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Here is the first-hand account of why TOA managed to what they did by two of the crew- Richie & Lori Stearns (the J/Boats dealer in Chicago):
“The 2017 race to Mackinac had just about every condition you could imagine. We were not sailing in the 109 section because “Toa” was sporting a new black square top main which was more than noticeable to everyone sailing around before the start. Co-owner Jim Mitchell started the race with the east-northeast wind a bit heavier than forecasted. We started with a code 0 with a genoa staysail under it. Once we got away from the line we began to slowly pull away from the fleet. Our sailmaker, Rodney Keenan from Evolution sails in Auckland New Zealand, was quick to want to change to our other code 0 for more speed. Yes, we had two code zeros, one sheets to the stern and one sheets about two thirds aft. They are both spinnakers and are tacked to the end of the pole. With the larger code 0 up, we then launched the genoa staysail, which is a very small sail but really fits in the slot nicely. Soon the wind shifted to more of a broad reach and Mike Beasley, Clay Danley and Dirk Kruger put up the A2 spinnaker. The genoa staysail was already up so we decided to add the spinnaker staysail. WOW! Talk about slots for directing wind! I have sailed all my life and had to go below to get my camera… four sails flying perfectly and the boat just kept pulling away from the fleet.
The storms forecasted for later were coming from the northwest so we just sailed north instead of rhumb line. The VMG was faster to track north than to point at Point Betsie over 100 miles away. Also, the wind was forecast to swing to a beat and we wanted to get north as far as we could.
The wind had shifted before the storm and when it hit we just had the A2 up. The wind kept building, but the J/109 was perfectly under control, and we continued to track north. There was some discussion of how to get the sail down and a letterbox takedown won. We were seeing high winds but the boat was still under control, we got ready for the take down and then the spinnaker was “gone”. The front tape and part of the sail jumped forward and wrapped around the head stay and the rest of it was torn/ blown-off somewhere on the other side of the main in 35 knots of breeze. However, we were still going 11.5 knots in a very good direction so even though it took quite a while to get the sail down, just sailing the right direction under main was perfect.
As forecasted, the wind shifted to the north and we set in for 20 hours of heavy beating. The waves built all night and increased to 10 to 12 feet. Before daylight, we were on the Michigan shore and although we were having to short tack up the beach there was much less wave action on the shore. We were with faster boats so it was hard to keep up when we were in waves, but in smoother water we hung in there much better. Rail meat was everything at this point, so anyone trying to get sleep had to change bunks every time we tacked (which was a lot). The upper bunk was hard to get into so it was really better to be on deck.
Keeping with the projected forecast, the wind continued to blow hard from the northeast until Sunday around 4:00 PM when it shifted and moderated. We rounded point Betsie at 5:30 pm Sunday night, and we felt lucky that the wind was still blowing as we got into the Manitou passage, giving us a direct shot though the passage. Early Monday morning the wind dropped under 5 knots. It was a very light, tight reach and really was hard to say where the wind was coming from. We put up the small code 0 and really got the boat going. I had never steered a sail like this on a beat. With no light on the tell tails and using the compass and speedo and feel as a guide, we started to really go fast. As the sun came up, I realized I was sailing better in the dark than when I had things to look at, generating your own wind is an odd edge to sail on. This sail caught us back up to the larger boats that had passed us the day before! However, true to the forecast, the wind completely died. Even cigarettes couldn’t find any wind and the boat at one point did a 360. With the help of the wind seeker, which is a fairly large light jib that has full battens, we were able to get going again. Once we got going, it was the A1 Spinnaker in light air, jibing to Greys Reef. Co-owner Bruce Danley did a great job steering through this stretch with Lori Stearns trimming the spinnaker. Looking at the tracker after the race, we noticed this was an area we really extended our lead. After Greys Reef, the A1 was still the sail and it took us under the Mackinac Bridge to about one mile from the finish, where the wind died. Thank goodness for the wind seeker, it kept us going and we crossed the line with no one behind us in sight. The door had shut and now we just had to wait to see if anyone corrected over us.”
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