Young Sailor Makes History in World's Longest Freshwater Race

At 333 miles, the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac is the longest freshwater sailboat race in the world. This year, 12-year-old Max Hansmann competed with three generations of his family, including his grandfather, his father, John, and his brother Jake. By entering the race, Max is now the second-youngest person to participate.

Max’s first time out for the Mac, as the race is called, wasn’t all smooth sailing. The team encountered atrocious weather, with gusts of wind up to 35 miles per hour and 10- to 15-foot waves. And they faced six major storms. As Max put it, "There were some times where we could see the storm that's coming and we [saw] the storm that just passed. So we were kind of in the middle, trapped between storms."

The team also had to work three-hour shifts during the night to complete the 44-hour trip. One shift found Max, his uncle Will, and two of his grandfather’s friends manning the boat. The other was composed of his dad, brother, grandfather, and another friend.

Max and his dad spoke with Sports Illustrated Kids about the race, sailing, and what’s on the horizon.

How did you get involved with sailing?

Max: Well, our family's big on sailing and it’s in our blood. I've been sailing since I was five months old — not doing all the hard work, but like, kind of sitting there in my mom's arms watching everybody. And I've just been into ever since.

What about sailing made you stick with it?

Max: I like the atmosphere. You’re out on the water. We always sail with our family, and that makes it extra fun. It’s just exciting and I enjoy it.

When and why did you decide to sail competitively?

Max: I always had just watched [my dad] sail during a race, like, on radar. And I thought it would be really cool to be one of those boats, in the middle of the lake. Seeing all the other boats, trying to compete with them because all the people in the other boats are experts. It's fun to be around them. I thought it would be really cool.

How did you prepare for the race?

Max: Every week we would drive down to Lake Michigan and had two practices. So we would go through all the situations and do our jobs. So we would be ready for the race. We would practice the man overboard drill just in case.

What else did you practice?

John: We would practice different sail take-downs. You have different sails on a boat that you have to put up and take down depending on the different winds. So we would practice that. Sail trim. We did practice man-overboard drills because out in the middle of the lake you could be 20 miles, 25 miles off shore. And in the middle of the night if someone goes overboard the rest of the crew needs to be able to get back and pick them back up. Every member of the crew has a job during that type of situation. We practiced that quite a bit to make sure the safety aspect was there. 

How did you create your course?

John: We picked a course based on what the weather patterns were supposed to be, so Max joined us at the skippers meeting, which is the Friday night before the race. They have a weatherman come in and discuss what the weather patterns are going to be and when the storm fronts are supposed to come across the lake and the different high and low pressures coming across the lake. And so based on that weather pattern is how you choose the course in which you take.

How often did you adjust your course?

John: That would happen all the time. When I say all the time, I mean every five minutes, sometimes every minute. 

Max, what was your role while you were out on the water?

Max: I would like, trim, so I could get some slack for the person that would like...

John: He was in charge of trimming the spinnaker. And grinding the spinnaker. Or when we would take down the sail, he was in charge of being able to pull it down and be sure it would get tucked down below.

What do you mean by spinning and trimming?

John: Trimming is taking in on a line to the wind in the most efficient manner. You would bring in a line or ease out a line to make sure your getting maximum speed. [A line is] a rope attached to the sail. A lot of times we say “grinder” because we had so much wind — we had 30-35 mile an hour winds on this race. There is so much wind and these sails are so big that you can't just pull it, so it has to be wrapped around a winch. And the grinder’s job is to put a handle in that winch and crank it in.

What were other people doing?

John: I was the helm, driving the boat — although Max did drive the boat as we crossed the finish line. But I would drive the boat. There were other people that were trimmers or main trimmers and tending to the other sailing, and whatnot.

What was the hardest or most challenging part of the race?

Max: One night it was really dark and the only time you could see was when lightning was striking. It was really rainy, so it was very hard to see other boats. It was very stressful because you couldn't really see, at all. It was harder because you can't see, you can't do everything as well as you normally do.

John, as a father, what did you take away from the race?

John: One of the things that made it kind of fun for us all was that we were able to get Max, who's 12 years old, out on the water with his 81-year-old grandfather. So we had three generations out on the boat, along with his brother Jake, who is 14. And so spending the time out there as a family, and being able to put away the electronics, the phones, and iPads, and whatnot, experiencing the wind and the sailing and the strategy, and talking with the grandfather and those things, I think that's one of the things that I, as a father, and hopefully Max and his brother took away from it, as being a very special time.

Max, what are you hoping to do in the future?

Max: Well, I want to do [the race] for as long as I can because I really enjoyed it. And what I want to accomplish in the future is [that] I want to be one of the best out there. I want to be the leader of the boat. I want to be the one at the helm, the one telling everyone what to do, being the leader of the group.

Photos courtesy Max Hansmann

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