Note to readers: This story originally appeared in the Fall issue of Lake Magazine, now defunct. At the behest of a Writing Boots reader who asked for some of my sailing stories, I repost it today. It’s apropos of nothing—except gosh, was fun to read again. —DM
The Sail la Vie was heeled over so far to port that I was standing upright on the side of the boat, grasping the big steering wheel as much to stay aboard the thrusting 31-footer as to hold it, with most of my might, at due north. It was a few minutes after midnight on Tuesday, July 22, the third night of the Race to Mackinac.
It was the 100th running of the race—and my first time in any sailing race, only my second stint on a sailing crew of any kind.
As the rain began to pelt down, and the wind, unbelievably, continued to increase, death didn’t cross my mind, but only because death was an answer, and I only had time for questions. All the questions fell under one:
“How did I get here?”
Saturday, July 19, 10:00 a.m.
Since I’ve been a grownup, I’ve never felt more useless than I felt sitting in the rain in the cockpit of a sailboat with the rest of the crew confidently giving and competently taking orders—give me more halyard! tighten the boom vang! ease out the jib! I’m gonna put a reef in! prepare to tack! hard to lee!—that I couldn’t understand, let alone execute.
So eager was I to contribute that my spirits fairly soared when Sam Williamson, owner and captain of the Tartan cruiser Sail la Vie, ordered me to sit on the high side of the boat, as ballast. At least I was putting my dead ass to some good use as we left fog-choked Chicago, headed north.
Though our crew would be split into two teams of three for most of the trip, all hands were on deck at the starting line:
There was Williamson, the natty 69-year-old retired economic history professor from Charlevoix. As I drove him from West Marine to a haircut appointment on Friday afternoon, he warned me that I’d probably get yelled at, and that I shouldn’t take it personally. “I don’t expect you to know what you’re doing,” he said ominously, “but I expect you to do what you’re told.”
The good cop and first mate was Steve Jamison, an almost comically patient 58-year-old junior high language arts teacher from Ohio, who would later confess to having advised Williamson against the inclusion of a writer on the crew. He quoted Mark Twain when he worried that a journalist could ruin his ideal life of “obscure competence.”
Steve’s 22-year-old college student son Chris loves his father but does not love sailing. He was seasick at the start and stoically miserable throughout much of the race, taking pleasure where he could find it but subsisting through many of his four-hour watches by dreaming about his sleeping bag and his berth, down below.
Tammy Bowers is a physical therapist who chafes at the provinciality of her Upper Michigan community but can’t figure out where else she might ride horses and hike and telemark ski and snowshoe and continue, in her quiet, self-possessed way, to refine the sailing skills that made her the master of the foredeck on the Sail la Vie.
And Bruce Bever is the ebullient, loquacious quipster photographer who, whenever not on deckhand duty, scrambled around the boat with his big camera, looking for angles.
I might have been doing the same. And actually, I should have been napping in preparation for my looming 8:00-midnight and 4:00-8:00 a.m. shifts. But as the rain subsided and we dried out in a steady sail in the afternoon sun, I found myself too excited to sleep.
Excited for what, I didn’t know.
Sunday, July 20, 3:00 a.m.
At 2:00 a.m. I woke briefly to hear first mate Jamison tell captain Williamson, as the two switched command, that he’d spotted lightning on the horizon. Now at 3:00, there are urgent voices, grinding winches and fast footsteps on the deck above me. On the off chance that I might make myself useful, I don my foul-weather pants and jacket, life preserver, necklace flashlight and the harness to tie onto the boat.
All this takes me so maddeningly long to achieve in the dark and pitching cabin that from now on, I’ll sleep in all this equipment.
By the time I finally present myself on deck, the crisis—an aborted attempt to reconfigure the sails into a “wing-on-wing” configuration to ride a tailwind—is over. I find a shaken-looking Williamson, who I immediately begin to think of more fully, and more fondly.
Everyone on the crew would show more sides as the trip wore on, and all of our bonds would deepen so much and so quickly that I had an Alzheimer’s sensation of feeling like I’d known everyone for a very long time, even though I frequently struggled to remember their names.
With so much happening on our little boat—the continuous strategizing and adjusting to changing conditions, and the simultaneous interpersonal psychodramas— it was hard to believe and impossible to comprehend that we were only one of 439 boats and six of more than 2,000 sailors, each having their own intimate adventures.
In fact, except for rare moments when we were passing another boat—or, more often, being passed—the Race to Mackinac didn’t seem like a race at all. With only a handful of boats in sight on the horizon, we were engaged in our own little muddle north. Our boat was alone, and in a sense each member of the crew was alone, privately occupied trying to acquit himself all right as a sailor and a fellow traveler.
Sunday, July 20, 10:00 a.m.
My only other sailing experience, a serene 10-day cruise from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, had failed to prepare me for a lot of rigors on the Mack, but I did know one thing: Bowel movements should be held to a minimum.
For practical reasons, you want to save room in the holding tank. For emotional reasons, you want to minimize the number of times you have to suffer the lonely humiliation of sitting down vulnerably in a pitching, rolling phone booth.
Several hours after bellowing through the bathroom door that I was pumping the toilet flusher too much, Williamson sat down next to me and tenderly told me not to be “intimidated” by the bathroom exercise—and more to point, not to be afraid to use the toilet brush to push the stubborn stuff down. (God!)
Other crew members were not as easily comforted, and two of them would dash off the boat on Mackinac Island after several days of suffering.
Sunday, July 20, noon
Apart from a brief, punctuating blow last night, we’ve been more or less in doldrums for the last twelve hours. “Less” meaning we’re trying to configure the sails to capture an asthmatic puff of air. “More” meaning the sails are dangling and we have ample time to curse the robotic NOAA radio weather reports that have not the slightest relationship to reality.
Not only do the reports fail to accurately predict wind conditions; they don’t even report accurately on current weather. And though Williamson and Jamison wouldn’t have sailed the boat one bit differently had the radio gone overboard at the starting line, Williamson hilariously, superstitiously, continues to listen.
But the weather remains utterly unpredictable, and the doldrums persist, despite NOAA’s continued calls for winds of 5-10 knots out of the northwest.
The windless air brings multitudes of flies, a notorious aspect of the Mack race. Apparently unable to find morsels on land to fill their tiny stomachs, many varieties of these little creeps crossed miles and miles of water to cover our boat smack in the middle of Lake Michigan, biting our legs and souring our moods. We’d also have feathered visitors—a little green Acadian fly-catcher, a house sparrow also hungry for flies and a wayward Great Blue Heron who found a half hour’s rest on our boom.
Sunday, July 20, 7:00 p.m.
We’re nearing the Michigan coast, just north of Grand Rapids, reentering cell phone range. Photog Bever decides to check his messages and call home. In 10 minutes he discovers that the 27-year-old brother of a friend has died, and his wife, in tears, tells him their dog has run away.
I decide not to call home until I reach land and can do something about whatever disasters may have befallen my loved ones.
Sunday, July 20, 8:00 p.m.
The breeze is crisp, the sunset is beautiful and Jamison, Bever and I enjoy a four-hour conversation that luffs from movies (among those discussed were First Blood and Kramer vs. Kramer) to books (from Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air to Howard Fast’s Sparticus) and politics (McGovern to McCain).
There is something marvelous about sitting on a sailboat all night, trying for once in your hectic modern life not to make long stories short, but rather to draw short stories out, adding context and depth and detail and color in order to pass the time. Which, you gradually recall, is a principal reason human beings started telling stories in the first place.
Monday, July 21, 4:00 a.m.
After my first solid sleep—three and a half hours that I would draw on heavily over the next 30—I wake at four to a wintry, windy, foggy, rocky morning shift that puts me in mind of the North Atlantic and makes it hard to believe the it’s July.
In my journal, it reads “½ panic, ½ misery.” Unequipped with radar, we plunged into the fog at six and seven knots, our feet dangling over the high side of the boat, our sleepy eyes staring into the mist, our ears listening for a fog horn, our hearts hoping not to run into the path of another Mack racer or, even worse, a ferry or a freighter.
By 5:45, the fog had largely lifted, but the wind was 13 knots out of the north. In my log it just reads, “blowing, blowing.” As it would turn out, I didn’t yet know the meaning of that word.
Monday, July 21, 9:00 p.m.
A day of relatively brisk sailing past the beautiful dunes on Michigan’s upper east coast, and the shocking sand cliffs of Sleeping Bear. Then at sunset, the doldrums, which soon give way to a steady breeze out of the northeast sets us on a four-knot clip.
At about 11:45, near the end of my shift and with Bever dozing in the cockpit beside us, I share with Jamison a perception I’ve been developing during the trip:
Every condition we find ourselves in—from storms to sunny cruising to doldrums—seems like it will last forever, as if after a lot of random flotsam and accidental jetsam, we have finally reached a natural and permanent sailing condition. Thus, every wind or sea or sky change, whether good or bad, tends to come as a big surprise.
As we tack to the north straight into a line of dark clouds to the north—during which tack I, turning the wheel 90-degrees left, confidently said, “hard to lee!”—I feel good to hear the vastly experienced sailor not only agree with my greenhorn observation, and also add that maybe the best thing about sailing is its insistent, irrefutable testimony that everything is eminently changeable, that we are not in control, that our assumptions are largely irrelevant and our recourse is feeble.
At 12:05, we are screaming through space at something like 100 miles per hour. I’m aware that all hands are on deck, but unaware of what anyone else is doing. Strapped to the backstay and holding desperately onto the wheel of the entirely upturned boat, cranking hard right to keep the compass needle at due north, my world is nothing more than the red glowing globe of the compass, a blur of activity in the cabin and the distant sound of shouting voices around me.
Questions, “Are we overpowered?” Commands, “Furl the jib!” Water and howling wind—they are not my concern. My business is hammering the steering wheel hard right against the wind—and then correcting, so we don’t go too far.
When I say we were going 100 miles an hour, I know we never got over 10 knots. But the wind coming at us adds perceived speed in the inkblack space—roaring through the night like that seems unlike moving through water and air but through a weird tunnel in between—and the combination of speed and waves makes the boat feel, if one can’t see the water, like a missile.
I’ve been riding this plunging thing for an hour when Williamson asks, as I’m dreading, whether I need to be spelled. My shoulders are burning and my legs are shaking. “I’m laser-focused!” I shout without looking up, buying myself 15 more minutes of this exhilaration and longed-for sense of usefulness before Williamson insists I be replaced.
I hang out on the high side with my mates, panting and giggling hysterically on a brainful of adrenaline until 3:00 a.m., when Williamson demands his heroic pilot go down below and get some rest in preparation for what promises to be a long day pounding through a storm that isn’t abating.
3:45 a.m., Tuesday, July 15
I rise at 3:45, the 45 minutes having been spent staring up at the cabin ceiling looking trying to size up my storm-piloting experience against other thrills I’ve had. I diminished the experience by ranking it ahead of sky diving, in a dead heat with the first time I ever rode a motorcycle, which happened to be at the north rim of the Grand Canyon. And I aggrandized the experience by wondering if it might somehow make me a wiser person.
(Later, Tammy Bowers, who had her own thrills adjusting sails on the foredeck in the midst of the storm, captured the sensation simply: “My body was moving around inside my body.”)
Now we’re headed straight into the raging wind and making less than three knots and Williamson, looking stubbly and shattered, is talking about dropping out of the race. At this rate, he says, we won’t make the finish line at Mackinac Island until Wednesday night. We stew for a couple more hours. Around daybreak, the captain tantalizingly suggests that we could cut over to his home harbor in Charlevoix, change into dry clothes and drive to Mackinac City and be on the island in time for the closing ceremony and the fireworks.
Jamison listens, and watches our eyes glow at the thought. He quietly acknowledges the attractiveness of “flat water, a warm bed and cold beer” before respectfully registering his vote that we hammer on into the wind and hope that the wind changes direction. Jamison’s opinion, perhaps because it errs on the side of courage, carries the day.
We came within sight of the magnificent Mackinac Bridge by early afternoon, waited out a doldrum, dodged a couple of little thunderstorms, passed under the bridge about six and then sat in another maddening doldrum, during which the crew’s tempers got short and the captain grew peevish. His mood was not improved by the long-finished 70-foot boat aptly named Nitemare that motored past us on its return to Chicago, its crew blasting music, drinking beer—we could see the Heinekens in their hands—and shouting at us condescendingly as we sat languished hundreds of yards short of the finish line, “Way to hang in there!”
Finally we caught a puff of wind, blasted by one boat that was ahead of us, and finished at 7:17:42 p.m., more than 81 hours after we started. (We’d later learn we finished 15th out of the 24 non-racing-rigged “cruisers.”)
On the island, we had beer and dinner and fireworks and more of the giddy laughter that people share when they realize that they are, all together and all at once, as simply and completely happy as any of them can remember ever being.
I don’t remember why I chose not to include—or was it cut out for being a bit too harrowing for a magazine promoting happiness on the lake?—an incident that occurred when I was at the wheel at the height of the storm (or had I retired to weigh down the high side by then?). In any case, I was on deck, when another boat suddenly appeared out of the screaming blackness and crossed our bow from port to starboard, missing us by not more than 50 yards, and disappeared into the dark again, maybe never seeing us at all. Knowing that a t-bone collision in those conditions would have resulted in deaths on our boat, our crew looked at each other once, and then plunged ahead on our marine rocket ship.
A sailor friend used to crack at the end of even the mildest day sail, “Well, we cheated death again.” On that Mackinac race, we really did cheat death—and we could not stop laughing.