Detroit — Sailing is often associated with bright, blue skies, calm water, a pleasant wind.

Perfect conditions on a picturesque day.

But then, you have conditions like last weekend during the Chicago to Mackinac sailing race.

Violent thunderstorms, damaging winds, huge waves….this was no quaint Sunday afternoon sail.

“We were a little ahead of it but you hear about what happened, and the boats having to withdraw, it was difficult conditions,” said Hans Brieden, Bayview Yacht Club commodore, who was aboard Evolution and away from the worst of the situation. “At that point, it’s safety first.”

Heading into Saturday’s start of 93rd  Bayview Port Huron to Mackinac Race, the Chicago portion serves as a reminder that these races can become nail-biters and nerve-wracking instantly.

The vast majority of competitors in the Port Huron-to-Mackinac are experienced, said race chair Tricia Smotherman, and have been through all sorts of weather situations.

“Experience certainly helps, it’s a high priority,” Smotherman said. “A large part of it is being prepared and how well you transition (to the conditions). There are a lot of factors.

“In this race, with our Michigan weather, you have to be ready for anything.”

A total of 97 boats were forced to withdraw from the Chicago race and four of those, who were planning on competing this weekend, will not be because of damage to their boats.

A large weather shift during last weekend’s race resulted in winds coming in from the north and stirred wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour (42 knots)  and huge waves, damaging many boats.

One man fell overboard and floated in Lake Michigan for an hour before being rescued by the Coast Guard.

Another boat, High Priority 2, capsized with four sailors on board needing to be pulled from the water.

Even 86-footer Windquest, always a contender to win either race (Chicago or Port Huron) to Mackinac, retired after the dangerous winds caused boat damage.

“It can get a little bit nervous in those conditions,” Brieden said. “Like I said, safety first. That’s first and foremost and becomes most important. You rely on experience and what you’ve learned.”

The majority of the boats, who usually complete the Chicago-to-Mackinac on Monday, didn’t finish this week until Tuesday, as the inconsistent wind conditions made for a long, harrowing adventure.

The Port Huron-to-Mackinac shouldn’t be nearly as stomach-turning.

Light winds are expected early, maybe some rain but nothing extraordinary, with winds expected in the pick up to 10-to-15 knots in the evening.

“At the beginning of the week we were concerned about this race being a floater (standing still), but it doesn’t appear it’ll be like that at all,” Smotherman said. 

Approximately 208 boats are expected to begin the race, one of Michigan’s summertime traditions which sailors point to on their calendars every year.

“For a lot of different reasons,” Smotherman said. “One is because of family. You have generations sailing on the same boat, grandparents, parents, children, and they come back year after year, they look forward to the time together.

“It’s summer, you’re on the water, and you’re headed to Mackinac Island. It makes for a special time.”
93rd Bayview Mackinac Race

When: 11:30 a.m., Saturday.

Where: Lake Huron, just north of the Blue Water Bridge.

Courses: The Shore Course, covering 204 nautical miles (235 statute miles) along the Michigan shore — and the Cove Island Course, 259 nautical miles (298 statute miles) going to the Bruce Peninsula before heading west to Mackinac.

Did you know? Approximately 208 boats are expected to compete with more than 2,500 sailors participating.