Light air, dock construction put sailors to the test in Mills Race

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  • PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — Sailing is inherently fraught with potential calamities, both the miniscule and the monstrous. Masts snap, ropes snag, pulleys wear out, cables break, and the wind can be a very voluptuous yet moody companion. Sailors need to be an exceedingly pliable lot, able to adjust, improvise, and call a string of audibles, if necessary.

    Dock construction forced competitors in the 91st Mills Trophy Race to improvise. The sailors tied up almost 100 boats on ‘‍D Dock’ in the middle of the work zone.
    Dock construction forced competitors in the 91st Mills Trophy Race to improvise. The sailors tied up almost 100 boats on ‘‍D Dock’ in the middle of the work zone.

    In the 91st running of “The Invitational Mills Trophy Race” over the weekend, the fleet was tested, but not by a rash of mechanical issues, navigational errors, or storms and high seas. On the contrary — the wind barely whispered in the wee hours of Saturday morning, providing the sailors with another trial of their skill set.

    “We haven’t had a ‘drifter’ like this in years,” said Duane Burgoyne, who sailed Flak-Bait in the event, which started early Friday evening near the Toledo Harbor Light. “We had a little wind until about 3 a.m., but then it shut off. There’s an old saying that good sailors win races, but great sailors win races in light air, and this was definitely light air.”

    Ron Soka, the general chairman for the race, said the challenges are really compounded when sailors lose the air, as they did early Saturday morning on their way to the finish here, in the heart of the Lake Erie Islands.

    “It’s much harder to sail in those conditions, and you have to pay attention to every wisp of wind,” he said. “You look for cat’s paws — those little bits of wind that barely move the surface of the water — and do anything you can to catch them and keep the boat moving.”

    Jim Davis, a former Mills Trophy winner who led Orange Crate in the race, said skill trumps equipment when sailors encounter extremely light air, as they did this weekend.

    “To win the boat race, you have to be able to sail when there is no wind,” Davis said. “It is difficult enough out there sailing in the night, when you lose sight of the rest of the fleet and you have no depth perception, but you still have to be able to move the boat when the wind goes to bed.”

    As the field of about 130 boats, which raced in a variety of classes over three separate courses, sailed into the harbor here, they were greeted by construction cranes taller than the masts on the largest yachts in the Mills fleet.

    The village is doing a major overhaul of its docks, and a long, difficult winter has thrown the project behind schedule. While construction workers moved around stone, rebar, and huge treated posts, the Mills Race competitors tied up their boats and went about the business of sharing nighttime sailing tales, grabbing a shower at the De Rivera Park facility, and enjoying the resort atmosphere of South Bass Island.

    Soka said that by stringing a half dozen or more boats together at each available moorage, they were able to pack close to 100 boats on the still operational “D Dock,” while construction went on at the adjacent docks on either side of them. The remainder of the Mills Race fleet was tied up to mooring balls out in the harbor.

    “There were a lot of unknowns, because of the dock situation, but sailors are a very flexible group,” Soka said. “They are willing to go with the flow, and they certainly understood how fluid the situation was at Put-in-Bay. The race went on as planned, and when the boats came into the dock there, we just figured it out.”

    The Mills Trophy victor was the Melges 32 Flat Stanley for the second straight year. That boat is owned by Terry McSweeney and Trey Sheehan of Put-in-Bay Yacht Club. Bill Bolin of Sylvania and North Cape Yacht Club was second in his Melges 32 BadFish.

    The President Taft Trophy went to Scott Boettner of Trenton, Mich., and Ford Yacht Club on Kicks. The winner of the Governor Harmon Cup on the Governor’s Course was Matt DuBois of Grosse Ile, Mich., and Grosse Ile Yacht Club and Racer X.

    “It was a longer night than usual, due to the light wind, but outside of that it was a perfectly delightful sail, with the moon and lots of stars out,” Soka said.

    The Invitational Mills Trophy Race has been around since 1907, when Commodore Merrill B. Mills deeded the trophy to Toledo Yacht Club to establish the event. His stated intention was to “encourage proficiency in the art of navigation upon the Great Lakes.”

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.