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The Mills is much more than another boat race

06/02/2015, 12:01am EDT
The Mills is much more than another boat race

Boats in the President's Trophy Course tack to the start during the Mills Trophy Race in 2014. THE BLADE

Much like the Indianapolis 500 and the Boston Marathon, the Mills Trophy Race is about many things that take it well beyond being just a simple competition.

It is an event, a spectacle, a phenomenon, all wrapped around a sailboat race. And because of its colorful and lengthy history, the Mills is a race rich in prestige.

Its winners earn more than a nameplate on an iconic trophy. There is a significant amount of honor and notoriety attached to winning the Mills, which has been contested nearly every year since 1907.

“It becomes the quintessential sailing race in this region, since this is the one race that everybody does,” said Duane Burgoyne, commodore of the Inter-Lake Yachting Association and a veteran of 26 Mills races. “It is early in the season, everyone has been working on their boats, and when the Mills comes along right after Memorial Day, I think everyone is anxious to take part in the race.”

The Mills Trophy Race, which originally was contested over a triangular course that had its start and finish at the Toledo Yacht Club, has started at the Toledo Harbor Light and ended at Put-in-Bay every year since 1981. Boats cross the starting line in groups of 10, at 10-minute intervals.

The namesake of the race, Commodore Merrill B. Mills, expressed a desire to stage a sailing contest that would put the navigational skills of the participants to a severe test. He got his wish, because the Mills gets under way in the evening hours and the sailors work through the night to cover the course and reach the finish near South Bass Island.

“That’s the key — it’s a night race — and the whole world changes out there at night,” said Burgoyne, who sails out of North Cape Yacht Club in Michigan.

“And when you are sailing in western Lake Erie, you never know what conditions you might encounter. Sometimes at night, the waves can get bigger and the wind can get heavier, but you can’t see your sails as well in the dark. If you have to do something mechanical, the difficulty factor goes up ten-fold.”

The race is set up over three courses, with the boats competing by class and size. The Mills Trophy Course is the headliner and the longest of the three routes. It takes the skippers and crews past Catawba Island and Mouse Island to a buoy off Huron, and then to a buoy near Kelleys Island Shoal, and then to points near Gull Island and Ballast Island before sailing to the finish line. The Mills Trophy Course covers nearly 71 nautical miles.

In contrast, the inaugural Mills Trophy Race, staged in August of 1907, covered some 191 statute miles and was won by the 76-foot sloop Shark skippered by George Craig, in 28 hours and 25 minutes.

The President’s Trophy Course initially follows a similar route to the current Mills layout, before the boats leave the area near Mouse Island and head toward Scotts Point Shoal Light before rounding Ballast Island and approaching the finish. The President’s Course covers just fewer than 38 nautical miles.

The Governor’s Cup Course takes the competitors to the waters around Catawba and Mouse Island before they must then round the Sandusky Harbor Channel buoy and then sail in a north-northwesterly direction toward Kelleys Island before rounding Ballast Island and proceeding to the finish at Put-in-Bay. The Governor’s Cup Course covers 52.6 nautical miles.

“No matter which course you race, I’ve always felt that 70 percent of the race is won on shore, and the other 30 percent is won on the water. Preparation is so important,” said Burgoyne, who is one of more than 100 “Mills Masters” – sailors who have competed in at least 25 Mills Trophy Race events.

Like the other major races on the Great Lakes, the Mills draws a field from throughout the region, with the top sailboats from the Cleveland and Detroit areas frequently entering the event. The winner of the past two Mills Trophy races has been Flat Stanley, a boat co-owned and skippered by Cleveland area sailor Terry McSweeney. Flat Stanley covered the Mills Trophy Course in a little more than 11 hours last year.

The week-long celebration that accompanies the Mills Race also includes an awards banquet on Wednesday evening, honoring last year’s participants, a Thursday Mills party on the lawn of the Toledo Yacht Club, and a post-race party Saturday afternoon at Put-in-Bay Yacht Club. The honorary chairmen for this year’s race are Greg Thomas and John Trost of Bayview Yacht Club, winners of the Mills in 1997 and 2004.

LEARN TO ROW DAYS: The Toledo Rowing Club and The Maritime Academy of Toledo are partnering to stage three "Learn to Row" Days this summer. The first event is Saturday from 8:30 -10:30 a.m. at the Toledo Rowing Club. The additional "Learn to Row" days will be held July 11 and Aug 1. The sessions offer a free introduction to rowing and no registration is required.

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

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