Secrets to success for Chicago to Mackinac Race

Published on July 10th, 2013

By Lou Sandoval, Chairman, Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac
In just a few days, Chicago’s skyline will once again be the backdrop for the longest running freshwater distance races in the world. As has been the case 104 times in the past, the 289 nm Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac presented by Veuve Clicquot will attract sailors and boats from around the world. Race starts are on July 12 and 13.

Such well-known sailors as Dennis Conner, Roy Disney, Ted Turner and Steve Fossett are part of the race’s past, while chimacpresent-day racing legends Ken Read, Jimmy Spithill and Larry Ellison, defender of the America’s Cup, count one or more Macs on their sailing resume. Lake Michigan becomes the gathering point for over 300 boats each year that come from all over to take place in the annual classic each July.

We are often asked what the secret is to the lasting tradition known as “The Mac”. For one, we are particularly blessed to having well over 3500 sailing vessels to draw from in a five state area. If you add the international appeal, it adds a whole different dimension. In 2010, Karl Kwok hailing from Hong Kong visited Chicago to bring his 80 foot boat, Beau Geste, from the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club. This year, solo sailor Richard Lett hailing from Great Britain brings Velocity Girl to compete in the double-handed division. Richard comes to us fresh from completing the OSTAR (Single Handed Trans Atlantic) via Newport. This speaks to the draw that the “Mac” has.

In 2007, we created the Cruising Division which has grown from 18 boats to over 45 in this year’s race. This new division allows a whole new segment of the sailing community to participate. This year we premiere the First to Finish distinction for the Cruising Division, which is embarking on its seventh Race. We see this division as a fertile growth opportunity and, looking at the sailboat market, there is data to support it.

Locally, for every ‘race boat’ sold, there are four to five cruising boats sold. The logical question is why not look to this area to make people comfortable with participating in a “long sail”? It also speaks to the origin of the race which began back in 1898 on a gentleman’s bet between five sailboats enjoying a ‘leisurely cruise’ to Mackinac Island.

Another aspect that bolsters the foundation of the race is the fact that approximately one-third of the fleet is composed of strong One-Design offshore fleets. We have a good base that comes from the T-10, J/105, J/109, First 36.7, First 40.7 and J/111 fleets. These are all sustainable and active groups that make the “Mac” the focal point of their local season. They draw fellow fleet members from around the country and all come to vie for Section titles on Lake Michigan.

The Race to Mackinac Committee has always sought to look ahead and dream big. In 2003, we adopted tracking as part of the Race. Much like we might look at our first cell phones, the original tracking devices were large, heavy units that very few racers wanted to have on board. Like much else, they have evolved with innovations in data processors to the units we are using today.

Yellow Brick tracking is our tracking provider. They bring with them a range of global experience in tracking some of the more storied races around the world. Today’s trackers fit in the palm of your hand and hang inconspicuously from the stern rail. Land-based followers have a Google map enabled interface that they can track the race on and watch their family member or friends race up the lake. The platform is further expanded with apps that can be downloaded to smart phones and tablet computers.

The trackers further broaden the following of the race. Last year we estimate that close to over 500,000 page views were directly attributed to fans following the race via mobile or PC platforms. New for 2013, we have made the race subscription app complimentary to all who would like to download it. We expect this to further broaden the virtual ‘footprint’ of the race. We have also equipped fifteen competitor boats with bi-directional trackers that will allow them to broadcast ‘tweets’ on their course up the lake. This will further allow land-based followers to experience ‘life aboard the Mac fleet’.

Our focus on civic outreach and engagement with friends and family on land dates back to the race’s origins. As you read through the history books for the Race to Mackinac, you learn of the center point that this race once was for our great city. Chicagoans would come down to the lakefront to watch the boats depart for the island. In 2002, we brought that tradition back with the Parade of Boats at Navy Pier. What started with bleachers, an announcer and a few hundred people was upgraded (in presence and promotion) in 2012 when we brought on MICHIGAN AVENUE MAGAZINE in a media alliance in the promotion of the event. It was renamed ASHORE THING and we saw over 1000 people attend the family-friendly festival.

For 2013, we are on track to have over 3000 at the end of the Pier all vying for a prime spot on the sendoff of their favorite boats. Media co-promotion with local NBC affiliates has increased the magnitude of the event and we expect a tremendous turnout. “Michigan Avenue magazine is so honored to partner with the Chicago Yacht Club for the annual Race to Mackinac,” stated Dan Uslan, President and Publisher, Michigan Avenue Magazine. “Our first event last year, Ashore Thing, which is the official Parade of Boats viewing party became the most desired event of the summer in Chicago and we are, once again, looking forward to celebrating this great Chicago tradition.”

In 2007, the Mac boarded the “Social media” wave with just over 200 followers. Six years later we have an ever expanding group of fans; we have over 7500 fans on Facebook and over 2000 Twitter followers. In 2011, we added a ‘color commentator’ to our social media team, and that position proved to be so popular that it has now become a mainstay of our race-time social media efforts. Last year we saw over 2.2M impressions during the race on Facebook which ranked us in the top three on sailing related events behind the Volvo Ocean Race and America’s Cup.

The foundational premise for much of the Mac’s success has been the strong Sponsor support we have received through our presenting sponsor Veuve Clicquot. Our sponsorship team has done a tremendous job of providing the financial ‘runway’ we need to run a world class event. It truly has been a reciprocal relationship that has provided benefits for both sponsor and race organizer. “Heritage, tradition and audacity are characteristics shared by both Veuve Clicquot and the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac. We are excited to be return for yet another journey,” says Anna Kimball, Marketing Director Veuve Clicquot, Presenting Sponsor of the 102nd, 103rd, 104th & 105th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac.

None of this would be possible without the dedication and commitment of each of our dozens of volunteers, our dedicated Club staff, and most of all the Racers who all take a lot of time off in the middle of Summer and support this race. We look forward to another safe and successful race for the 105th time.

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