“You never know where life is going to lead,” says Zebra program manager Linda Hanks as we chatted one recent Friday afternoon.
Just over 20 years ago, this Chicago native was looking through a catalog and saw a week-long sailing course in Baja, Mexico. Sailing seemed like such a peaceful experience and a lot like camping, except on the water. Since camping and water were two things she loved, Linda booked the course, packed her bags and headed south for what she thought would be a simple, fun-filled vacation.
She had no idea that one casual decision would set her on a course to compete in (and eventually win) one of the most epic sailboat races in the world: The Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac (the “Mac”) that takes place on Lake Michigan each summer.
But it did.
Riding the Wave
Some say the ocean waves can speak to you if you listen closely enough. Perhaps that’s how Linda recognized her calling as a crew member of a competitive sailing team, even though she had never sailed a day in her life. Or perhaps it was the (phone) call she received out of the blue from some co-workers shortly after returning from her vacation.
They had learned of her newfound interest in sailing and wanted to see if she would be interested in buying and crewing a 40-foot sailboat with them.
Though honored for the invitation, Linda was admittedly a bit confused.
They had been sailing their whole lives. She had barely clocked a week on the water during that introductory class in Mexico. Why in the world would this group of elite sailors want such a novice to crew a boat for them, especially knowing that her skillset (or lack thereof at the time) would have a significant stake in their success in the “Mac” daddy of competitions?
Perhaps it was fate. Or just sheer luck. It didn’t really matter. What did she have to lose?
So, Linda said yes and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.
After joining her coworkers’ team as a junior crew member, Linda signed up for more sailing lessons. Lots of them. If this Windy City girl had any chance of contributing in a meaningful way to a team with decades of experience, she needed to know everything they knew – and fast.
Fortunately, Linda is a quick study. Just five years after she took that first sailing class in Mexico, Linda offered to do the crew scheduling and was ultimately offered the opportunity to crew her first “Mac.” Her performance must have been impressive, because she ultimately gained a share in that boat after one of the five owners transferred to California.
She has also been invited to crew for boats for 12 more “Macs” since then, one of which she won best in section! Other boats she crewed went on to place second and third in their sections over the course of several years. One even placed “fifth in fleet” out of more than 100 boats in one race! (If you’re not familiar with sailing, these are all huge accomplishments.)
When asked what it takes to finish, much less win, the longest, annual freshwater sailing race in the world, Linda emphasizes four things: the team dynamics, stamina, strategy, and skill.
The stamina is something she built up after scrambling across the deck every time she had to turn or tack the sails to keep the boat from heeling up or the deck from slanting too much. (Although we would imagine that’s also a great balance exercise.) And she has refined her skills and strategy over time through a combination of sailing lessons and personal experience.
“Like most things in life, you just don’t know what you don’t know until you’re out there in the thick of it. With so many variables at play each time you set sail – including the wind, weather, waves and crew experience – it’s hard to apply textbook learnings to every situation. Although the basics taught during the numerous training and safety courses I took proved very valuable, especially early on.”
It’s Not Always Smooth Sailing
While you might think that sailing in the Windy City is a breeze, Linda assures us that it doesn’t come without its challenges. One of them being the fact that you’re at Mother Nature’s mercy.
While the Windy City might be famous for its inclement weather, calm wind conditions occur more often than you might think in Chicagoland. There’s a surprising stillness that can set in over the water and turn boats into sitting ducks, especially during competitions since the engine can’t be turned on except to recharge a battery or in the case of an emergency. (This is when sailing really becomes like camping, because the chaos of competition disappears for a bit and you get to sit back and enjoy the big beautiful sky above. Until the winds pick up, at least. Then it’s game on.)
Then again, strong winds aren’t a sailor’s friend either, as Linda quickly realized.
“You won’t really know how to ‘weather the storm’ until you’ve literally weathered a storm, such as a bow echo,” Linda explained.
Recognizing how to handle the boat and adjust the sails when Mother Nature is pitching one extreme or the other comes with time and a lot of trial and error. The more weather conditions you’re exposed to during training and races, the easier it will become to capture or sustain a performance edge in any situation.
Of course, sailing is very much a team sport as well. So, the collective intelligence, experience and skill makes a big impact on the outcome during races, especially when you’re using a 24/7 watch system nonstop for two to three days at a time.