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St. Mary's River,  Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada

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Sault This Week, Local News

Sault sailors kick butt at 2011 MacMan Challenge
Wednesday, August 3, 2011 11:33:29 EDT AM

Organizers of the 2011 MacMan Challenge observed a moment of silence at the pre-race meeting, to remember the two sailors who had died in the Chicago Mackinac Race the weekend before.

"Certainly it was a sobering moment," said Andrew Hallet, Skipper of the Natural High out of the Algoma Sailing Club, "...hearing about the two fatalities. They were an experienced crew with a good boat. They were well equipped. It's a reminder that there are risks and that we need to be aware of those. We all take a calculated risk when we go, but we try to manage that using the best safety equipment we can have."

NATURAL HIGH -- Andrew Hallet, right, Skipper of
Natural High, overall winner of the 2011 MacMan
Challenge race from Mackinac to Manitoulin Island.
Photo by Paul Norbo of  Sault This Week.

Natural High crew member Alex Elder said, "I read everything I could find online that had been written about the [Chicago Mac Race] by the sailors themselves, about the challenges they faced and how they dealt with them, to prepare for the possible dangers that lay ahead [for Natural High a t the MacMan Challenge]. That storm came up in seconds. The best boat, the best crew can be overtaken" by a sudden storm.

The Eighth Annual International MacMan Challenge is a two-part, 228-kilo-metre race [123 nautical miles] that starts at the Mackinac Yacht Club on Mackinac Island. Natural High, left Mackinaw at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, July 21, and reached the end of the first leg at Gore Bay, at 2:34 a.m. on Friday, July 22. The second place boat came in 10 seconds later. In the second leg of the race, Natural High left Gore Bay at 9:25 a.m. on Friday and arrived at 3:04 p.m. on Saturday, July 23, in Little Current. Natural High was the overall winner in Class A.

R.L. Polk Canada, Inc. vehicle registrations data, YTD April 2011. Class is small utility. 2011 Ford Motor Company of Canada, Limited. All rights reserved.

Asked to explain the victory, Hallet cited preparation, equipment, and the experience and character of his handpicked crew: Tom Carmichael, Jack Rice, Alex Elder and Chuck Holgate,

"They work great together and all love to go fast," Hallet said. "They're all Algoma Sailing Club members. I met all of them through the club. I picked a crew that I though would get along well together and work well together. I picked them for their skills and experience. The whole [crew] is greater than the sum of its parts.

"Chuck is a veteran Chicago/Mackinac, TransSuperior and MacMan racer with tons of experience. A great helmsman, he always gets the most out of the boat in big waves. With a background as a long-time heavy equipment professor [and department head] at Sault College, he's great at keeping mechanical equipment going.

"Tom [a Sault fire fighter] is the cook as well as a sailor. We ate like kings for 10 days off a two-burner stove and a barbecue." That includes sailing time to and from the race start and finish points. "We also put Tom up the mast a few times to check the rigging and make minor repairs.

"On the foredeck, the guys need to be able to hoist and lower sails very quickly (and in rough weather) to keep the boat going fast. With Tom and Alex on foredeck, and Jack [a Sault police officer] hoisting, we had terrific sail handling team this year with lots of spinnaker sets and takedowns and all went quickly. Jack brought in the ropes fast. We alternated regularly among six different headsails. Alex [a local electrician] contributed lots from his racing experience on the east coast."

Chuck credits Andrew for putting together a crew, the members of which, "have a very significant capacity to get along with one another. We're easy in each other's company and respectful of each other's skills. Those two things together are rarer than one might think, especially when you take people away from their home environments and put them in a confined space...The folks that Andrew selected are people that do indeed adjust well to those circumstances."

In practice, Holgate said, "It's being mindful and watchful of sail trim at all times, maintaining a high level of vigilance, a level of focus and concentration over a long period of time," in challenging conditions. "Not all people are quite as capable of doing so and this crew was pretty good at that. Very few, if any, mistakes were made in this race. In short, we didn't screw up."

Tom agreed, "We work well together. We communicate well together. We all seem to know what we're doing. On our boat, everyone has an opinion and every opinion is taken into account. That's the way the boat works. Everybody has a say."

And Jack? "Everybody listens to each other. In some crews, the skipper is boss and you do what he says, and as much as Andrew is the skipper, he's open. He'll listen to others' input....I know between Tom and Chuck, they had their two cents here and there as tactics were being discussed and it certainly is discussed amongst everybody and then a decision is made from there. I think that's a very big part of it. It's probably our personalities. We're good friends and we get along well."

Immediately before the start of the race Andrew was, "going through a mental checklist of equipment, sails and charts, programming the course into the GPS. Is everything working? Gas tank full, water, food, life jackets, harnesses, safety lines rigged for sailing at night, life raft. Going through that whole checklist."

Andrew had already studied the race instructions, to make he hadn't missed any details, and made sure the whole crew knew "where we're going and how to get there. Any member of the crew can go downstairs to the chart blotter and plot our position on the charge and everyone kind of understands the strategy."

En route to the Mackinac Yacht Club, the crew spent some time doing sail change drills. During a race it's critical that the crew be able to change sails effi- ciently. "We did some practice sailing to Mackinac and we've done some racing together [at the club]. We also used what we knew about the boat in terms of what direction it sails fastest. If you have the wind straight behind you, you might think it sails fastest when it's 180 degrees behind your back. Actually on our boat, in a strong wind, it's actually better at 170 degrees. In lighter winds it's faster at 150 or 160 degrees. We were fortunate this year in that it was a downward race and that's where our boat excels. With the wind behind us, we're in our element."

Alex said, "When you start this race, because it is a challenge, you're dealing with adrenaline, dealing with the fact that the boat is not getting in for 15 to 20 hours. Fatigue becomes a problem. Sea sickness becomes a problem. Keeping yourself hydrated and fed is necessary. Catnaps. I think the longest anyone slept was just over an hour for the duration of the race."

Approaching the starting line, Andrew, "listened to more weather forecasts and tried to figure out which end of the start line was favoured, which end" would put Natural High closer to where it should be. "Is one end [of the line] more up wind than the other? Is one end less crowded?"

"Then you get out on the lake. You get started. You're looking for clean air, trying to get away from the crowd of boats. In a downward race, you're looking for unobstructed wind from behind you to get the most power you can because if you have anyone following your, they take your air, and your stuck."

What is the crew doing? Alex said, "You try and take the pressure off the skipper. The skipper will often say I'm steering the course, trim the sails for speed,' telling [the crew] that he is no longer watching the sails, his course is more critical because of shoals, hazards, position with the rest of the fleet, that he needs to make assessments."

The crew is "trimming the sails, adjust- ing. You trim a line on a sail by tightening it or loosening it to adjust the shape of the sail so it's optimized for the wind [conditions]. So, we're doing that over and over, constantly making little adjustments to optimize boat speed. We're watching where the wind is coming from, watching the boat speed.

"To attain maximum speed, because it is a race, you have to match wind direction and speed to your sailing inventory. Sail changes are necessary. As the wind increases, you go to smaller, heavier sails to keep the boat stable and somewhat upright. "

"The guy on the tiller, who is steering the boat, has to be very conscious of what's going on and doing it at night when you can't see the waves coming is an issue. You have to steer by feel and learn the pattern of the boat and try to figure out the pattern of the sea it's running," Alex said. "Because you're at the northern end of Lake Huron, you're in the middle of a major shipping route. You have commercial traffic running down into Lake Michigan, coming out of Lake Huron. You have commercial traffic headed to the Sault Locks, all plowing right through the middle of our race course. They can see us most of the time, because they have radar, but they are not required by law to stay out of our way. It's up to us to stay out of their way."

The turning point in the race came after midnight, when The Natural High was sailing into Gore Bay, skipper and crew believing they were in second place behind Aurora Borealis.

Andrew said, "We're thinking they're ahead of us, but they haven't finished yet. Then we saw the lights behind us and realized it was them."

Chuck recalled that he felt, "Ecstatic and surprised, because [the Aurora] did have a pretty darn good lead, probably a mile or more. At that moment, all of our voices dropped for everything that was said. And lots was going on. You're watching that other boat, trying to find the finish line [in the dark at 2:30 a.m.] because it's not a lit buoy that was being used. So, Alex was in the bow with a flashlight. We don't want to give away too much about our position or our sail trim. So we don't want a light on that. If the light got on anything like that, then it would be a whisper, Alex turn the light out.' Once we've found the buoy, we don't want to illuminate it for them. We were between the buoy and the Aurora, so as soon as we saw the buoy it was lights out' so that they mightn't see it, to know how close they actually were. Anything to do with sail trimming we were just tweaking because it was very light wind in there and words are being exchanged sotto voce, in whispers. And any movement slow, as they say, nautically, Don't rock the boat'. We have to be quiet, slow in our movement, with that boat so close, and the finish line so close, the intensity of it all, was very much a part of the excitement."

Andrew said, the crew "cheered and hollered" only after crossing the finish line.

Chuck described the finishing flourish that followed, "Of course, we're pretty busy taking sails down, as we were going into an anchorage area. It was a pretty full bay that night and so all these folks were at anchor outside the marina and we come bashing in there. We really don't have a lot of time to get those sails down and start the engine. And it kind of has to be done simultaneously, just so that we can make sure we have control of the vessel to steer around, if we have to go down into the boats that are at anchor. We don't want to hit any boats at anchor and we don't want to get ensnared on any anchor lines."

Next year? Jack already has his holidays booked for the 2012 MacMan.

Andrew "would absolutely like to do this race again."

And what's the magic that keeps these guys coming back for more? There's a long list of attractions, but if you plead with Andrew [a water resource engineer] for a non-scientific description, he'll tell you carefully and thoughtfully that, "Night sailing is like flying, but you're not inside a plane. You're standing on a platform and you're flying. It has this surging feeling that's fantastic. In a strong wind, when you're sailing fast at night, the waves make a hissing sound as the hull of the boat moves through the waves. When you get everything just right, it does just come alive."

Another one of the things that keeps these sailors coming back to the MacMan is the people in the extended sailing community. "We're building great relationships with the other boaters there and various among us have helped each other out in a pinch," Andrew said. "Sailing is also alive and well in the Sault and area."

Seven Sault and area boats participated in the MacMan and three of those boats were from the Algoma Sailing Club in the Sault where there is an active race league that helps people improve their skills.

* Algoma Sailing Club boat Skyship with Skipper Gord Simpson took first in Class B in the arduous first leg and second in second leg. Simpson and crew also won the prestigious On the Edge Trophy, a skippers' choice award to be awarded to the skipper and crew who exemplify sailing On the Edge. Crew members from the ASC included Glenn Simpson, Greg Barret, and Leroy Pieri.

* ASC member Gerard Neave, Skipper of the Echo, took first in Class D, sailing only in the second leg of the race. Crew members comprised Carol Neave and Willie Neave.

Skipper and crew of Natural High all agreed that new members would be more than welcome at the Algoma Sailing Club. Anyone interested in participating can see the web-site at

Or make contact by email at Anyone interested in becoming a member is also invited to drop by the Algoma Sailing Club on Wednesday nights at 6 p.m. to meet members and perhaps get a bit of a sailing experience.

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