Sailing adventure

Becky Vargo • Jul 21, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Crazy winds blew dozens of boats out of the 109th Chicago-to-Mackinac sailboat race last weekend, but one local crew managed to hang on until the end.

The crew of the Aftershock — a 39-foot Farr out of the Muskegon Yacht Club — also participated in the rescue of a man who went overboard from another vessel Sunday night.

Jim Key, a veteran of almost 30 Chicago-to-Mackinac races, said this is the one he will never forget. The Eastmanville resident was one of nine crewmembers on the yacht owned by Bill Newman of Muskegon.

The rest of the Aftershock crew was Newman, Bobby Cox of Oxford, Jeremy Cox of Caledonia, Shane Good of Ferrysburg, Brad Krog of Norton Shores, Michael Tanis of Fremont, Mark Tescari of Muskegon and Olivia Windemuller of Norfolk, Virginia (formerly of Spring Lake).

Key said they were in the middle of Lake Michigan and a few miles north of Muskegon, sailing with a jib and a mainsail after blowing out their spinnaker. That’s when they heard a “man overboard” call on the radio and realized it was in their area.

“We start looking around and notice a boat nearby not heading in the same direction as us,” Key said. “They yell out ‘man overboard,’ (signaling) that they lost someone overboard. We start helping them look, turning to the left and now searching for a crewmember in the water. Flashlights searching and sails flapping, we take down the jib and continue to search.”

Windemuller said she was below deck when she heard the shouting, so she went up and soon joined the search.

“I could hear the whistles and looked out to where they were and saw a light in the water,” she said. “I called out that I could see him, and the rest of the crew shined their lights on him until he was picked up out of the water. It was such a relief to know that he got found and was safe.”

Windemuller said the whole Aftershock crew cheered when the man was pulled out of the water.

It was later that the crew learned the man had been in the water for more than an hour.

The race started for the Aftershock crew early Saturday afternoon with more wind than the light air predicted, Key said.

Key noted that eight of the nine-member crew were Chicago-to-Mackinac race veterans. Windemuller was the newbie, but she already had extensive racing experience, including races with the Aftershock crew out of Muskegon, and she is a sailing instructor at the Spring Lake Yacht Club.

“The rest of the crew are old enough to be her father or grandfather, so she has nothing to fear,” Key said.

The Aftershock set off with the spinnaker leading the way.

“It was fun sailing,” Key said.

They started doing shifts at 8 p.m. with four people on, four people sleeping or resting, and the owner floating between the two. Winds continued to build and the waves along with it, Key said. 

“It’s getting really hard to stand or work or get around on the boat. One of our crew gets tossed by a wave and slams into the stove in the galley,” Key said. “After the race, we found out he cracked two ribs.”

After the Sunday night rescue, the crew raised the jib and continued to sail. The waves and wind changed direction, causing the crew to tack back and forth. Waves were building 6-8 feet, Key said. The pounding took its toll on the boat and the head (toilet) began to leak.

Key said he and some of the other crew became seasick, the first time for him in 30 years. But they continued on, despite hearing that 50-60 boats had dropped out of the race.

The prediction of light winds comes true and the sailboat slows, coming to a stop about a half-mile from the Mackinaw Bridge. Somehow, they managed to get across the finish line, Key said.

At the dock, the Aftershock crew was greeted by the crew from the Meridian X, the boat that had the man who went overboard. Key said there were thanks and hugs and handshakes, and three cases of beer waiting for them.

The Meridian X, out of Virginia Beach, Virginia, left the race after the overboard incident and sailed into Muskegon. The crew then traveled by car to get to the finish area and race party. 

Windemuller said it was quite the experience sailing with the guys.

“They are very smart and all have a lot of experience and many stories to tell,” she said. “They were all very nice to me, but they kind of smelled after being on the boat for three days.” 

The Aftershock finished the 333-mile race at about 3:16 a.m. Tuesday. They were sixth out of the 12 boats in their division.

Full results of the race can be found on the Chicago Yacht Club’s website.

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