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MARKEY: Lake Erie’s Mills Race not always about smooth sailing

06/06/2014, 12:00am EDT
Not always smooth sailing in Mills Race

The 91st Mills Trophy Race begins today. The Blade

The idyllic image from any sailing race is a borderless blue sky stretched taut like a bed sheet, and a pod of boats cutting through a deep ink of indigo water as their spinnakers create a panoramic quilt of colors.

But that’s not always the case. The competitors in this year’s Invitational Mills Trophy Race have to be prepared to face the worst of what Lake Erie churns up, and she can be an evil siren of the sea at times.

“Western Lake Erie is one of the most treacherous pieces of water in the world, because it is so shallow, and because of how fast the weather can turn on you,” said Duane Burgoyne, a veteran of 25 Mills races.

In 1978, Erie was in an especially foul mood as the Mills Race neared. Reports from near the Colchester Reef Lighthouse, located a point in Ontario that juts out into Western Lake Erie due north of Port Clinton, indicated just what kind of furious brew would await the fleet.

“The weather was exceedingly bad,” said Toledo Yacht Club historian Ron Gabel. “The waves at Colchester were 12-footers, and at Cleveland they were seeing 8-10 footers. There were very high velocity winds across the whole region.”

The final decision on whether to scrap the event because of the dangerous conditions rested with the Coast Guard, which issues a permit each year to sanction the race. As the race organizers and the Coast Guard muddled over what to do, the owners of some of the larger boats pushed hard for the race to set sail as planned.

“Many of the people involved who brought the bigger boats here for the race were gung-ho and wanting to go race, because they thought it would be a great test,” Gabel said. “But more than half of the fleet was smaller boats, and these conditions presented a real safety hazard.”

The local Coast Guard commander let race officials know mid-morning that he would not permit the race to take place, since he was already dealing with a multitude of distress calls from boaters on the lake.

“All of his assets were committed to recovering pleasure boaters,” Gabel said.

The commodore at Toledo Yacht Club requested that the decision be delayed, and a two-hour stay was granted, but ultimately, the lake refused to accept the field. A Coast Guard boat near the Toledo Harbor Light radioed that the waves were 18 feet and rising, and the Coast Guard commander said his advance weather information indicated that more severe weather was approaching.

Shortly after noon, the local Coast Guard commander cancelled the race permit for the 58th running of the Mills.

“The cancellation upset many of the people who brought the big boats, but the commander of the Coast Guard let it be known that if we were to race, he would never issue another permit as long as he was here,” Gabel said. “So cooler minds prevailed and the board made the right decision, but that ultimatum did not make the decision too hard.”

Had the race gone ahead, the committee members also could have been fined or jailed.

Gabel said because of the controversy and “some disenchantment” over the situation, the Mills went idle for three years.

In 1981, a group of commodores from Toledo Yacht Club, with strong support from the local business community and the Storm Trysail Club of ocean racing sailors, brought the Mills back.

“They put the money together, and we raced,” Gabel said.

The Mills Trophy Race has taken place every year since 1981, and when the fleet assembles late this afternoon near the Toledo Harbor Light, the 91st running of the historic event will commence. Although the weather looks good at this point for the all-night sail that will take different classes over three courses on the way to a collective finish at Put-in-Bay on Saturday, a temperamental Lake Erie awaits.

“You just never know what you are going to encounter out there,” Burgoyne said about the challenging sail. “In 2008, we had a storm come through so hard that there were sailors in the water.”

Burgoyne said it was not a night filled with exceptionally bad weather, but the wind grew fangs rather abruptly, catching much of the fleet unprepared.

“It just came through so fast that boats were tipping over,” Burgoyne said. “It was one of those Western Lake Erie storms where we were sailing in 12-15 mile per hour winds, and then we got hit with 50 mile per hour gusts. Boats on the west side of the islands got knocked all over the place. Those were probably the worst conditions we’ve seen in a long time.”

KAYAKING SEMINAR: The Toledo Sail & Power Squadron is hosting an informational seminar on kayaking at River Lures on Front Street in Grand Rapids on June 14. The session begins at 9 a.m., and following lunch there will be a two-hour, six-mile trip down the Maumee River. River Lures will provide kayaks, and all participants will be transported back to Grand Rapids. The $40 cost covers class materials, lunch and kayak rental. For participants with their own kayaks, there is a $17 charge for the transportation. Participants are encouraged to bring life jackets, and bring lawn chairs for the class session. Contact Felicia Evans at 419-304-2391 or at for information or registration.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.

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