Getting back to the Mills experience

Published on May 24th, 2021

If you saw Phil Mickelson winning the 2021 PGA Championship, you also saw pre-pandemic crowds at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in South Carolina. As baseball stadiums prepare for full attendance (San Diego Padres begin June 17), the needle is moving toward normalcy in a hurry.

In this report by The Blade, it’s also happening in Toledo, OH:


The Mills Trophy Race is such an iconic Great Lakes masterpiece that since the first race was held more than 100 years ago, the only times the field has not able to compete in the very difficult night navigational challenge was due to war, or a 1978 fit thrown by the host waters of Lake Erie that featured 12-foot waves that the U.S. Coast Guard deemed were just too dangerous to confront in any vessel.

Then last year, a tiny obligate parasite that would fit a couple of million abreast in the eye of a needle grounded the fleet and forced the cancellation of the Mills. The coronavirus claimed countless victims all across the globe, taking lives, paralyzing others with a debilitating illness, and forcing hundreds of millions into a pseudo witness protection program pattern of isolation.

In the case of the Mills Race, the infectious agent might as well have drilled holes in the hulls and shredded the jibs and spinnakers of the entire sailing fleet.

Last year, after several postponements that had the race organizers searching for any possible format that might work, they finally had to figuratively hoist the inverted ensign — a universally recognized distress signal and a point of no return for the 2020 Mills.

“It was something that we certainly didn’t anticipate — this virus — because usually sailors have their eye on the weather and having their boat ready for this first big race of the season,” said Kaye Soka, who along with her husband Ron, has been one of the primary race organizers for decades.

As the hypodermics are plunging into more and more arms, the masks are coming off, and life steps and crawls in a return towards this mythical “normal,” the Mills Trophy Race is back. The 2021 Mills will start on the evening of June 11 off Toledo Harbor, and the first boats will be expected at the finish line at Put-in-Bay in the wee hours of June 12.

Soka said this will not be a toned-down, reduced, or pandemic-light version of the race. The banquets, awards ceremonies, receptions, parties — and the actual race — will honor the rich history of the event by staging the Mills in traditional fashion.

“When we started out planning for this year’s race, we didn’t know quite what to expect in terms of the racers and as to whether they were going to be ready or not, but we quickly found out they are very much ready to go racing again,” she said. “Judging by their enthusiasm, you would think this pandemic never happened.”

Soka said this year’s Mills will have more than 100 boats competing over one of three racecourses — the Mills Trophy Course (67.8 nm), the Governor’s Cup Course (52.6 nm), and the President’s Trophy Course (37.6 nm) — depending on the class and boat rating. Many of the boats will race hard through the night in a push to be the first to reach the Lake Erie Islands.

“There was no interest in cutting back, reducing the field, or anything like that,” she said. “Everyone is so anxious to get together after what was really a lost year, so we will have the full regular schedule of events. We are trying to make this year’s Mills as close as possible to what we’ve always done before.”

Under normal circumstances, one of the highlights of the pre-race week is the champion’s banquet held at the race host Toledo Yacht Club when the dozens of trophy winners from the previous year are honored. Since last year’s banquet was scrubbed due to the pandemic, the 2019 winners will be recognized at TYC several nights before race day.

“They deserve that moment of celebration with the trophy, and they’ve earned it,” Soka said. “And there are a lot of new people involved and they’ve been able to see the level of enthusiasm about the Mills coming back. We have to do this, and we are very excited about it. It seems appropriate to get our treasured summer traditions back.”

The Mills Trophy Race gets its name from Commodore Merrill B. Mills of Detroit, a life member at TYC who sought to stage a race that would be a harsh test of the navigational aptitude of the competitors. From the starting line near the Toledo Harbor Light and once darkness falls, the competitors race on and their stamina as well as their sailing skills get the sternest trial.

The shallow and sometimes tempestuous western end of Lake Erie is the field of play that experienced Great Lakes sailors know as an often unpredictable adversary.

“Western Lake Erie is one of the most treacherous pieces of water in the world because it is so shallow, and because of how fast the weather can turn on you,” said Duane Burgoyne, a veteran of more than 25 Mills races. “You never know what you are going to encounter out there.”

Soka said there are already 34 boats registered for the Mills course — the longest and most demanding — and one that attracts the elite crews from around the region. There are a number of entries from yacht clubs in the Cleveland and Detroit area, and so far, three 70-foot sailboats have entered in this year’s Mills Trophy Race.

“I sensed early on that everyone is just anxious to get together, to race, and to get their crews in shape for the racing season,” she said. “The sailing crowd is a very close-knit group and we have known some of these people for 50 years. After missing out on last year, this is going to be a reunion and a celebration, as well as one very important sailboat race.”

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