Published July 21, 2016
Local sailor ready again for island run
By Ken Knutson
In 2005, Hinsdale’s Alan Haag was asked by fellow members of the Chicago Yacht Club to join his first Race to Mackinac crew. Trouble was, Haag was a power boater, not a sailor.
“In order to be part of the crew, I raced every Wednesday night in what they call beer-can racing. I didn’t really know how much I didn’t know until I started racing. You get in a racing program and you learn all the finer points,” he said.
Tomorrow, Haag will set off on his sixth “Mac” race as one of eight crew members on board Endless Summer in the cruising class field.
Haag is eager to get back in the competition after a year away. The race spans 333 nautical miles — the longest annual freshwater race in the world — from the Chicago Lighthouse to Mackinac Island, Mich.
“It depends on what’s going on in my life,” he said. “This year is actually busier than last year, but I’m able to manage it a little bit better.”
Factoring heavily into his decision was the opportunity to help sailing buddy and boat owner Dwain Lutzow of Burr Ridge successfully navigate his first Mac.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to do it, I’d be pleased to help you,” Haag said. “I pretty much know how he sails and what he expects.”
Cruising class boats leave on Friday; the faster racing boats take to the water Saturday. The expedition typically takes 50-60 hours. But Mother Nature is largely in control of that, Haag stressed.
“The race can be really fast for a while and then slow down at night. It can be terrifying at some points, and it can be the most boring thing when there’s no wind,” he said.
A sailor also learns to expect the unexpected, like sudden loss of power or sail fails. Radar is digital now instead of analog, and advancing sail technology has improved speed and durability. Still, Haag said he never leaves land without his trusty tool bag.
“We’ve had to do a lot of repair work on boats during the race over the years,” he said, reminiscing about the time he had to manually shut down an engine that wouldn’t switch off. “The race is kind of like a camping trip. You provision for it. Parts break, and you’ve got to have kind of a MacGyver attitude at times.”
According to boat owner Lutzow, Haag is his Mac’s MacGyver.
“Alan’s a very good sailor and he very good at troubleshooting any problem that comes along,” he said. “You hope you never have problems, but if you do you know Alan will probably be able to fix it.”
The seven-member crew started meeting in February, building the familiarity and camaraderie that’s crucial to high performance racing.
“It’s so much easier to sail with someone that you know well. If someone can’t get it done, someone else automatically jumps in to get it done. Being part of crew that operates at that level is very gratifying,” Haag said.
There’s no sailor he knows better than his wife, Lisa, who introduced him to the sport. Lisa grew up sailing and said she and Alan complement each other well during frequent excursions on their 44-foot Alli Gusto cruiser. She brings an intuitive approach while his is a more systematic method consistent with the mind of a retired engineer.
“He wants to understand the science behind everything he’s doing, like why you want to have the sail shape that’s optimal,” she said.
Lisa said his shift from power boater to competitive sailor reflects the level of commitment he invests in his hobbies.
“I’m not at all surprised that he’s gravitated to it to the extent that he has,” she commented.
The co-ed crew is paired off into two-person shifts. Alan said he’ll have put in about 16 hours or so of hands-on preparation by race day.
Seasoning is helpful, he suggested, but no two races are alike.
“Sailing is a learning man’s endeavor,” he said. “You’ve got two vertical airplane wings and they’re infinitely adjustable. You get them to work together and your boat goes fast. The approach to getting a tenth more out of your boat is very interesting.”
A self-described eternal optimist, Lutzow said he has high expectations in his debut race.
“You’re always there to win it. We’ve been prepping pretty good and I think we have a chance if we can stay focused for the length of time we need to,” he said.
In previous races, Lisa and their four children would drive up to Mackinac to meet Alan at the finish. This year, Alan plans on taking the bus home that’s provided by the yacht club.
“You’re usually very exhausted at the end. It’s fun to be on the island. Just making it there is a very good feeling,” he said.
And he intends on experiencing that feeling in Races to Mackinac to come.
“I’ll keep doing them for a while — as long as people keep asking me to be part of their crew,” Alan said.