“It was our first time in that race, on that lake,” Saxton said, adding a lot of people don’t enter the race. “It’s colder sailing. It certainly can be rougher. A lot of people just don’t want to be out on Lake Superior. It was cold. We probably looked like a cross between sailors and snowmobilers. We had hats on on and layers of clothing. You have to try to stay warm, because you spend the majority of time out in the elements. We take it pretty seriously.”
Vortices also finished second in its class (Shore Course, PHRF D Class) in the July 20-22 Port Huron to Mackinac Island race, and it was previously fourth in class in the Chicago to Mackinac race.
“We did both Macks and the Trans Superior, and we had a nice finish in every race,” Saxton said. “It was a really nice season for us. It was a good year on the water. After you’ve done two or three of those races, sooner or later, you do have to go to work.”
Saxton, who owns his own business, estimates the boat traveled 2,100 miles for the three events, nearly half of which involved moving the boat into position for the races.
He and Todd Riley, a member of the Vortices crew who is more like a co-captain, according to Saxton, won a double-handed race from Port Huron to Rogers City, and VORTICES also placed second this summer in a race on Lake Erie.
“It’s a great thing to have these Great Lakes, and it’s a real privilege to be able to sail up them and enjoy what Michigan has to offer that you don’t get anywhere else,” Saxton said. “It’s just beautiful. It was unusually cold on Lake Superior. The water temperature was 45 to 51, maybe a little warmer. You can have a pretty warm day on land and, if you’re out on the water in the middle of the lake, it’s not going to be much warmer than the water temperature.”
To win the three-lake, overall title, it used to be boats had to sail the long course around Cove Island in the Port Huron to Mackinac race, Saxton said. After much discussion about that in the sailing community, it was changed. Many other boats opted for the Shore Course this year, so Saxton and his team decided that was where they needed to be, too.
“The combined score on the three races is awarded against the overall,” he said. “We felt we needed to do the Shore Course to be in the running for the best score in all three.”
Vortices was the first to finish in the PHRF D Class at 5:05 p.m. July 21 after nearly 27 hours and 16 minutes on Lake Huron, but it was overtaken based on corrected time by the Karma Police, which finished at 6:18 p.m.
“We led them until the last 15 miles,” Saxton said. “That boat on that point of sail is extremely fast, and we just couldn’t hold them off. That’s an example where we were in their air and they were able to trump us there. In the first part of the race, we were faster and had more water line. We were upwind and it was rougher, so we put a fair amount of time on them. But they had their conditions from Alpena in. We were still in first for probably half that distance, but they were eating away at that pretty fast. They averaged 2-3 knots faster for that whole stretch. That’s a smaller boat but very fast off the wind.”
In sailboat racing, especially on the Great Lakes where the winds might shift direction and speed frequently, a lot can change in a hurry, according to Saxton. Furthermore, the handicap system is the great equalizer, he added. Saxton’s boats have caught up and overtaken others just as the Karma Police did. That was the case on Lake Superior when the Vortices passed several bigger boats in the right wind conditions.
“It’s not one race; it’s multiple races,” he said. “All of a sudden, the air fills in behind you and everybody comes up to you. The fleet can get compressed in sailboat racing. It’s part luck and part skill because, in the end, Mother Nature can trump all that. That’s just the reality of it.”
In the Chicago to Mackinac race, “We were 12 miles ahead of a boat much like us. We sat in (still) air for an hour and a half, and they sailed right up to us. You can park somewhere and everybody catches up. You lose the handicap and are in tough shape.”
Saxton, 54, had been part of racing crews from the time he “was a kid,” but he got serious about racing his own boat in 2004 and bought the Vortices in 2010.
He’s also taken the boat out East to compete in the Newport (R.I.) Bermuda Race on the Atlantic Ocean. VORTICES was third in its class last year. Saxton plans to go back in 2014 instead of doing the Port Huron to Mackinac.
“Typically, all sailors have it on their bucket lists,” he said, adding the ocean weather systems are more consistent. “On the Great Lakes, if you’re not in a strong system, every piece of real estate, shoreline, daytime and night-time heating and cooling all provide their own type of circumstance. It’s much harder racing when it comes to staying fast and getting up the lake. In the ocean, the wind blows a lot more consistently and you can plan around it. Whereas, on the Great Lakes, there’s so much influence over the course. Between that and the handicap system, you have boats winning races that are not particularly rocket fast.”
Saxton added the weather for all three of the races on the Great Lakes was quite reasonable, however. The winds ranged from five to 20 knots, which constitutes pretty good sailing, he said. “We had a fair amount of racing upwind, which takes a little longer and is a little rougher, but I can’t say any of the conditions were bad,” Saxton said. “They were pretty good sailing days and there were no big thunderstorms. Those things can cause some grief. Anytime you’re sailing in the lakes and you’re offshore, it requires you paying attention. I don’t think of it as being hazardous, but paying attention, needing the right safety equipment and being out there with the right crew.”
VORTICES has a good crew, led by Riley, who has sailed regularly with Saxton for eight years. The crew has a combined Bayview Mackinac experience of approximately 150 races. “Typically, watches are three hours off and six hours on,” Saxton said. “Some guys have been on other boats that have done extensive ocean racing. We have a very, very experienced crew. They’re probably all better at it than me. They’re great racers. There can be some challenges, having 10 people on a boat for 250 miles, but we just don’t have those issues. It was a nice trip up the lake. That’s the way I’d put it. And it was a good season of racing, too!" Story contribution from HomeTown Life.com in Detroit, Michigan.