There you are at the helm of your vessel, steering through the narrow passage of Gray’s Reef in a treacherous rainstorm with winds bullying your boat, when suddenly those haunting words, spoken by a worrisome crewman’s wife before sendoff two days prior, waft through your windblown ears: “Bring my husband home safely.”
Argh, she had to say that. Well, then it shall be done.
Due to the minimal visibility, you man the instruments feverishly. The boat slips; the boat rocks. The buoys are barely in sight. You’re going on instinct, relying on that dull throb deep in your gut. The wind whips to 20 knots. You pull; you drag. Watch the reef! Stay clear of the rocks! Skirt the shoal! What to do? What to do?
Don’t worry, because it’s not you. It’s Oak Parker Benjamin L. White, captain of Radiance, his 40-foot Farr 38 sailboat that recently sailed in its eighth Race to Mackinac Island, a jaunt across Lake Michigan from Chicago to northern Michigan. He and his crew of eight finished the 333-mile trek a respectable 110th overall out of 185. But they finished, and that’s all that matters. Getting everyone home safely is the priority, and the only way to do that is teamwork-oh, plus a good captain.
White, 54, a self-described non-athlete as a kid with bad asthma, took to the sport of sailing at the age of 13 while living near Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. When the family moved to Providence, the sailing went south and he didn’t take up the sport again until 1996.
“A friend of mine, Arvydas Laucious, invited me to sail with him on Wednesday nights in races and at the time I was going through a divorce, so it was very therapeutic,” remembers White. “I loved it so much I went out and bought my own boat.”
White found a 30-foot vessel, gathered a crew, and in 2000, skippered his own boat in the Race to Mackinac Island. He was in two previous races as a crewman for Laucious. White’s first race as a captain was the best finish for Radiance, the boat finished fourth in its division that year.
White upgraded to the current Farr 38 the very next year and has competed in the race every year since.
“It’s an adventure like no other,” he says. “It’s not like you pull into port and take a break for awhile and then ship out again. It’s 333 miles, usually three straight nights at sea, seeing the same eight or so people in limited space. It’s great. It’s wonderful. Like I said, it’s an adventure.”
There are usually four crewmembers on deck at any given time, and four below, sleeping or preparing food, according to White.
“Every four hours you’re either on watch or off watch,” he explains. “Somebody’s driving, somebody’s mainsail trim, somebody’s jib trim, and somebody’s rail meat for counterbalance.
“It’s amazing because you never know what is going to happen. It could be something as beautiful or poetic as a Great Blue Heron landing on the transom of the boat in the middle of the lake with no land in sight, or it could be battling severe weather conditions.”
White and his crew have experienced numerous obstacles during their time on the water. Dense fog encompassed the lake one morning during this year’s race, and White says the visibility ended roughly at the bow of the boat.
“You have to keep your ears open in times like that,” he says. “We narrowly missed a Great Lakes freighter.”
A couple of years ago, White and his crew found themselves battling 40-knot winds in the Manitou Strait.
“The spinnakers were up and the boat is just flying at about 16 knots, or 19 miles per hour, which isn’t that fast but it is when a 13,000-pound boat is riding on top of the water,” he says. “The boat is literally surfing atop the water, and it sounds like a freight train. The slightest mistake while sailing in a big wind like that can be devastating. It’s both extremely exhilarating and extremely harrowing.”
Such harrowing moments don’t always occur during the Race to Mackinac Island. During a double-handed race last year, where there are only two people on the boat, White said he and his one crewman, Ross Hamilton, experienced a profound change in the weather.
“We were just five miles from the finish, and a call came out on the radio that a cold front was coming in,” he recalls. “It was a beautiful, crisp blue sky day with flat seas, not a cloud in the sky, and we were skeptical of a cold front coming in.
“Before we knew it, we noticed a black line coming toward us in the water. The black line was actually four-foot waves, and the cold front came slamming in on us.”
White says immediately the wind rushed to 30 knots and the temperature dropped 20 degrees, while the day remained clear and sunny.
“We had to scramble to get the spinnaker down,” says White, who has, thankfully, never encountered a man-overboard situation or any serious injuries.
When he’s not competing in the large races, White, who owns White Light Design in Oak Park, takes Radiance out every Wednesday night at the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club for shorter competitions. With two young children, Jacob, 8, and Eleanor, 5, White and his wife, Sandy-also an experienced sailor-do not have too many free weekends for adventures on the water. But the family has a smaller 13-foot boat they take on vacations.
“It’s a compressed five-month sailing season around here, so the time out on the water is extremely valuable,” says White, who confessed he’s already thinking about racing in next year’s Race to Mackinac Island.