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Chesapeake sailor earns his stripes on a Great Lake

As a fairly experienced East Coast sailor, I've always wondered whether boating is really that different elsewhere in the United States. A boat is a boat, after all, so do you really need new skills when you enter new waters?

The start of the 102nd Mackinas Race was a chance for a Chesapeake Bay sailor to sample freshwater racing.

As it turns out, the answer is yes: There's a lot to learn.

For the first time last July, I got to explore one of America's vast inland seas by sailing the full length of Lake Michigan in the Chicago to Mackinac Race - the longest (333 linear miles) and oldest (102 years) annual freshwater sailboat race in the world. The race starts off Chicago's Navy Pier and ends at the southern tip of historic Mackinac Island (pronounced "mack-in-AW") at the western corner of Lake Huron.

After four days of non-stop sailing, I returned to shore with some surprising, amusing and painful lessons.

Jockeying for a spot

By any measure, "the Mac" is the premier sailing event in the Midwest each year, drawing hundreds of boats and more than a thousand sailors competing in almost two dozen divisions. Designed as a contest for serious amateurs, it also attracts some of the fastest boats and best sailors in the world, and the fast-changing, sometimes violent weather of Lake Michigan can make it brutally challenging.

Because the Mac is such a popular event, there typically are far more sailors available than boats to take them. I got in by posting a detailed personal sailing résumé on the "crew available" section of the Chicago Yacht Club (sponsor of the race) website in the hope that a raceboat owner needing pickup crew would notice my experience.

Sure enough, about a month before the race, I got a call from Rick Noorman, owner of Blue Chip, a 36-foot Mariner sloop out of Holland, Mich. He was looking to fill out an eight-man roster.

After a careful half-hour phone interview - during which each of us gradually concluded that the other probably was not a psychopath - he offered me a berth and I signed on. He ended up picking a skilled, congenial and entertaining crew.

Blue Chip was in the cruising division, which meant we had heavier boats and smaller sail plans and started a full day ahead of the main fleet of mostly purpose-built raceboats. This ensured that the bulk of the entrants would arrive more or less together, in time for the awards ceremony and the famous postrace party on Mackinac Island.

Life in the slow lane has its advantages: As a cruiser, Blue Chip's head and engine are enclosed (for privacy and quiet), its cabin has standing headroom and its bunks have comfortable foam cushions. These are no luxuries on the hard-core raceboats, which are stripped clean below decks to minimize weight: Toilet and engine are exposed for all to share, cabins are sometimes painfully low to minimize wind resistance and the crew sleeps in pipe berths with lightweight webbing. As a sailor of a certain age, I was happy to trade some speed for (relative) comfort.

Starting gun

Our division started in glorious, sunny sailing conditions: a stiff 30-35 mph wind from the southwest, ideal for a fast run to the north. Once the sails were set, including the big, powerful spinnaker, the crew's duty mostly was to sit as ballast on the high side of the boat, getting tanned and enjoying the ride.

Although the forecast was for a full day of this weather, Lake Michigan wasted no time displaying its legendary fickleness. About two hours into the race, Noorman noticed several boats downwind of us abruptly heel over, sails out of control: It was a strong wind shift - nearly 180 degrees - heading our way. "Drop the spinnaker!" he suddenly yelled. "Now! Get it down now!"

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Because one of my jobs was to raise and lower the spinnaker, I instantly jumped to the mast and grabbed the halyard. Unfortunately, I had not yet put on my leather sailing gloves and, in the heat of the moment, I unfastened the halyard too soon before the other crewmembers had set the smaller headsail and depowered the big spinnaker. That meant the force of near-gale winds on 1,200 square feet of sailcloth was suddenly transferred to a mere half-inch rope in my bare left hand.

The line sizzled through my hand, instantly shredding the flesh on three finger joints and heavily blistering the other fingers and palm. It took less than a second to snap down and lock the rope clutch in my right hand, but the damage was done. As teachable moments go, this proved to be an excellent, if bloody, lesson in timing and teamwork.

Behind the wind shift came a major weather front and a spectacularly evil-looking squall line that rapidly overtook us from the south. By nightfall, our boat was encircled by heavy thunderstorms. They lasted all night and would cause serious flooding throughout the Chicago area.

Because sailboats are basically floating lightning rods in electrical storms, the standing order is to touch no metal - especially the rigging - while lightning is about. The wisdom of that rule was demonstrated by Ocean Adventure, a 60-foot schooner (also in the cruising division) that took a direct lightning strike to the mast during the storm: The boat had to abandon the race, its electrical system fried to a crisp, but none of the eight men aboard were injured.

East vs. Midwest water

By the second day, as the rain and storms gradually abated, the crewmembers began to settle into their rotating four-hour shifts. The many differences between my salty East Coast home waters and the fresh water of the Great Lakes became apparent.

The race course route covers 333 miles.

Smell: On Lake Michigan, there is none. On the Chesapeake or elsewhere on the East Coast, you can always sniff the brackish salt water and the rich, sulfurous, low-tide odor of marsh and muck is inescapable. But the fresh water of the Great Lakes smells like   - nothing. It is undetectable. For a saltwater boater, it is very odd to sail a scentless sea.

Tides: Also none. On most of the East Coast you simply don't leave home port without checking whether the tide is rising or falling: It can make the difference between having fun or getting into serious trouble. The daily ebb and flow of the tides is a primal, powerful force that boaters cannot ignore out East; in the Great Lakes, it simply does not exist.

Weather: I once heard a professional sailor say the only difference between a storm on the Great Lakes and the open ocean is "the taste of the water when it slams you in the face." Bad weather on the Big Water (as locals call it out here) can arrive stunningly fast with deadly force and it is not to be underestimated.

Sea life: Though beautifully blue and clear, Lake Michigan's water seemed barren. The muddy Chesapeake Bay, even with its endless environmental problems, is thriving and lush by comparison, with silver-sided menhaden jumping out of the water, blue crabs scuttling beneath the surface, osprey diving on a meal; even the much-despised jellyfish warn you that the water is alive. But in the Great Lakes the trout, whitefish and salmon keep to the deep and life on the surface is rare to see. The fresh water out here is by no means dead - plenty of fishermen troll the near-shore depths with success - but it's nowhere near as busy as the salt water back home.

Bugs: One surprise about Great Lakes sailing was the ferocity of the black flies. Even in the middle of Lake Michigan, 45 miles from land, flies will breed on the surface of the water and any boat that passes through them draws a swarm of small, vicious, biting hitchhikers.

"Sometimes you can see clouds of them rising up off the water in your wake, coming after the boat," Noorman says, explaining why his boat had a custom-fitted, heavy-duty insect screen covering the hatch - and why there were so many fly swatters on board. "By the end of a race, the decks of some boats are literally black with dead flies."

The flies attract predators, even mid-lake, for which a sailboat is both a smorgasbord and a place to rest. The morning of our second day out, a small and water-logged brown bat quietly dried out on the starboard rail for a few hours, ignoring the noisy humans just three feet away.

"I've seen birds in the middle of the lake that will eat flies out of your hand like they're tame," says Bill Liszewski, a veteran Blue Chip crewmember. "They seem to know we're on the same side."

Cows and boats

On our second night out, an unfavorable wind shift to the north forced us to tack across the lake, all the way to the Wisconsin side. This frustrating delay did hold one potential silver lining: It might allow me to verify a legendary Midwest sailing technique for which I had always been skeptical.

One of America's greatest sailors, Buddy Melges (Yachtsman of the Year several times), learned to sail on the small lakes of Wisconsin, surrounded by dairy farms. He credits dairy cows with teaching him the most basic skill of sailing: how to identify wind direction.

"On the windy days, when the sailor likes to be out, the cow maybe doesn't like this so well and oftentimes they put their fannies into the wind - unlike the birds, that stand head into the wind," Melges says in a sailing video. "In Wisconsin and the Middle West, we use our cows to determine the wind direction, simply by the fact that their rumps are to the wind."

Sadly, Blue Chip's closest approach to Wisconsin occurred deep in the nighttime darkness, when neither bow nor stern of bovine could be seen. As we tacked over and headed back toward the Michigan side of the lake, the Midwest Cow-Butt School of Sailing faded back below the dark horizon, untested and unconfirmed.

The final stretch

On the third day, we finally caught a favorable wind and cleared Point Betsie on the Michigan shore - the first waypoint in the race out of Chicago. By sunset, we were through the narrow Manitou Passage, squeezed in with lots of other sailboats and the occasional Great Lakes ore boat.

As we sailed comfortably to the north-northeast between the beautiful Manitou Islands and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a deep-red sun slowly dropped into the water to the west just as a full yellow moon rose out of the sand dunes to the east. It was the most spectacular nightfall of the trip.

Our last day started in dead calm off the southern tip of Beaver Island in the far northern end of Lake Michigan. As typically happened, the wind gradually returned as the day warmed up, and by noon we were shooting through Gray's Reef, the narrow, crowded channel that marks the entrance to Mackinac Strait and the final leg of the race. By late afternoon, we passed under the arching, graceful Mackinac Bridge and, as required by the rules, radioed our final approach to the race committee.

Four miles later, as several go-fast raceboats continued to ghost past us in the light wind, we crossed the finish line at the southern tip of Mackinac Island, 74-1/2 hours after our start in Chicago. We would place third in our division, getting us on the awards platform the next day at the Grand Hotel.

Mackinac Island

As a picture-perfect tourist destination, scenic Mackinac Island is hard to beat. Cars are banned, there is not a stoplight on the island, and bicycles and horse-drawn carriages are the only form of wheeled transportation. Historic Fort Mackinac, built by the French to protect their early monopoly of the Great Lakes fur trade, looms over the town and harbor. Majestic summer "cottages" line the bluffs and town, leading to the world-famous, gleaming white Grand Hotel, a national historic landmark with the world's longest front porch (an eighth of a mile).

The arrival of hundreds of racing crew and their family and friends marks the start of the biggest and most raucous party of the year on Mackinac, and ferryboats from nearby St. Ignace and Mackinac City (on either end of the Mackinac Bridge) pack in the visitors. The resulting crowds literally overwhelm the island's tiny harbor village, jamming the town's charming, but narrow. streets. A sizable, but discreet, "shovel brigade" is employed to roam the streets, cleaning up after Mackinac's considerable horsepower.

Like tourist towns everywhere, tension is inevitable between the locals and the "come-heres"- and fudge (Mackinac's only export) seems to mark the divide. Michiganders derisively refer to tourists as "fudgies" because locals typically don't touch the stuff. For their part, some visitors disdainfully see the island's seemingly endless fudge shops as tacky tourist traps.

"Mackinac is OK - if you like fudge and horse manure," snorts Tom Richmond, a Blue Chip crewmember and veteran of previous Chicago to Mackinac races.

But the "fudge issue" notwithstanding, Richmond and countless sailors like him keep coming back to the Mac year after year, lured by the adventure, the challenge of the lake and the beauty of the island. In fact, there are enough fanatics who keep coming back that they have their own club: the Island Goats Sailing Society. To join it, you must have sailed in at least 25 Mackinac races.

It's a large and active group dedicated to the most important lesson of freshwater and saltwater sailing: fun and friendship on a boat.

Freelance writer Stephen Blakely sails an Island Packet 26 out of Galesville, Md., on Chesapeake Bay

This article originally appeared in the Mid-Atlantic Home Waters section of the January 2011 issue.