From left, Tom Andrews, Paul Carr, Jack Bernard and Ron Soka, on Bernard's Corsair II, have raced in the Mills many times.
When Ron Soka, general chairman of Toledo Yacht Club's Mills Trophy Race, started calling people who might qualify for the new Mills Masters award, he was amazed at their responses.
"I was really surprised," he said. "I found that most people know exactly how many years they've raced in the Mills. They keep track of it."
Similar to the Old Goats (25-year veterans of the Detroit Mackinac Race), the Masters category was established last fall to recognize sailors who have crewed or skippered in 25 or more Mills races.
Twenty-three Mills Masters were honored at a reception on Sunday, but Soka expects the list to grow once more people hear about it.
The Mills, one of the Great Lakes' oldest and most venerated sailing races, has been around since 1907. It was started by Merril B. Mills of Detroit, who also contributed the coveted Mills Trophy - an ornate sterling silver punch bowl that has become a magnet for skippers from as far away as Port Huron, Mich., and Erie, Pa.
Over the years, the Mills has survived a couple breaks in continuity and almost too many gearbusters, drifters and course changes to calculate.
But it has survived.
This year's race, which starts at the Toledo Harbor Light Friday evening and finishes at Put-in-Bay, will be the 82nd running, and the 25th on the current course.
However, it took more than age and the patina of a silver trophy for the Mills to achieve its stellar status.
"There's been a lot of good times and hard racing, and that's what everyone remembers," says Jim Davis, the Mills Trophy winner in 1973. "That's what made it become a premier race in people's minds."
Ask sailors which Mills contests were the most memorable and they are likely to name the 1973 or '74 races, or maybe the "iceberg race," a slow, windless trek that seemed even slower because clouds of midges swarmed all over the fleet.
"1973 - the year we won," Davis said, "was certainly one to remember, because when we got back to North Cape the cars, the docks and everything else was under water."
But his most memorable Mills was sailed in a 33-foot Pilot, a wooden boat that he had rebuilt with the help of his dad and some friends.
"We had the boat in the water for a week before the Mills, but it hadn't really been sailed," Davis said. "And just like this year, the temperature was well over 90 all week.
"Soon after we started the race, we discovered the upper seam of the boat had shrunk in the heat and we were taking on a lot of water.
"We were hit by some horrible storms and we literally pumped the whole race on a boat that was virtually sinking,"
Paul Carr crewed on Davis' Orange Crate in the 1974 race.
"When we came around Colchester, it was dark and blowing hard and the rudder shaft broke. We got off the wind a bit, anchored and spent the night bobbing in 10-foot seas," he recalled.
"The next morning the coast guard towed us to Put-in-Bay. Then we called our wives to let them know we were OK because there were no cell phones then."
Except for a compass, there wasn't anything to navigate with either, according to Jack Bernard, a veteran of about 42 Mills races.
"In those days skippers relied on dead reckoning and eyeballing to find their way around the course, but it wasn't that big of a problem." Bernard said.
"You could always see Put-in-Bay and keep an eye on the monument, and there are flashing lights on buoys off Southeast Shoal, so you just went from light to light.
"Of course, if you had fog, you had a problem."
Bernard sailed his first Mills with his dad in a Dragon, a 29-foot wooden boat that lacked a cabin.
"We sailed a 100-mile course that was used only twice," he said. "It was a very rough race and we lost the jib halyard, so we had to sail half the race with the main and didn't go very fast.
"I tried to climb the spar, but the boat took a knock and my dad made me come down."
When you mention the Mills, most sailors recall storms and rough weather, but Tom Andrews cherishes the memory of a peaceful night spent ghosting along in calm water under a canopy of stars.
"We were sailing at night and saw riffles on the water," he said. "We shined a flashlight on them and saw 10,000 little fish swimming around the boat. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop."
The sailing scene has changed a lot since Andrews started racing the Mills.
"It's quite a commitment to race a long overnight race and not as easy as it used to be. People are working more and it's harder to make time for it," he said.
"The course has changed and the social events are more important than they used to be. But the Mills is really a great event and Toledo Yacht Club has done an admirable job of adjusting to keep the entries up.
"Tradition and history is what keeps it going. Talk to the best sailors on the lake and almost none has won the Mills - but they want to.
"It's like Michael Andretti, who raced 14 Indy 500s and never won one. That's what keeps them coming back."
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