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Bay Area Sailors Take the Wins in Race to Mackinac

The 114th Race to Mackinac, presented by Wintrust, was a rewarding experience for several S.F. Bay Area racing teams that paid off handsomely. In contrast to last year’s race, which was a white-knuckle affair sailed in heavy seas, surrounded by constant lightning with waves of incessant sheets of rain that stung like bees, this year was a tactical dream that played like a spellbinding chess match. Racers swapped the leads multiple times in all divisions up and down the racecourse, which usually plays like a typical distance race. This time around it was match racing at its best.

In many cases it came down to the last remaining patch of emerald water with seconds to spare at the finish line between the Round Island Lighthouse and Windermere Point. The line is so close to shore you can smell the fudge from downtown Mackinac Island and hear the clapping of horses’ hooves as they trot up and down Main Street.

A day that started out under glorious sunshine, with a weather forecast of light breezes (Ugh!), quickly turned into a daunting challenge. Teams were forced into last-minute sail changes with little or no time to change into foul weather gear, as conditions turned on a dime and thunderstorms materialized out of nowhere, with sheets of driving raindrops the size of shot glasses. It was as close to hail as rain can get!

Sunshine to driving rain in a matter of moments off the Chicago waterfront, as the Great Lakes (ex SC) 70s get going at the start of the 114th Race to Mackinac.
© 2023 Mark Reid

With a day’s head start, Peter Thorton’s 104-ft ketch Whitehawk was first to finish at the island on Sunday afternoon in 1d 22h 26m 5s, but the prestigious line honor went to Philip O’Neal’s Natalie J, which nipped Bob Hughes’s Heartbreaker by a mere 34 seconds, and with the two GL 52s trading the lead back and forth on the final run through the Straits after rounding the turning mark at Grays Reef. But at the end of the day, it was Eric Wynsma’s GL 52 Usual Suspects and his “Corinthian” crew that captured the division on corrected time for a popular, hard-fought win in the Great Lakes 52 Class.

Last to first was not the way Scott Sellers and his daughter Merritt thought their race was going to turn out. More than three minutes after the start, the Larkspur, CA, sailors Sellers, aboard their J/111 Nosurprise, were notified by the Race Committee that they were over the line early and would have to turn around and restart the race. After the schizophrenic start with the weather conditions, they fell more than a mile behind their competitors.

“It was a tough race, lots of sail changes, changing gears, nothing super-windy, but it kept us on our toes,” Scott Sellers said. “Last year was a little more adventurous, but this year was just as arduous. We had a deficit to work out of. The first time we took the lead from No Quarter was around Grays Reef, then we lost it and then we took it back in the Straits.

“We had a lot of boats to chase, in different areas of the race, so we just picked them off one at a time. We got some lucky shifts; No Quarter fell into a hole and we passed them for the win.”

Nosurprise finished ahead by five minutes at 1d 22h 27m 17s.

Merritt and Scott Sellers of Larkspur, CA.
© 2023 Mark Reid

“It was so fun and a great race,” Merritt said. The 15-year-old sailor made headlines last year at 14, winning the doublehanded division in the Port Huron to Mackinac Race. “After being OCS at the start, it was awfully stressful, but it felt really good every boat we got; those moments felt so rewarding for the team.”

S.F. Bay Area’s Nick Gibbens, David Gruver, Tom Ducharme, John Collins and the rest of the Wintrust crew, including SoCal’s tactical and weather guru Doug Johnstone sailing on Sic Parvis Magna, returned for another shot at a race they have come to enjoy, and win on the J/145 this time around.

Their faith was rewarded again as they finished with an elapsed time of 1d 15h 04m 40s corrected to 2d 04h 12m 40s for first in Section 3 and second overall. Sic Parvis Magna comes from Sir Francis Drake, and means “greatness from small beginnings.”

Sic Parvis Magna at the finish off Mackinac Island.
© 2023 Stephen R Cloutier/2023 CYCRTM

“We had such a fantastic time last year, and all along we intended to make this a long-term commitment with Wintrust,” Gibbens said. “We will have this boat for at least the next five years. We just got into the water literally a week ago and had to do a lot of mechanical stuff just to get it where it is, let alone what we had to do to go out and win races, and we’re still working on that.

“But we are more prepared than we were last year,” he continued. “Most of the crew is back from last year and we added a couple more people from the Bay Area; we have a very strong core group. The start was exciting, and we had a nice reaching start on the leeward end of the line, and then all of a sudden it started raining like crazy! It quickly became a different kind of sailboat race!

“For the first hour or so we pretty much sailed straight and stretched out using most of our waterline,” Gibbens said. “We favored the western shore from the modeling, but as the day went on we lost a little confidence in that and started to play the shifts. We were leading for most of that first part of the race until wind shifts and sail changes started having their effect on the race.

“As we reached up the lake, like every navigator we looked for the wind where we wanted it to be and where we hoped it was,” he said. “We probably don’t know enough about the lake yet, but by morning the die was cast. We were on starboard tack and kept getting headed, so there was really no option to jibe out, so we were dealing with the cards that we were dealt and we knew we just had to wait for something better, and in the end it did become better.”

The Sic Parvis Magna Wintrust team led by Nick Gibbens from Mill Valley.
© 2023 Stephen R Cloutier/2023 CYCRTM

“We didn’t learn much last year because it was very much different weather, and we certainly are at a disadvantage by not having local knowledge,” Gibbens concluded. “Again, it’s a boat race and we know how to sail boats. It comes down to just keeping the boat moving, and it has a lot to do with the crew, their focus, and the caliber of people we brought, and, of course a good boat.”

The story on Dark Star is a bit of Mackinac magic! Dark Star is a Hobie 33 out of the San Francisco Yacht Club. It is owned by Dan McGraw and Matt Krogstad. She finished 2d 03h 41m 28s corrected to 2d 04h 37m 54s for third in Section 9.

“I actually met my wife Kim doing this race,” Krogstad said. “We met because we were both on TFWB Relentless, which was her father’s boat. Her brother Scott invited me to do the race with the family, and so I ended up on a group email about Mac logistics and that was my first communication with Kim!”

“When we met in Chicago, it was on, and by the time we reached Mackinac the whole island knew that we were an item, and it’s been that way ever since!” he exclaimed. In just the last two years, the boat, which travels from event to event on a trailer, has gone from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Daytona, FL, to Charleston, SC, to Atlanta, GA, back here, and now is on its way back to Atlanta.

The next couple of years are big ones for the two Mackinac Races and their respective yacht clubs. 2024 is the 100th anniversary of the Bayview Race, and 2025 is the 150th anniversary of the Chicago Yacht Club. So, expect big fleets and lots of action!!

The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac is one of the world’s largest annual offshore regattas, drawing top-notch sailing talent from around North America and the world. Known as “The Mac” to everyone in the region, the ultimate test of Great Lakes navigation starts each July just off Chicago’s famous Navy Pier. While passing through some of the most beautiful coastal waters in the world on the 333-mile race route (289 nautical miles), the fleet faces the storms, reefs, calms, and competition that truly make it “America’s Offshore Challenge.”

1 Comment

  1. Greg "Radar" Felton 9 months ago

    If the same article will go to print, “S.F. Bay Area’s Nick Gibbens, David Gruver, Tom Ducharme, John Collins…” should include Greg Felton aka Radar (from the Bay Area, now living in Lake Tahoe).

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