Paving the way, paying it forward

Published on September 1st, 2021

by Adam Loory, General Manager, UK Sailmakers International
Every race win has a good story about how the boat got to the top of the podium. Here is one that tics a lot of different boxes and creates an interesting sea story about how the 68-foot steel schooner named PERCEPTION whose primary mission is tuition free sailing for teens, won her class in the 2021 Chicago-Mackinac Race and corrected to second overall in the Cruising Division.

After the trophies were collected, these sailors found a way to pay it forward to a new generation of sailors.

Before the race, PERCEPTION was used by the Travis City, Mich., based Michigan Challenge Sail Training, sailing-based community service organization that provides tuition-free sailing adventures for youth groups such as Gold and Blue Star teens (children who lost a military parent and those with parents currently serving), adventure sailing for high school and college-age youth, and a social venue for volunteers aboard the schooner PERCEPTION.

PERCEPTION, 1989 steel replica of L. Francis Herreshoff’s personal schooner designed in 1928, was not used or was she intended to be used as a race boat. Yet Michigan Challenge’s founder Captain Bryan Smith did dream of sailing PERCEPTION in the Chicago-Mackinac Race. But knew he couldn’t do it by himself.

He shared his dream with one of the board members of his foundation who, in turn, put Captain Smith in touch with Ron White from South Bend, Ind. Ron has been sailing high-performance catamarans and trimarans with a bunch of “pals” for decades and was interested in the proposition because Ron was looking for his 25th Chicago-Mackinac.

Smith was reported to have proposed, “We don’t have the racing pedigree to do the race, but would you and your crew want to sail this boat in the race.” White replied, “I have to call my team and see if they were interested and if the boat would be seaworthy to do the race.” Ron’s buddies quickly signed on for the venture. “I shook hands with Bryan,” recalled Ron.

“Let’s do this; but I’m not going to have someone pay for my Mac race. I’ll donate to make this happen and do fundraising.” Ron’s crew was quickly on-task sorting out the schooner’s rig. BTW, none of these multi-hull fellows had ever sailed on (let alone raced) a schooner of any manner, but they knew boats. The skeptical Captain Smith was soon convinced that these people knew the way around a boat and could pave the road to his Chicago-Mac dream.

Part of the evaluation was the sail inventory. The main, foresail and staysail were in sad shape. The topsail was still serviceable, but a new roller furling genoa (and furling system) would be required to meet the race’s Cruising Division requirements. One of the first things Ron did was take all the sails to Pat Considine at UK Sailmakers Chicago.

Pat also had to specify the roller furling system and noted that they needed a new staysail and genoa right away. UK Sailmakers did a lot of repairs on the main and the foresail (all the sails were 1985 vintage) to make them serviceable again. Luckily, the topsail had been only lightly used.

“We’re going to have to cut off part of the stainless bow pulpit extending over the bowsprit to make this work,” Pat noted. Captain Smith winced but stood by quietly as the grinders were brought out and the work began. There was also the need to replace the headstay and the staysail shroud.

The first sail for the “new” boat was to be the 3-day weekend of June 25. Half the team went to Traverse City. They worked on the boat day one in the fog, got to sail day two, and got fog on day three so they did more boat work. They had one of the long-term PERCEPTION volunteer riggers come for that sail. At first, as a crusty salt, he was keenly suspect of these people who only sailed “plastic boats.”

However, he taught the crew how to do certain things on a schooner, the, when he saw Ron’s guys working the boat in a racing manner he said, “I’ve never seen a schooner sailed this well.” This was their first day out and they were working the sails continuously as a race boat rather than cruiser.

Importantly, the upgraded rigging and systems on the boat worked perfectly and the sails that Pat and UK Sailmakers built fit like a glove from the outset. An interesting aside, they managed to secure an ORC rating based on the original Herreshoff plans.

Let’s circle back to Ron White again for a moment. Ron has been battling Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia for years and had it under control. Then the pandemic broke out. It turns out the combinations of the medications Ron was taking essentially negated the capabilities of his earlier COVID-19 vaccination. Looking forward to his 25th Chicago Mac and becoming part of the Island Goat Sailing Society, White wasn’t thrilled when COVID-19 landed him in the hospital.

Once out, getting himself, and PERCEPTION, race-ready became paramount. With the help of his sailing cadre, he did make it. And, particularly with the underwriting help of the financial firm he works for, Stifel Investment Services, both Ron and PERCEPTION were on the starting line…race ready!

So, you may ask, what happened on the race? Consider this, a stiff air, upwind first leg being sailed by a heavy, classic schooner. Pointing wasn’t even considered, rather the strategy was to just keep the heavy boat moving and hope the momentum would drive her through the water.

At first, neither this nor any strategy seemed to work. 36 hours into the race, they were a third of the way up the course and sitting deep in the division according to the tracker. The only boats they were beating were the ones that had dropped out.

One of the things they noticed with the schooner’s topsail was how the centerline rigging supporting the foresail’s gaff significantly affected the sail’s shape and performance when on port. Visualize this by remembering how a Sunfish will sail better on starboard with the mast to windward of its lanteen sail. The solution: every time they tacked, they sent someone aloft up the ratlines to shift the tack of the topsail from one side to the other.

The conditions started to change, and the wind lightened. It turns out that the boat sails amazingly well in light air as long as you keep the bow down. This took lots of trimming and tweaking to the amazement and entertainment of Captain Smith, the only non-multihull sailor aboard. They were working for tenth of a knot gain to keep the boat moving, going from 1 to 2 knots. The gains were so small that they started to call them as percentages rather than knots.

The combination of sailing skills and great tactics allowed PERCEPTION to claw back into the competition. At Grey’s Reef Passage they had climbed back into 10th overall and 4th in their division having previously stood at 34/13. Seventeen miles later, at the Mackinac Bridge, they were 4/3 and after the last few miles, they finished second in fleet and first in Cruising Class 3. Everyone was thrilled with their performance and the realization that all their hard work had paid off.

In the end, 1) the Michigan Challenge Traditional Sailing Training foundation now has a classic schooner ready to share the joy of sailing (cruising or racing) with generations of Gold and Blue Star teens, 2) another classic Herreshoff designed schooner has been restored, 3) a bunch of multihull racers learned how to race a schooner and a bunch of schooner sailors learned how to do it better, and 4) both Captain Bryan and skipper Ron realized their dreams by racing PERCEPTION in the Chicago Mackinac Race and a healthy Ron White is now a card-carrying member of the Island Goat Sailing Society.

UK Sailmakers is proud to have played a significant role in this story, but more important to us is being able to share how a group of like-minded sailors took on a project that will have a lasting effect on Michigan Challenge Traditional Sailing Training program for years to come.

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