It started on the morning of July 21, 1984, when 26 boats struggled to get into open water because of a log jam at the starting line off Racine’s North Beach. A sailor named Les Grebetz eventually started gaining distance and won the inaugural race in his boat, “Vamoose.”
This event was billed as the Great Lakes Michigan Yacht Club race back then and, 35 years later, it’s still going strong. The official name has since been changed to The HOOK and the 189-mile event from Racine to Menominee, Mich., often tests sailors to the limit.
That was certainly the case last year, when waves as high as nine feet were whipping around the 34 boats that were in the competition. There were originally 49 boats in the field, but 15 pulled out because of the elements.
Only 11 finished and the champion, Michael Laing of Green Bay, took 36 hours, seven minutes and 35 seconds to reach the finish line in Menominee in his boat, “Audacity.” Compare that to the record time of just under 24 hours, set by Mark Westdale in his boat, “Fox Fire,” in 1987.
“The weather on Friday — the day before the race — was stormy,” said Ed Paladino, who is the event’s co-director with Fred Stritt. “The morning of the race, that had not changed. We had waves of six to nine feet and a lot of boats chose not to start because of those types of conditions.
“There’s another group that did start and they dropped out because of weather.”
What does Laing remember about those long two days?
“Large waves and constant heavy wind and rain would sum things up,” he texted from his boat on Lake Michigan Wednesday afternoon. “The race was a matter of balancing all three with the sail set up, the boat position on the lake and weather gear.”
Looking ahead to this race, he added, “A happy crew and boat makes for a great weekend on the water.”
The conditions appear far more favorable this time, with highs around 80 Saturday and Sunday and light winds in the forecast. That will mean far fewer complications for the 37 boats, which range from 24 to 41 feet in four classes.
The spectacular wash of colors that occurs when the sails are raised just before the competition will start at 8:30 a.m., at the starting line off North Beach, about a half mile from from the end of the breakwall. Five more starts will follow, with the last being at 9:40 a.m.
Over the next two days, crews will match wits with whatever conditions they encounter in an effort to make it to Menominee first. Boats will be sailed north through the “Death’s Door” passage between Door County and Washington Island. And then it’s on to Green Bay, with the race ending across the bay at Menominee.
There is a 56-hour time limit for the entrants. Any boat that doesn’t cross the finish line by 5:40 p.m. Monday will be declared, “Did not finish.”
The event will culminate Monday night at the M&M Yacht Club in Menomonee with a dinner and an awards ceremony.
Running concurrently with the HOOK is the historic 333-mile Chicago Yacht Club to Mackinac Race, which has been held annually since 1898. That is the oldest sailing race held on Lake Michigan and the HOOK, which was conceived as a cheaper, shorter alternative to the Mackinac Race, now ranks second.
“It has turned into one of the premier races on Lake Michigan,” Paladino said. “It’s recognized by the Sailing Federation of Lake Michigan as a ‘Best Of’ race. It brings together people from different areas, different types of water that they sail on.
“It brings them all together and everybody can learn from one another, swap stories ... there’s a lot of camaraderie with that. And we have attendance by some residents. Usually, it’s on the breakwall on the south side of North Beach,where they’ll come out and watch the boats take off.
“It’s a pretty nice sight to see.”