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Chicago's mast appeal

Think you have to be rich to sail Lake Michigan? Think again

  • Chicago sailing
Chicago sailing (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
July 05, 2012|By Georgia Garvey, RedEye

Take a racing sailboat out onto the rolling waters of Lake Michigan with Carrie Carmada and other Chicago Sailing instructors at Belmont Harbor, and you'll get some of what you might expect.

The 21-year-old recent DePaul University grad sports a tank top to avoid getting a farmer's tan and kicks back at the ship's helm, steering with her bare feet. The sun shines and passing boaters wave languidly at the crew. Someone jokingly asks if there's any beer in the cooler below deck.

But this is no party boat: The sailors on board are dedicated, serious athletes who pour their free time, spare (and in some cases not-so-spare) cash and energy into a sport many in Chicago don't even know exists. It's high season for sailing, with serious racers gearing up for the July 21 Race to Mackinac, the most important summer sailing competition in the Great Lakes, while many also fine-tune their skills during smaller races.

"It's like a chess game on water," said Ted Towey, chair of the Chicago Yacht Club's Associates Committee, a group of yacht club members ages 21 to 40. Towey, 30, grew up sailing and racing boats with his family in Minnesota; when he moved to Chicago, he longed to return to the sport.

"I spent three years looking at [Lake Michigan] saying, 'How can I get back out there?'" he remembers. Towey, who lives in Lincoln Park, found a way: racing as a crew member on boats that other people own—something common in the Chicago sailing scene.

Yes, some young sailors in Chicago are rich, own their own boats and drink Veuve Cliquot to celebrate the end of a race. But just as many are like Carmada, members of the 99 percent who sail on other people's boats to ensure they can continue participating in the sport.

When you mention sailing, "people automatically assume 'ritzy,'" Carmada said. "No, I'm poor. I just graduated from college."

Carmada and other young local racers make up a diverse but tightknit group of sailors who know one another, and the boats often found at races. One of these races, the Chicago Yacht Club's Wednesday night "beer can races," a distance competition of about 4 to 5 miles, are casual but competitive.

"You can show up with a six pack and probably find a boat that will take you," said Matt Smart, a 31-year-old racer and director of sailing services for Chicago Sailing, perfectly describing how the race got its name.

The beer can races can be hectic to the untrained eye, with boats sailing quickly around each other to be in the perfect position to start the competition. When the horn sounds, crew members begin their dance, sliding across the boat, under rapidly swinging sails, to perform moves that will help them win.

As Towey and skipper Scott Sims battled during a recent beer can race on Sims' boat Slapshot, they managed a maneuver that sped up the boat by a few knots. The two laughed about "two grown men getting excited about [an extra] 6 miles an hour."

It's that competition that gets sailors' hearts racing, the thrill of out-maneuvering and out-thinking the competition. In racing, a lot of the strategy is about using wind direction and right of way rules to force your opponents to slow down or make changes that cause them precious extra seconds. Despite the nautical prowess in high-level racing, it's easy to get started.

"Most people are really willing to help you learn," said Smart, of Lakeview. He picked up sailing about five years ago, when he was hunting for an outdoor sport to do in Chicago. He was intrigued by the intricacies of sailing, particularly with racing. Smart took a course. Soon, he was hooked.

"The thing that I think is really unique about sailing is it's such a versatile sport. It's something that you can do at a very high intensity level and at the same time be relaxed and having cocktails with friends," Smart said. "Plus it's a fairly even playing field. I'm not particularly tall, I'm not particularly strong. But there's a place for me in sailing."

The Chicago Yacht Club offers staggered pricing for those 21 to 40 years old, according to membership director Krissy Guidici, with rates getting lower the younger a member is. Towey said membership rates can be in the neighborhood of $100 or less a month, plus initiation fees, for some age ranges. Lessons run about $200-$500 for a beginner's course.

"There are some people who want to go sailing [but] they think they must own a boat or be a millionaire," Towey said.

That's not to say that there aren't racers like Jayme Novotney, 29, of Lakeview, who owns his own racing boat.

Novotney, an elementary school teacher, taught himself to sail about five years ago when he bought a book on the subject. He's bought boats for a few hundred bucks, and fixed them up over time, to amass what he jokingly calls a "small fleet" of boats. He has two 19-foot keelboats and a 16-foot centerboard, all made in the 1970s.

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