look from the middle of the lake on a moonless night or trying to get through the Manitou’s in the middle of the night with 15 knots of air on the nose and 100 boats around you. Anyone who thinks they can describe this race to someone who’s never been on it has missed an awful lot. I’m sad to say that I have forgotten more of the details than I can remember. One thing is for sure, it’s the greatest fresh water race in the world!
This year will be my 28th and I have been an old goat since 2005. I have seen a lot of things out on that old lake that I love, but the respect I have for it only get stronger, and the love for it will never die. I was here for the 75th but won’t be for the 125th. I know I’ve kept my guardian angel pretty busy for the past 35 years because we’ve been in some tight spots. The only thing I’d change out of all of it, is to have started sooner in life and had my dad alive for one of them. I’d like to be able to expose more kids to sailing.
I ‘m still working on that and hope to have a grandson or daughter out on the water before I die.
Thanks for the memories. Dedicated to my parents & Bruce Hutchinson, who got me on my first Mac.