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monster of the midway

monster of the midway

Stu Johnstone gives us a view from the cockpit of Il Mostro after their first-to-finish performance in the CYC Race To Mackinac.

This year’s Mac was going to see an unusual combination of Turbo boats sailing, making for a fun and interesting perspective on what’s fast and what’s not.  The turbo division was certainly eclectic, not unusual for these parts as the Great Lakes has often been referred to as the "graveyard" for old IOR and IMS machines.  That’s not to say they come here to die – rather than older boats often get a second life in the Lakes, thanks to loving and passionate owners who can sail them almost forever in the non corrosive ‘sweet’ water.  

Leading the charge amongst the newer boats was most certainly going to be Pete Thornton’s latest "most excellent adventure", this one in the form of the Volvo 70 PUMA/Il Mostro – Kenny Read’s first fast pony-ride around the planet in the 2009-2010 Volvo Ocean Race.  The other boats included Dick and Doug Devos’s modified MaxZ86 WINDQUEST, a water-ballasted monster itself.  Tossed into the mix was a modified Andrews 77 OCEAN, a former RENEGADE that had significant promise to be a fast boat.  Add to that eclectic mix, perhaps the most famous ocean-racing "star" of all, the original TransPac Race "monster", the extraordinary MERLIN– a 67 footer that had it’s rig modified and also became a "canting keeler" like the Volvo boat. Toss in two TP52s, IMEDI and the Bayview Mackinac Race winner NATALIE J and you have an explosive cocktail for radical performance comparisons.

The stage was set for another showdown at the OK Corral.  Guns loaded, sailed by smoking hot crews, duel to the finish amongst the "monsters of the midway (or midwest)!"  Each boat had some great sailors, navigators and team players aboard.  The race is never an easy one and given the fact that it’s never a straight shot to the finish, everyone knows that in all four significant stages of the race, there will be winners and losers.  The key is what happens, literally, in the last five miles, sometimes even last 500 meters into the finish line off the famous, beautiful, Round Island Lighthouse off Mackinac Island.

The weather reports from Chris Bedford (Sailing Weather Services), Ken Campbell, Sailflow, PredictWind and the various GFS, NAM, ECMWF weather models all pointed to a light to moderate southerly flow at the start on Saturday afternoon with some Northeasters in the northern part of the lake (due to a micro-front) for the fast boats and steady southerlies in the south part of the lake for the slower boats.  For the most part, the forecasts weren’t too far off.  

The Turbo division had the benefit of starting last, and by that time the SE shore breeze had reinforced the weak Southerly gradient enough to get things moving.   On the Monster, Kenny coached Pete’s son Chris Thornton into a great spot, freezing out Natalie J and Merlin at the boat end; we bore off, unfurled the Zero in front of WIndquest, and took off.  On il mostro, it became quickly clear that we had to focus on sailing our race at max VMC/ VMG down track while attempting to match (or beat) WINDQUEST in conditions that were well-suited for her– 8-13 knots from SSE, unloaded (no water ballast), with 0s and A1s.

For the most part, il mostro and WINDQUEST were in a perfect match for the first 5-6 hours with both boats flying 0s with staysails.  As the wind freed, we began to wonder why WINDQUEST was not setting their A1/A1.5/A2 chutes earlier.  On il mostro, we were first to set an A1 white monster chute and sent it down the track as the wind direction moved further aft. WINDQUEST was tracking to windward and slower on starboard tack as we raced across the lake to the east of rhumbline, blitzing past all the old Santa Cruz 70s to leeward and leaving MERLIN, OCEAN and the TP52s NATALIE J and IMEDI in the rear-view mirror– nano-dots on the horizon by sunset, nearly 10nm back after only 8 hours of sailing.  

After what seemed to be hours of anticipation, we finally saw WINDQUEST throw up their third sail and set it successfully– an A1/A2 spinnaker.  At this point, il mostro was ahead and to leeward by over 2nm.  Of note, the first two hoists by WINDQUEST’s highly professional crew were unmitigated disasters– both ending up in massive twists in the furling headsails that forced a bowman to spend over a half hour up on the masthead each to solve the problems for both sails.  

As Saturday afternoon/ early evening wore on, it became a gybing-angle duel to predict when the winds would ultimately shift from SE to SW and who would be the boat last to "blink" and get too far East and lose leverage and advantage over the increasingly strong southwesterlies.  After three gybes, we held to our guns about 35 nm east of rhumbline and sailed on a NNW direction up the lake waiting for the breeze to bend, sailing as fast a VMC course as we could with our monster A1 white chute.  WINDQUEST elected to take one more gybe east towards the Michigan shoreline for what appeared to be even greater leverage, perhaps anticipating a light-air shift instead of a moderate-breeze shift?  In any event, it was not a good move.

In the meantime, it was time for "dinner" on il mostro. As tradition dictated, the old propane-fired "barbie" was attached to the stern-post and famous chef’du’jour, Brett Reed and Captain Greg Fordon conspired to whip up the most unbelievably good meal that anyone could ever experience on the weather rail of a Volvo 70. You heard right. Cooked-to-order medallion sirloin tip steaks with asparagus, Louisiana fresh-shrimp and mashed seasoned baked potatoes.  The only thing missing was a delicious Argentinean Malbec!  Next time! Our offshore gangsters- Kenny, Brad, Richard, Beech and Chris Higgins- were simply blown away.  What?  No freeze-dried?  Then, we got worried.  Richard and Beech said they hadn’t eaten any red meat in over 3 months, even after the Volvo finish in Galway, Ireland!  Sometimes the human body does strange things in response to that kind of shock…and it is not a big boat down below…Anyways, back to the race.

By 2am or so, it was increasingly evident that WINDQUEST’s last gybe was costly.  On il mostro we were loving it, with a moderate breeze of 9-14 knots, we were flying down VMC track north at 14 to 16.5 kts, going 100-125% faster than windspeed depending on the angle we chose.  While WINDQUEST on its last gybe had soaked lower than us and had gained about 2nm on us, their move further east killed them.  By 3 am Sunday, il mostro had about a 5nm lead, and that’s when the park-ups began!  We knew and expected this would happen, but NOT this early in the race!  From a strategic standpoint, we elected to stay further west of our competitors since it made no sense to go further east.  It was a critical move.  The "brain trust" of il mostro was "local knowledge" experts (Stu Johnstone and Deane Tank- multiple Mac Division winners) working with V70/Open 60 experts (Brad Van Liew and Kenny Read) to ensure that any tactical move was well-vetted by a bunch of smart offshore/ dinghy sailors.  In short, it worked.  Out of that first "park-up" we were first to see a new NE wind-flow and simply took off after slatting around for very frustrating hour-plus of sailing.  Meanwhile, our friendly folks over on WINDQUEST got the short end of that stick, coming out even further behind us on the sprint to Point Betsie.

Approaching Point Betsie around 4 AM was going to make for another amusing "watch change" on our boat.  At this point, Richard Mason and "Beech" (top guys on Moose Sanderson’s Team SANYA in this year’s VOR) were on deck sailing in an increasingly lighter air pattern as we pondered what might happen with the heating at dawn of the massive sand dunes on the Michigan shoreline.  With Richard steering (I think he drove the entire watch!) and Beech up the towering rig (for at least an hour sitting on the top jumper spreaders), we managed to sniff out whatever finger of breeze we could find to keep the old cat moving.  With Beech castigating the guys on deck from aloft, it was clear we needed a new "tour director".  Then, the wind died completely.  A "glass-out" as they say Down Under.  At this stage it was a pretty simple decision.  We could "see" on the Yellowbrick Tracker that WINDQUEST was about 10nm behind us and that there was a massive (I mean MASSIVE) pack of boats all headed NNE towards Big Sable/ Pt Betsie behind us all still sailing what seemed to be SSE/SW winds.  Knowing we had a forecast NE gradient forecast, we simply elected to "head for the beach" and work the local thermals and simply wait for any forecasted SW to develop later in the day.  It was prudent move.  

From 7am to 6pm, we simply sailed what many would call a "classic bay/point" race.  With over 65 nm of sailing from Pt Betsie to Grey’s Reef in a localized 6-10 knots of sea-breeze from the NW, we had no option.  il mostro loves this stuff.  With asym boards (3 degrees of cant) plus a canting keel that goes to 40 degrees, even Kenny said that this particular boat, il mostro, crushed George’s RAMBLER 90 in similar conditions to Bermuda (the latter had to "sink" with water ballast to get leverage plus had a simple keel, net-net 0 degrees leeway versus 4-5 degrees leeway!).   At this point, we created a 20nm-plus lead over WINDQUEST and the rest of the fleet.

By early evening Sunday, we knew we had to get offshore into the middle of the sound South of Beaver Island and Grey’s Reef after doing our "local beach dance" up the various bays and points.  Our last tack inshore to the opening of Traverse Bay proved again fruitful, taking advantage of the strong local sea breezes.  As we crossed the mouth of the Bay, our port tack lift up to 25 degrees then translated into a massive knock down to 45 degrees, tacking on the shift so we could bogie out into the sound towards Grey’s Reef.  But, it was a short-lived experience of blasting at 13 kts down track at 25 degrees rhumbline toward Grey’s Reef Light.  As the sun set beautifully again towards the West, we were experiencing yet another "glass-out" for our third time in the race, both Richard Mason and Beech as well as Kenny Read and Brad Van Liew all commented on the same thing– in short, "we’ve never sailed on Volvo 70s with just t-shirts and shorts, no water on deck with no foulies EVER in our lives!"  It would hold to the finish.

With a developing southwesterly, the team sailed the old bad cat down through Grey’s Reef, gybed five times on the A1, then set the 0 and staysail to blast down track at 14+ knots to the finish line between Mac Island and Round Island Lighthouse.  Her maiden Mac, smiles all around, and Pete Thornton and crew savoring a first-to-finish spanking of the Turbo Class.  It was a meaningful one for Kenny, too – he’s had his challenges on the Lakes.  “"One of my toughest races was sailing on the old Andrews 60 RENEGADE with Wally Cross, after only 5 hours of sailing we got hit with a 50-60 kts squall and all hell broke loss.  While I’ve seen days on end of tough sailing in the Southern Ocean, nothing equaled the pandemonium we experienced at the start of that Mac Race."

The il mostro team then settled down to a spontaneous victory celebration/ dinner on the Arnold Ferry Docks, cooking yet another fabulous cook-out on the back of the boat– hamburgers infused with blue-cheese and hot dogs on the docks along with copious amounts of greenies.  Needless to say, our sailing friends on WINDQUEST were a bit jealous as they came alongside a few hours later.