As it prepares to host the annual Race to Mackinac, the Chicago Yacht Club commemorates 140 years of helping Windy City residents set sail.
On July 11, nearly 325 sailboats will embark on the 107th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac. The 333-mile voyage from Chicago to Mackinac Island attracts sailors from all over the country, from fiercely competitive types in stripped-down vessels to those in large luxury crafts mostly in it for the history.
“That’s what’s fun about it—the historical angle,” says Matt Gallagher, 46, a Chicago real estate attorney and this year’s race chair. In 107 races, “nothing’s changed,” Gallagher says. “The water is the same, and the islands are the same, so you face the [same] challenges everyone’s faced over the years.”
The Chicago Yacht Club made its debut in 1875, when a group of businessmen decided to share their love of boating with one another and the city. The club, now based at Monroe Harbor and Belmont Harbor, started with a few dozen members; it now has about 1,600. Race to Mac, once a small affair featuring local boaters, now ranks as one of the premier freshwater offshore races in the world.
It’s not all been smooth sailing. The alewife infestation of the 1960s left millions of dead herring (and a terrible smell) in Lake Michigan. In 2011, two sailors died in an accident. “It’s a risky activity, no way around that,” says Gallagher.
However, the highs of the race more than compensate. Many families boast several generations of club membership, thanks to the active junior programs. Queen Elizabeth II visited the club in the 1950s. Big names have sailed the race, among them Roy Disney Jr., who in 2002 set the monohull record of 23 hours, 30 minutes, 34 seconds; and the late adventurer and businessman Steve Fossett, who holds the multihull record of 18 hours, 50 minutes, 32 seconds. Cable-TV impresario Ted Turner raced in 1970, calling Lake Michigan “a mill pond” that he would easily subdue. “He got spanked,” Gallagher says.
This year includes the Super Mac, an occasional event that extends the traditional Race to Mac with a race from Mackinac to Port Huron. That means 568 race miles in total. “It’s a different type of challenge,” says Gallagher.
Sarah Renz, the owner of a marketing company sailing in her 14th Race to Mac, will complete that leg, then return home to Chicago. The “community and camaraderie” pull Renz to the race as does her love of sailing. “There’s nothing like being in the middle of the lake, under the moon and stars,” she says. “You can’t get that anywhere else in the world.”