Captain Willy: A Tale of the Mackinac Race

Captain Willy: A Tale of the Mackinac Race
John P. Brady (1883?—)

“Stand by—Ready and about—Hard a-lee!” sang out Skipper Willy. The great sloop Dolphin shot up into the wind. Round whirled her nose over the foaming water and the heavy main boom swung across the deck while her clouds of canvas crackled aloft like a battery of pompoms.
The immense sails filled rapidly as the yacht answered her helm, and with a preliminary dipping of her lee rail, she gathered headway and straightened up. She bore down on the starting line with tremendous speed, and the eyes of the crew were focused on the judges’ boat.
“Five seconds more,” said Navigator Sexton.
The Dolphin was twenty yards from the windward stake. Then the smoke from the starting gun streamed out, and across went the big sloop, first of the fleet bound for the three hundred and thirty-five mile race to Mackinac.
“Break out the balloon,” echoed from the cockpit, and in a second or two that enormous area of cloth bellied out over the water and pulled the yacht along at a terrific pace.
There was a twenty-mile breeze over the starboard quarter, and the squadron of schooners, yawls, and sloops found the going good.
All the vessels in the fleet watched the Dolphin. She was the new and the feared boat in the race. Her crew was composed of some of the best Corinthians on the lakes and her skipper and owner was Captain Willy. It was his first attempt in the Mackinac as a commander, and the burly sailors who had the Mackinac habit smiled as they pictured the gentle Willy in a blow.
“Nice little fellow and he has a good crew, but he’s too ladylike,” was the consensus of opinion. “Too much of a dandy for this game,” agreed the sailormen.
Even his own crew shared in these estimates of the new owner and captain of the Dolphin.
Willy was anything but imposing as he stood there by the topmast backstay and gazed proudly at his splendid boat. Five feet four in his immaculate canvas shoes, blue suit, and pretty cap, his was not a figure that would inspire six-foot sailormen with awe. And then his face was wreathed in smiles. It almost pained him to give a command. Politeness, gentleness, suavity, and undisturbable good nature were personified in Captain Willy.
Gracefully leaning against the backstay the diminutive skipper swept the fleet with his glasses. “Guess we’ll give these races a bit of a battle,” suggested the skipper to the men on the after-deck.
The Dolphin remained right out in front of the going. Big schooners with Yankees set and everything drawing made no gain on the sloop. Other sloops and the yawls in the race were gradually dropped astern, and it was easily seen that if the wind held as it was, the Dolphin would be the first to show her nose over the finish line in the Straits.
Captain Willy was overjoyed with the showing his boat was making and, excusing himself, he went below to hold a conference with the steward. The Dolphin was well provisioned, as Willy was an Epicurean and he intended to celebrate his entrance in the Mackinac.

Big Bill Baldeye was at the stick when Captain Willy went below. Around him in the cockpit were seated the Corinthians in the crew. There was Allen, one of the best amateurs on fresh water; Walton was another, and Moran was a third as good as the other two. Wallins and Collin, two little fellows but powerful light-canvas men, also had accepted Willy’s invitation to sail with him.
“Nice of Captain Willy to get us this big hooker,” said Baldeye. “Really thoughtful of him,” echoed Allen. “I think he will make about the pleasantest owner we possibly could have procured. He is so polite that he will accept our suggestions without a murmur. We can make him Captain of the hold while we will run the ship from the decks up. Sometimes owners do want to butt in and sail their boats, but I don’t think our little Willy is that kind of a man.”
“Wonder what he will do when she blows?” said Wallins. “I suppose our Willy will be curled up in his cabin with his stomach working that ‘reverse English’ stuff.”
“Well, we might as well start in training him in the proper way,” said Baldeye. “You fellows leave it to me and I’ll start him right.”
The little skipper couldn’t stay below long. He knew he had a fine crew aboard and he wanted to get busy working them.
Up he popped out of the companionway and marched over to Baldeye with the evident intention of taking the stick. Baldeye paid no attention to Willy and it was galling to the skipper. Finally, in the politest manner possible, he asked Baldeye whether he would mind letting him take the wood just to see how the old hooker was behaving.
Baldeye yielded up the tiller with an air of good-natured tolerance that was rough on Captain Willy’s feelings. However, he said nothing, for the eyes of the other men were on him and he feared to show his sensitiveness.
Chesterfield was an uncouth savage compared to the Dolphin’s Captain. In every ballroom of the smart set there was always a place for Willy. In fact, no function was complete unless it was graced by the presence of the dapper, smiling, suave, and gentle dandy.
Among all the hundreds of yachtsmen making the voyage to the Mackinac there was only one who did not look upon Willy as the joke of the sailing game. Commodore Thompson told some of them that Willy was just as like as not to show a lot of things they never dreamed of.
“He’s been out with me many a time, and I never saw him show the white feather, no matter what the going. The Dolphin will be driven for all that is in her,” declared the Commodore.
There wasn’t much to choose between the yachts in the vanguard of the fleet. Four big schooners and a fast yawl disputed the lead with the Dolphin. The weather and the going were more to the liking of the twin-stickers than of the sloop, but still she held her own. As the wind showed signs of coming around astern there was every reason for the Dolphin’s crew to believe their boat would pull away from the rest of the fleet before many miles of the long race had been sailed.
At sundown the yachts had left the starting point many miles behind them and they were out of sight of land. A faint haze in the west could be seen from the mastheads of the boats, but this was all that told the yachtsmen there was land to this sundown side.
The Dolphin was still leading. A quarter of a mile astern two great schooners were sailing within biscuit-toss of each other, the crews talking back and forth without the aid of megaphones. A mile behind these two came another pair of double-stickers, also on even terms with each other. The remainder of the fleet was strung out at various intervals. Every yacht, however, was in plain sight of the leader.
“This breeze is going to hold steady all night and freshen in the morning. We won’t have to touch a rope for hours, but we will be busy tomorrow,” said the weather-wise Sexton.
“That’s fine,” said Skipper Willy. “Although we are not drawing away from those schooners, still they are not gaining any on us. What do you think are the chances of this air getting dead astern, Mr. Sexton?”
“If it does and we can use our spinnaker we will show those schooners a sinking hull!” declared the navigator. “It seems to me it is coming around a bit.”
Here Sexton took a walk forward and gazed thoughtfully at the canvas.
Every stitch on the big hooker was drawing like a tug-of-war team. She had her club-topsail and balloon jib on, and these with the mainsail and foresail sent her through the water like an express train. The big fabric was heeled over, but her rail was far from down. The rigging was humming the song that the sailor loves, and the yachtsmen began to hope for a smashing of records.
It was a merry duel all night among the big yachts of the vanguard. Toward midnight, however, the breeze hauled to the southward and the Dolphin flung out her spinnaker. This piece of canvas gave her a big advantage and she increased her lead upon her competitors.
At daybreak the whole fleet was in sight from the hindmost yacht of the big division, but the Dolphin away out in front could make out only the five large craft immediately astern of her. She was too far in the lead to be on speaking terms with any of them and as the breeze was freshening it looked as if she would be an easy winner of the Mackinac.
Captain Willy was on deck early. He had turned in when all was running smoothly, as he knew the race would be won or lost in the last few hours of the sailing and he wanted to be fit for the ordeal. The members of his crew thought he had retired for other reasons. In fact, Wallin suggested that the skipper was sick.
But Willy was as spic and span as ever when he popped out of the companionway. Those who had been up all night had begun to show signs of weariness. In fact, the dapper little skipper was the only presentable person on board.
Baldeye was at the tiller when Willy came up on deck. He had been there since midnight, and it was an effort to answer the skipper’s cheery salutation. So Willy did not try to carry on a conversation. Instead he took note of the wind, the weather, and the water as well as his beloved ship. They had crossed the lake and were nearly half-way over the course. The yacht had been making from ten to fifteen miles an hour all night and was several miles in the lead.
As the sun came up and glowered red, Willy could see they were in for a real gale. The clouds were banked heavily in the east, and after showing a few fitful gleams, the sun shoved under a mass of mist, and that was the last seen of him for several days. “She will be lowing a bit more than we had bargained for,” said Willy, after taking a slant around the horizon. “But let her blow: that is just what this packet likes. We will hang up a mark in this Mackinac race that will keep them shooting for some time before they reach it.”
“Land Ho!” echoed from the lookout up forward. All eyes at once were turned to the east, and there, just peeking over the wave-furrowed horizon, was Little Point Sable. The shoreline blended with the clouds, and it was only when the lighthouse was picked up that the yachtsmen were sure of their position.
Ten miles or so from the eastern shore of the lake the Dolphin held her course toward Point Betsey. The wind was freshening rapidly. The spinnaker pole was tossed high into the air when the when the harder gusts swept up, and Sexton ordered the sail taken in.
“Pardon,” said Willy, “but please leave her under all her canvas, Mr. Sexton. I want to see how the old girl behaves with her glad rags on. We have new rigging on this boat, and I do not think it would be asking too much of some of the boys to climb out on the spinnaker and hold it down.” Four men immediately swung out on the pole, and the added weight kept the spar in position and added to the speed of the craft.
Sexton shook his head. When Willy was up forward he remarked to the men in the cockpit that Willy was crazy. But the spinnaker still remained on the boat.
“Looks as if we will have a little trouble with Willy, after all,” said Sexton. “It’s because he is ignorant of the sailing game, though, and not because he is so terribly courageous. Wait until she gets to be a reefing breeze, and then we will see some fun.”

They didn’t have long to wait. The closer the big sloop got to the foot of the lake, the harder blew the wind. The craft flew past Ludington and Frankfort and along about three in the afternoon South Manitou hove in sight. When off this island the wind hauled to the east and came in ever-strengthening gusts. It was impossible to carry the spinnaker, owning to the change in the course of the wind, and Willy readily enough consented to taking in the canvas when he saw nothing was to be gained by keeping it up.
The sloop was making much different weather of it now from what she had been making earlier in the day. With the gale over her quarter she careened to port and the water began to show over her lee rail. There now ensued genuine alarm. The Dolphin never before had had her rail down. The old professional on board her declared her rigging could not stand the strain. Sexton, Wallin, Collin and the rest agreed, and Sexton ordered the balloon jib stowed and the club topsail in.
Again Willy in his politest manner interfered.
“What is the matter, gentlemen? Do you think there is great danger?”
“Danger?” said Sexton. “Oh, no, there is not danger at all! The stick and all that is on it will just naturally pop out of her if we carry on much longer!”
“Mercy me,” cried Willy, “One would think they would build boats stronger than they do. It is a pity to take in sail in this kind of weather.”
And Willy felt the topmast backstay which was singing a song that could be heard above the roaring of the wind.
“It does seem a pity to put such a strain on such a small piece of hemp. How would it be to rig up a preventer backstay?”
The crew were dumfounded.
“What?” they roared when they recovered. “Are you crazy?”
“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” said Willy, “but I deem it a shame to scandalize the ship. Let us not make her feel that we underrate her powers. Let us carry canvas until we have a wall of green water six inches high over the lee rail there. Of course, if a squall knocks us down we can then think of taking off some of the stuff, but until then, let her carry her clothes. I think she is proud of them.”
“Crazy! ‘Fools rush in where real sailors fear to tread,’” misquoted Wallin.
But Willy had his way.
“It’s his boat,” said Sexton. “And if he wants to reduce her to a derelict it’s none of our business. She won’t sink, anyway. At least she oughtn’t to.
At length, however, even Willy had enough. The wind came up out of the east-southeast and hit the yacht with tremendous force. The big white racer lay over to the blast and the water smoked through her lee shrouds. It raced back over the deck with the force of a Niagara current, and ever and anon her long boom slapped the big rollers and skimmed them of their spray. The tops of the combers were torn off by the pressure of the wind and hurled aboard the Dolphin until her decks were drenched. Those who were off watch were driven below, and all sought such shelter as they could find. All but Captain Willy. With the same gentle smile as when he presided at a dinner, he stood up against the backstay and gazed hither and thither.
“I really believe he is enjoying it!” said Sexton. “Where ignorance is bliss is right over there by the backstay.”
No one else was enjoying the trip. The majority were alarmed. They thought of the little fellows in that race and figured that unless they had put into shelter there would be some yachts missing from the lists on the Great Lakes.

It was only when a squall fiercer than the rest hit the big racer and jammed her over on her beam ends that Willy consented to stowing some of his canvas. Then to the great relief of his navigator and the others he begged that the balloon give place to the reaching jib, and that the club do likewise by the working topsail.
The boys jumped to their work with a will, as they were pretty badly scared. The change in the canvas relieved the big sloop considerably and, straightening up, she made better weather of it for a time. However, by dusk the wind had hit an eighty-mile gait, and with the immense mainsail still showing, the Dolphin was lying over as badly as ever.
“For God’s sake, let’s reef her!” howled Sexton, now badly frightened.
He was seconded by the rest of the Corinthians, who voted the gale the worst they ever had known.
“Gentlemen,” pleaded Willy, “please let her keep her clothes. I know it is blowing a strong breeze, but brace up and we will pull through.”
The big sailors were ashamed to show the white feather before a man whom they considered more feminine than masculine, but they couldn’t help it. They swarmed on deck and made known to Willy that they were willing to see him drowned, but that they were against that kind of death for themselves.
It was now dark. It was impossible to see fifty yards in any direction. Straight on her course the yacht had fifty miles of sea-room and there was a hundred and fifty miles to leeward, with the exception of a small island and a bad reef which they were nearing. Sexton figured they were within ten miles of this shoal, and that the best thing they could do would be to stick around where they were as well as they could and wait for morning.
Finally the wind kicked up so strong it was absolutely necessary to take in the canvas. Willy at length yielded and ordered a couple of reefs in the mainsail, and half an hour later agreed to taking in all sail but a storm-trysail and a staysail.
“We aren’t many miles off Fisherman’s Reef,” declared Sexton. “Wish we could pick the Charlevoix light and get into shelter. I’ll bet the rest of them are hugging the eastern shore of the lake pretty closely. That’s where we ought to be too.”
“But,” declared Willy, “we are out to win a yacht race, not for a Midsummer cruise with ladies aboard. I am going to win this race unless I pile this hooker up on the shore.”
And the dapper little skipper began biting his lip.
They hung on to the course Sexton set, and he tried to shave the corner of Fisherman’s island too closely.
The Dolphin had that part of the lake to herself. She was on the steamer course, but there were no steamers. Even the big liners remained tied up to their wharfs. The fog horns were working overtime, for the night was black as ink. The clouds were blown so low they smothered out every bit of light that otherwise might have been refracted. And the flying spray and rain and mist completely shut from view the light on Fisherman’s Reef. How the Dolphin kept her course and how the yachtsmen knew where she lay were tributes to the ability of the Corinthians aboard her. When a steamer cannot navigate Lake Michigan, God help the sailboat!
The men aboard the Dolphin, from Sexton to the steward, were now thoroughly alarmed. Without saying a word to Willy, Sexton set a course for Charlevoix. And he knew he would have to keep close to Fisherman’s Point if he would make smooth water on that tack. He feared the skipper was either out of his mind or so ignorant of the real predicament they were in that there was no use starting university extension for him when lives were at stake.
The navigator had only to change his course a few points, and he did this whenever Willy’s eyes were not on the compass.
Willy went up forward, and when lost to view in the awful smother of foam and spray that came over ever and anon, Sexton took a larger sheer to starboard than usual. When his captain returned and the old course was resumed, Fisherman’s Reef lay right across their track.

There was no sound of breakers to warn the yachtsmen of their peril. They could not see the red light which was now over the lee bow, for they kept their eyes trained straight ahead or to starboard. And even if they had held their eyes in the direction of the light, it is more than doubtful if they could have picked it up. Lights, no matter how powerful, cannot penetrate far in such weather as prevailed then.
A terrific gust came down all unheralded and laid the big yacht over on her beam-ends. Even with the small storm sail and staysail she was carrying she could not stand up, and Sexton put the helm down to ease her off. The release of the wind allowed the yacht to right herself, but she ran fifty feet or so almost into the teeth of the wind.
Then some one picked up the red light almost dead astern.
“For God’s sake, put her about! We are right on top of the reef!” yelled Willy.
Sexton tried to bring the yacht around, but she was taken aback. A mighty wave came up and hurled her to leeward, and another and another followed. With the small sail she had on it was impossible to get the yacht under way, and they were in the breakers. A big roller heaved her up and carried as a Pacific comber carries a swimmer. The water broke into a smother and the yacht crashed upon the rocks. Her big fin keep held her fast and every little ripple showed its contempt for the boat by washing her decks from stem to stern.
The crash was much easier than expected, and the rigging was not damaged. In fact, the tremendous smashing of the rollers was not what bothered the crew. All hands flew up on deck and took in sail as rapidly as the surges would allow.
They lost no time signaling for help. The blue rockets cleaved the air one after another and the life-savers came out. They got a line to the ship, and one by one across the waters went the crew of the Dolphin.
The powerful motor-boat cut away from the wreck and began its battle back to the harbor. The drenched yachtsmen sat quietly thankful for their preservation. It was so dark none could tell the next man’s face. After an hour of terrific going, they reached the harbor.
“Poor Willy,” said Sexton to himself. “I must never tell him how I tossed his yacht ashore. It would break his heart. But I did it for the best. Wonder where he is, anyway?”
But to the dismay of the outfit, Willy could not be found. They were certain he had left the wreck, because the last man had left the deck when the life-savers had cut away.
The boys were in a panic. They feared he had fallen overboard. But no one could remember having seen him on the life-boat and they begged the life-savers to go back.
In the meantime the wind had shifted and when the boat was fighting its way back over the return course, a big sloop under storm sail and storm-jib flew past them with the speed of a Flying Dutchman. There was no telling what boat it was. The life-savers beat their way out to the reef in the neighborhood of which they expected to find the Dolphin, but they could not make her out, and as they were in great danger themselves they sped back to the station.
There was nothing to be done. If Willy had remained aboard the Dolphin he was at the bottom of the lake. At that, though, they did not expect she would break up so fast, as she was one of the staunchest yachts on fresh water.
Early the next morning the judges at Mackinac were busy receiving wires from the boats which had put in to port and expected to finish the race when the weather let up. All but six yachts were accounted for, and long about nine o’clock in the morning these six sent word by wireless from different islands behind which they had taken refuge. “The Dolphin a total wreck on Fisherman’s Reef with her skipper drowned,” was the only gloomy tidings of the day, for all the rest of the boats and their crews were accounted for.

The unsheltered wharf at Mackinac is a cheerless place when the wind is blowing through the Straits at fifty or sixty miles an hour. But still the judges had to stick to their post, as some of the large yachts had determined to start anew with the coming of daylight. They kept a close lookout on the western horizon, for none could tell just what boat would show, and the betting was keen on the result of the three-hundred-and-thirty-mile race. A big schooner was first to cross the line, and her crew showed the effects of the race. The weather was beginning to clear up. The wind was decreasing in velocity, but there was a tall swell rolling through the Straits.
Shortly after nine o’clock in the morning a second sail was seen in the offing, and conjecture ran wild as to what it could be. One of the racers of a surety, but whether a schooner, sloop, or yawl could not immediately be made out.
But a sixty-mile wind sends a vessel over the water pretty fast. The wind had shifted clear around to the west, and this was favorable to the yachts that were seaworthy enough to take up the race again.
“It’s a sloop!” cried Bill Campbell, one of the judges, as he caught a speck in his powerful glasses. “She’s traveling under storms’l and storm-jib. She’s a big one too, from the look of her spar. Would say she were the Dolphin if that craft were still on the water.”
They eagerly awaited the approach of the sloop. On she came like an express train. She could have carried more canvas, but still she was making fast time of it.
“By heavens, if it isn’t the Dolphin, it’s her sister ship!” called Campbell. “That telegram looks straight enough, though, and Sexton said she had gone down.”
With soaking sails and drenched deck, on came the mysterious yacht. There was but one man visible on her decks. Only his head showed above the combing of the cockpit. Straight for the line she came, and she had the Straits to herself, for there was not another craft visible.
A sister ship of the Dolphin she certainly was, for all who knew the late-lamented craft swore to her similarity. Across the line boomed the giant single-sticker, and though they instinctively glanced at the watches they failed to give her the gun. The yacht sped on past the judges, and then her lone commander brought her up into the wind and she lost way.
A furious breeze caught her in its teeth and thrust her toward the shore. All eyes were on the boat, for they wondered how the long sailor composing the crew could bring the boat to anchor in such a gale. He took a hitch round the stick and stumbled forward. He was a little fellow, and then a great truth dawned upon the watchers. They saw the painted name on the stern: Dolphin, spelled out in large letters of gold! A great roar went up, and they hurried into motor boats to assist Captain Willy, for it was he who alone had brought the sloop over the line.
But Willy wasn’t idle. When he had made his tiller fast he plunged forward and with quick strokes of a knife cut away the lashings of the hook. He grasped a capstan bar and heaved the anchor overboard. It stuck, and the yacht was held off the shore, thought the cable was stretched to its tautest.
By this time a motor boat had reached the side of the big sloop and they took Willy aboard. Then someone remembered they had forgotten to fire the gun, and they gave the gentle little skipper an admiral’s salute. They hauled the Dolphin into smooth water and made her fast. They rushed Willy into the shelter of the spacious hotel and asked him a thousand questions.
“It’s nothing at all, nothing at all,” declared Willy, as gentle and smiling and modest as ever. “But begging everybody’s pardon, I shall be at your service as soon as I can get into some dry clothes and have a bite to eat.”

Finally they got the story out of him. When the crew was being taken off the Dolphin, Willy went below. He meant to stick by the yacht, for he knew she was strong, and there was a chance, if the wind shifted, that she would blow off the reef.
That was exactly what she did, not more than an hour after the life-savers had left the boat. Willy managed to get a storm jib and a storm sail on her, and was able to get her under command. She had not taken any water for all her pounding, and then the little skipper conceived the idea of running her right through and trying to win the race without a crew.
He passed the motor boat returning for him, but said no word, for if the wind held favorable, he would be able to run through the Straits without touching a sheet.
His only anxiety was caused by the difficulty he expected to have in coming to anchor, as the handling of a thirty-ton racing sloop is no child’s play even if she is under short canvas.
He was lucky to pick up a steamer which was making its way down the Straits. Willy hung to this boat through the night and when daylight broke he picked up the Waugochance lighthouse, and the rest of it was easy.
But it was typical of the little yachtsman that he was all apologies for the fact that he had run away from his crew, as he expressed it. Never a word of blame did he have for them. Nor did he blame his delay on Fisherman’s Reef for costing him the race.
Six-footers and five-footers all have the same respect now for the diminutive Captain of the Dolphin. Needless to say, he now runs his ship from truck to keelson. And the best of them are proud to sail under Captain Willy’s orders.

1912/1928

  1. Name of a Chicago Yacht Club.
  2. A yankee sail is a fore-sail flying above and forward of the jib, usually seen on bowsprit vessels.
  3. Philip Stanhope, Forth Earl of Chesterfield, Lord Chesterfield; celebrated in eighteenth-century England for the eloquence of his essays and speeches.