Tuesday, July 10, 2018

J/88 Wins Mackinac Solo Challenge

J/88 Hokey Smokes skipper- Richie StearnsRacing to Raise Funds for Prostate Awareness
(Mackinac Island, MI)- Recently, Richie Stearns sailed his J/88 HOKEY SMOKES in the annual Mackinac Solo Challenge, a 289nm adventure starting off Chicago, IL and sailed north up Lake Michigan to that famous jewel of horses and fudge residing in gorgeous azure blue waters between two Great Lakes (Michigan and Huron)- Mackinac Island. 

For many sailors in the Midwest, the races to Mackinac have a disarming allure, as if there is an invisible magnetic pull that weighs on your conscience, as sailors migrate almost “zombie-like” towards the island for a good dose of rest and relaxation on an island where time has seemingly stood still- just bikes and The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Islandhorse-drawn carriages to get you around the island.  And, of course, the majestic landmark that stands out like a white beacon on its southern cliffs, welcoming sailors from afar- the gorgeous Grand Hotel.  Stepping foot on the island is as close to anyone gets to take a walk back in time.  Here is Richie’s story about his solo racing experience in this year’s Mackinac Solo Challenge, winning his class and 5th overall:

“Solo sailing has never been on my bucket list. I have sailed buoy races all my life.  I’ve been on an America’s Cup campaign and tried out for the Olympics.  I’ve done two double-handed Mackinac races and 44 crewed Mac races. I sailed with Buddy Melges for years and when asked why he doesn’t sail singlehanded or long-distance races, his reply always was “why would I want to sail overnight with a bunch of guys when I can go home to a warm bed and my wife Gloria?” That always seemed like good advice.

Horse drawn carraiges on Mackinac Island at Grand HotelHowever, after a bout with prostate cancer, I thought it might help survivors to see someone doing crazy things, and show them that Prostate cancer is not the end of the world. So, I decided to undertake the challenge to raise money for Prostate cancer awareness and information.

One of the cool things about sailing in general, is there are so many ways to enjoy it. Cruising, racing, single-handed, double-handed and sailing with crew all lead to great times and memories.

You would think solo sailing would be for people who want to get away from it all. That is not exactly true, the Great Lakes Single-handed Society is a group of passionate sailors who use solo sailing as a shared passion. They are there for the challenge, but they also sail to be “with” the other competitors. They talk to each other on their VHF radios to make sure they are OK, or just to find out if there is any wind, or how they are feeling. After the race, everyone helps put the boats away and everyone comes to the parties to talk sailing and about the experience. It is similar to a fleet or a class that promotes camaraderie, except there seems to be more pride in the accomplishment of doing it solo (and rightly so!).

J/88 Hokey Smokes leads Mackinac Solo ChallengeThe conditions were perfect for a J/88 at the 0900 hrs start on Saturday. With light air and the Code 0 up, all but one boat was out of sight behind “Hokey Smoke” after a few hours. Boats started to drop out early, either with electrical issues or Autohelm issues (code for “this race will take too long…I’m dropping out").

The first night brought cold air and fog. I have no idea what the temperature was, but 40 F. to 50 F. is my guess. The wind built all night to 15 to 20 kts on the nose, sailing straight upwind to Point Betsie (the first major turning point). As the waves grew to 3-4 ft+, I realized I had never used the tiller pilot to steer the boat in those conditions. These are short steep Lake Michigan waves, not long ocean waves. I am sure there is a way to calibrate it, but it was too late for me. The steering system just could not compensate for the waves and over corrected until it just auto-tacked the boat. An auto-tack while singlehanding in waves catches you off guard. Getting things back under control is tough enough rested, but without sleep and at 10:00 am and 25 hours into the race it makes you think twice about what you are doing.

The Autohelm is the driver, but you are the only crew. I had done quite a few sail changes early on in the race and found running around on a 29-foot boat in 4-foot + waves gets a bit tiring.

The J/88 is a fantastic boat in light air, but with the breeze on and going upwind, it definitely needs crew weight on the rail.

With the tiller pilot problem, I had already lost my lead. By later afternoon Sunday, the big heavy boats were quickly catching me. I had to get out of the waves and hope the autopilot would work in order for me to get some rest. It took hours to get to the eastern shore and out of the big waves. There were fewer waves there, but almost no wind. I could tell by the conversation on the radio and the call-in positions that a few of the big boats had gotten by me.

J/88 sailing to Mackinac Soleo- full moon!At this point, about 150 miles into the race I kept hearing more boats drop out. It is an appealing idea when you have sailed for 40 hours on a heavy beat and are only halfway there.  Once I got closer to shore, the waves were less and the tiller pilot worked again.  I set my course and went to sleep for an hour or so.  I may have lost additional ground to the others, but I needed the sleep more!

By late on Sunday (36 hours into the race), I had passed Point Betsie and I was entering the Manitou Passage.  Once you get into the passage, you are surrounded by islands and the sea conditions are no longer a problem.

There was not a boat in sight.  The lead two boats were 10 miles ahead and the others were 10 miles behind me. With smooth water, I was able to get more rest. Probably, too much rest, but the tiller pilot steered fine and the day was beautiful. Just setting the course from one side of the straights to the other with long two-hour tacks made for a great day…and it was warm and dry (the dodger was a life-saver on this race)!

Going into the third night on Monday, it was cold again, but the air was dry, making life on deck much nicer.

I suppose this is what singlehanded sailors come out for. A steady breeze of 8 to 10 knots, fairly smooth water and a full moon. Yes, it is time to reflect how nice things are, how good life is and how much fresh water is in this darn lake? I was close enough to land to use my cell phone and used Google to found out there is 1,000,000,000,000,000 gallons (one quadrillion) of fresh water in the lake.  Lake Michigan does seem big when you are alone on a 29-foot boat.

J/88 sunrise at Mackinac Island BridgeThrough the night I was able to get updated on my position.  The boats from behind were catching me and I was catching the boats in front. I had already halved their lead after rounding Can 3 at Grays Reef, which is a mark of the course before you head east down the Straits of Mackinac to Mackinac Island. You would think when you take an 80 degree turn you would be on a reach, but it was my luck to get a shift to the east and, instead, got more beating into the wind! The J/88 was performing great with 8 to 10 knots of breeze and smooth water the boat just flew along. I was treated with the sunrise of a lifetime when I got to the Mackinac Bridge and made my last tack to the finish line.

When you are alone the work isn’t over at the finish. Someone still has to put things away and that person was me. In an early morning blur, and after over 70 hours of sailing, the main gets flaked and the jib gets rolled up.  Fenders and dock lines are put out. It is over.

J/88 sailing at sunriseIt’s just after dawn and onshore people are just getting up.  However, my wife Lori has been there waiting so I have someone to help dock the boat. Then, it’s straight to sleep for a few hours followed by my first hot meal in days.

I sailed Stearns Boating’s stock J/88 to Mackinac Island. I had a main, one jib (light medium), and two spinnakers (Code 0 and a regular spinnaker). The J/88 proved to be a great boat to sail singlehanded in all conditions. It is easy-to-handle and fairly comfortable. It is very dry, and in most conditions might be the boat of choice for singlehanded sailing. Having one jib was a blessing in that I did not have to change sails, however J/88’s are much faster with their smaller #4 jib up. I reefed the boat quite a bit and the reef really helped. Upwind with a tiller pilot the boat has to be trimmed/ balanced perfectly, then the tiller pilot does well. If the boat is not balanced, the tiller pilot has a hard time steering straight.

I finished the race and raised over $10,000 for Prostate Cancer awareness, you can still help!  Please help more men understand prostate cancer!”   To learn more about Prostate cancer awareness, please go here.   Please make a donation here- University of Chicago/ Medicine & Biological Sciences   Kattack tracker for the J/88 HOKEY SMOKES in the Mackinac Solo Challenge. Add to Flipboard Magazine.