BURNHAM HARBOR — Gene McCarthy had a modicum of success sailing after college out of the Jackson Park Yacht Club. One late Friday evening in mid-July 1953, McCarthy received a call from a noted Chicago sailor.
“Marshall Kissel asked, ‘Can you make it?’” McCarthy recalled.
“I was totally surprised. I’d never heard of Kissel. I said, ‘You got a crew!”
The next morning, McCarthy hopped aboard a 36-foot boat and assisted in his first Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, better known as The Mac.
On Saturday, the now-92-year-old McCarthy will again compete in the 333-nautical mile course across Lake Michigan. It will be his 66th Mac — tying the record for the most ever.
“The Mac is a great event,” said McCarthy, a 2014 Lake Michigan Sailing Hall of Fame inductee. “You enjoy competing, but it’s more about the journey. I’ve had finishes near the top and some near the bottom. I’ve always been pleased when we’ve crossed the finish line. If you can get there [Mackinac Island] safely, you can sail anywhere in the world.”
McCarthy will be aboard his Island Goat Express, one of 240 boats and 2,100 sailors competing in the race. It is the 112th running of the beloved Chicago Yacht Club race, one of the world’s largest annual offshore races.
He will tie John Nedeau Sr.’s record. His last Mac was 2013.
It will be a family affair. Their brand-new Tartan 10 has a crew of six which includes his daughter Gail Turluck and grandson Neal Turluck.
For McCarthy, who will turn 93 July 25, the undulating course never gets old.
“The Mac is always challenging,” said McCarthy, who has lived in St. Petersburg, Fla. the past four years. He and wife, Mary, flew into Chicago last week. Regulars at Burnham Harbor might recognize them. The couple lived on a power boat in the harbor during the summers of 2017 and 2018.
McCarthy’s Chicago roots run deep. He graduated South Shore High School in 1946. He excelled as a guard on the basketball team. After a year and a half at the University of Illinois, he transferred to the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, where he started on the basketball team. He spent 52 years in the insurance business, sailing the whole time.
He bought his first boat In 1975, a Cal 40 dubbed Duet. He did the Mac on that boat with a crew of eight.
“The Mac speaks to the success of amateurism,” he said. “We have a celebration when we cross the finish line. We’ll stay through the victory party on the lawn at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island and then sail down for the Port Huron race.”
He’s seen a lot over 66 races, with the 1970 competition etched in his memory. That year, 89 boats finished and 80 were forced to withdraw. McCarthy’s trip was perilous.
“We had 75 mile per hour winds from the north for eight hours and 10-12-foot waves,” he said. “I was taking down a jib on the bowsprit, got hit by a wave and the pressure blew me into the lake. I was enveloped in the sail going into the waves.
“The sail ruptured and the water lifted me up and I was able to grab a wire. I saw the crew looking for me behind the boat. The boat captain saw me hanging on and dragged me aboard. There’s no question, I was lucky to survive.”
Much about the race remains the same after 66 trips. But technology keeps changing it, too.
“Back then you had radio direction finder, charts and you made log entries” he said. “You went more on instinct. The east side of Lake Michigan is easier to figure out a way to the island. The technology today is very sophisticated, with GPS you know exactly where you’re at.”
While McCarthy isn’t as agile, the mind is sharp and his innate ability to read weather patterns is a considerable asset.
“Dad is a natural talent,” said his daughter Gail Turluck, of Richland, Mich., who did her first Mac with her father in 1975 and has completed 44. “I have a good feel for the conditions, but Dad’s is much better. Most races we’ve come in fourth or better in section.”
A watch captain, Gail works the helm and does sail trim. Her dad also serves as watch captain.
“I am a watch captain and skipper,” said McCarthy, who does four hours on and four hours off. “With the other watch captains, we talk about conditions and what to expect; it’s a group effort. We have four very competent offshore sailors who pretty much run the show. We tend to agree with each other without speaking about it.”
Also on the crew is grandson Neal Turluck and his fiance Emily Simon, residents of Grosse Pointe, Mich; Jack Richard; Jim Irwin. It will be Simon’s first Mac.
“We love each other on shore, but put in a challenging environment with the work involved, it can go from a friendly sail up Lake Michigan to a hair-raising adventure with family,” said Neal, 35, who has done 14 Macs.
“The crew that can capitalize on the twists, turns and weather changes the best, finishes higher. The fun part is you never see it coming.”