The Port Huron to Mackinac race

In the 1989 race, the crew of Kip Anderson’s and Ed Smyth’s Margaret Rintoul IV (right) sets their sights on Stripes.

Years pass and the tales told over drinks at the yacht club bar become increasingly embellished. The waves in the storm grow to 20 feet, the winds rise to 50 knots and the boat speeds increase to world-record levels. Ironically, the truth is often more thrilling than the fictional versions of the same stories.

The Old Goats will nod and chuckle at each story; in most cases they lived the tale. The Society of Mackinac Island Billy Goats are the men and women who’ve raced in at least 25 of the Bayview Yacht Club’s Port Huron-to-Mackinac Island sailboat races. They took on their first Nanny Goat, Maggie Wake, in 1984 when there was a total of 81 Billy Goats. The Old Goats’ names and the date of their first Mackinac trip are inscribed on a varnished panel adjacent to the bar at Bayview.

Boats are lined up in the Black River in Port Huron the day before the 1948 race.

Boats are lined up in the Black River in Port Huron the day before the 1948 race.

Known as the Detroit club that hosts the Port Huron to Mackinac race, the Bayview Yacht Club was founded in 1915 by four sailors, E. Lloyd Kurtzwarth, P.C. Williamson, Floyd Nixon and Paul Diedrich. In 1915, the club had only one boat, the 18-foot Wrinkle, which P.C. Williamson sailed with the three other founders. Bayview’s first clubhouse was a two-story tin shanty built atop a floored-over boat well at the foot of what was then known as Motor Boat Lane, adjacent to Water Works Park. Bayview moved to its present clubhouse and harbor, at the foot of Clairpointe, in 1929-30.

Bayview’s idea of a Mackinac race came about to encourage the designing, building and sailing of small seaworthy yachts. The first race was held in 1925. Suez I, a 56-foot gaff-rigged yawl owned by Howard Grant, won the first Mackinac race in 88 hours and 41 minutes. Although only 14 boats sailed in the inaugural race, there have been dozens of divisions and classes of boats added over the years. See diagram

The original race course was 235 statute miles up the Michigan shore line. In 1935, the course was lengthened to round Cove Island Light in Canada’s Georgian Bay. Fog created confusion and the longer course was abandoned as dangerous and slow in 1936 and wasn’t restored until 1972.

The two Port Huron race courses allow for maximum participation from yachts ranging in size from 26 feet to more than 80 feet. Boats more than 50 feet long usually take the Cove Island Course, 259 nautical miles long (298 statute miles). The Shore Line Course, reintroduced in 1992, is 204 nautical miles (235 statute miles). Most of the boats competing on this course are 27 to 40 feet long.

There are only two fresh-water yacht races in the world, the other being the Chicago-to-Mackinac race, hosted by the Chicago Yacht Club. The two races are often confused. They were held on the same weekend until 1939, when both clubs agreed to alternate the date of their Mackinac races, scheduling them a week apart. The Chicago-to-Mackinac race is older, starting in 1898, and longer, 333 miles compared to Port Huron’s 235 statute miles. Measuring by the number of participants, however, the Port Huron race is the largest long-distance race on fresh water.

The Thursday night before the race is known as “Family Night” in Port Huron. Families of yacht owners traditionally stroll the docks along the Black River, admiring the boats and watching the yachtsmen prepare for the race.

Friday night is Boat Night. Thousands of people, sailors and those who wish they were, line the banks of the Black River to view the yachts. Water balloon fights occur between boats, with giant slings being used to get more distance. The parties will last until well after dawn on Saturday.

Saturday afternoon, a small brass cannon sounds in intervals, signaling the start for each class, with the smallest boats going off first and the largest, including yachts of the America’s Cup class, the last to cross the starting line.

On Mackinac Island, people gather on the lawn below historic Fort Mackinac to watch for the boats. Under normal conditions, some of the larger boats will arrive at Mackinac during the early morning hours on Monday.

Boats are measured to determine handicaps. The fastest boat in the fleet is the scratch boat and has no time allowance. All other boats have time allowance handicaps which are subtracted from the elapsed sailing time.

The last boat to finish the race is called the “pickle boat.” The origin of the name comes from English yachting, where the last boat was called the “fisher.” The boats used to stop to fish for herring and then pickle them, thus “pickled herring.” The pickling required the boat to take even longer to come into port.

By Tuesday all boats should have finished the race and an awards celebration is held on the lawn of Mission Point Resort. Flags and trophies are presented to all the winning skippers of each division and class. Sailors share tales of the race as music, drinks and partying fill the day.

Stormy seas

Most races go smoothly, but severe storms created havoc in the 1945 and 1955 races. Only 6 of 40 boats finished the 1945 race as gale force winds ravaged the fleet.


Chuck Bayer, left, pulled out of the race and rescued Tom Lowry, right, and his crew after Lowry’s Tomahawk capsized when a storm came up in Lake Huron during the 1985 race.

In 1955, 26 of 69 starters were knocked out of competition. Sails were ripped away from masts and some boats had their main masts snapped like twigs. The high winds scattered boats all over Lake Huron and many sought refuge in ports along the Michigan shore line or turned back to Port Huron.

The 1985 race also met with bad weather. Fierce waves ripped a hole in the 35-foot yacht Tomahawk. The crew of eight abandoned ship when skipper Tom Lowry of Grosse Pointe Shores radioed a Mayday and sent up flares. They were rescued from their life boat by Charles Bayer, captain of Old Bear. Tomahawk sank 28 miles northwest of Tobermory, Ontario.

At least 8 other boats were damaged and 5 masts toppled when winds of 26 to 38 mph, gusting at times to 45 mph, struck the race fleet. Five- to seven-feet seas were common with occasional waves of up to nine feet. Of the 305 boats entered in the 1985 race, 96 dropped out before the finish. The estimated total damage to the fleet was $500,000.

In 1992, 10 sailors were rescued from Minor Detail, a 35-foot yacht owned by William G. Vogan of Port Huron. The crew abandoned the boat near Les Cheneaux Islands. The boat ran aground in two feet of water, where rocks punched holes into the keel, sinking it. Nobody was hurt.

Throughout the history of the race, with strict safety enforcements, Bayview prides itself on never having had a fatality.

Record-setting finishes

According to Bayview Yacht Club, the fastest finish was in 1950 by Escapade, a 71-foot yawl owned by Wendell W. Anderson, following the Shore Line Course. The time was 25 hours, 47 minutes and 19 seconds.

The fastest finish for the Cove Island Course was in 1993, by Windquest, owned by Richard DeVos Sr., co-founder and former president of Amway Corp., and skippered by his son Doug DeVos. Windquest’s time was 26 hours, 41 minutes and 1 second, smashing the time of the previous record-setter, Sassy, a 78-foot Maxisloop owned by Dutch Schmidt of Mt. Clemens, which reached Mackinac in 1984 in 32 hours, 13 minutes and 43 seconds.


Escapade, competing in Cruising Class A, logged the fastest finish ever, in 1950.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News. To view images available for sale from our photo collection please visit our Photostore of historic galleries. )

By Julie Morris / The Detroit News