By SHIRLEY LEVY
Last night, it was time to party hard, look up old sailing buddies, and rehash the 2003 contest.
Tonight, when the approximately 173-boat fleet heads out for the start of the 81st Mills Trophy Race, things will get a lot more serious.
For the 48 boats competing on the 75 mile long course, the top prize is the prestigious Mills Trophy. The elaborate sterling silver bowl was deeded to Toledo Yacht Club by Merritt B. Mills, a Detroit industrialist. Some Toledo sailors joke that Detroit has been trying to get it back ever since.
The first race, in 1907, was won by Shark, a 76 foot sloop skippered by TYC member George Craig, a prominent local yahtsman. Since then, Toledo yachts have managed to capture the prestigious trophy only eight more times.
Detroit boats have been the top dogs almost from the beginning, according to TYC historian Ron Gabel. Bayview Yacht Club (Detroit) skippers have won the the Mills Trophy 39 times and Detroit Yacht Club, 16 times.
North Cape Yacht Club, whose members are mostly from Toledo, ranks fourth with six overall wins.
Last year, however, Jazzy, a Grosse Ile Yacht Club entry skippered by Jerry Frabutt, slipped in and snatched the overall trophy right out from under the noses of skippers from both racing communities.
Jazzy's competition included some really hot boats like Jim Bourgault's Gus, defending champion Kent Colpaert's Burden IV, Bob Coleman's Hellion, and Jeff Mackay's Wizard.
They'll all be back this year seeking revenge, in addition to a highly competitive six-boat Hobie 33 fleet that will be racing on the Mills course for the first time.
Ron Soka, the general chairman, predicts that it won't be an easy battle.
"That's for sure," he said. "Grosse Ile sailors certainly were in evidence at Wednesday's awards banquet and a lot of them were talking about it.
"You could just tell - they're throwing down the gauntlet to North Cape. Not just on the race course, but they're also working on winning the trophy for the club with the most boats."
Frabutt, a six-time class winner and GIYC's 2003 Boat of the Year, said last year's conditions weren't ideal for his J33 sloop. " We got knocked by some very radical shifts. We do better in moderate to heavy air," he said.
Chris Wasserback, meteorologist with Commanders Weather, the leading US weather-router for small boats, doesn't forsee any strong winds in this year's contest.
"Mainly, there will be an east-northeast breeze averaging in the range of 10-15 knots.," he said. "It could be slow going for boats heading into it, but they'll have to manage getting through it.
"It doesn't look like there will be much rain either," he said. "The rain should just be ending when the race starts."
Wasserback expects the wind to become more easterly overnight. "Saturday," he said, "looks like a nice day, with sunshine and no clouds."
Easterly winds could give Colpaert's Burden IV an edge, on-the -water chairman Don Wood predicts. "He's my pick to win the Mills," he said. "The boat sails well to weather,"
Some of the boats aren't in the race for trophies. Many family crews, especially, are just there to have fun.
Mills race chairman Ron Soka, whose 32 foot Meridian won its class in 2000, will be competing on the 38-mile President's course with an all-TYC crew that includes his wife Kaye, Joe Grabmeier, Regan Smith, and Mike Beckham.
"At some point in time, I'd like to race for the Mills Trophy," he said, "but this short course lets us do the administrative stuff for the Mills , sail the race, and still be at the Bay before a lot of boats have finished."
Despite the growing popularity of the shorter courses, for Soka and most other serious racers, the Mills Trophy is likely to remain the Holy Grail.
"My feeling is that if I come down to Toledo to race in the Mills, I'm going to put all my effort into it," said Matt Dubois, GIYC skipper of Racer-X.