Thornton to sail 104-foot ketch in Chicago to Mackinac Race
SAN DIEGO — A year after winning line honors aboard a modern racing machine in the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, businessman Peter Thornton plans to take a slower, more comfortable approach to the classic race.
Thornton has entered his 104-foot ketch Whitehawk in the cruising division of the 111th edition of the world’s oldest annual freshwater distance race.
It’ll be a much different experience than he had in sailing the spartan, carbon-fiber Il Mostro, which was used in the grueling Volvo Ocean Race before Thornton bought it and brought it to the Midwest.
Thornton, 79, and his crew will be able to enjoy Whitehawk’s luxurious accommodations while sailing up Lake Michigan, including staterooms, a propane fireplace and a teak bathtub.
“I’m closing in on becoming an octogenarian in a few months and, after last year’s Mac race, I decided that I’ve had enough of the competitive racing and I wanted to try something different,” Thornton said in a phone interview. “I found Whitehawk was available. It really excited me when I saw the boat and what it represented and thought, ‘This is something I’ve got to try.'”
He bought the big wooden cruising yacht in May and brought it from Newport, Rhode Island, through the Erie Canal, the same way he moved Il Mostro to the Great Lakes. In both cases, he had the rigging trucked to Oswego, New York, where the boats were stepped.
The cruising division starts Friday off Chicago’s Navy Pier while the faster boats leave Saturday. The race is roughly 290 nautical miles to Mackinac Island on Lake Huron.
Thornton sailed the 70-foot Il Mostro seven times in this race, which he called “a thrill. I mean, I have never had a thrill like that. That boat, in 25 or 30 knots of breeze, the boat just absolutely explodes through the water. For a guy my age, getting up on deck is always an experience. You’ve got to be on your toes on that boat. It’s a boat for young men and some young women.”
Thornton donated Il Mostro to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Sailing Foundation. “I really have no use for it. I can only sail one boat at a time,” he said.
Last year, three generations of Thorntons sailed Il Mostro to the first-to-finish trophy.
This year, his crew of 18 aboard Whitehawk will include two sons and four grandchildren.
Whitehawk was built in the late 1970s using the cold-molded process in which wooden planks were saturated with resin. It is big and heavy.
“It’s going to be slow,” said Thornton, who still has a hand in running Focal Point, the Chicago commercial lighting manufacturing company he founded. “I’ve been looking at the weather and praying for some thunderstorms. In two-to-five knots of breeze, this boat doesn’t move at all. You could imagine that thing in the lakes, so we’re hoping for a breeze.”
He’s most looking forward to the start, when he plans to be dressed all in white and wearing a little cap.
Thornton said he’ll go with a Vanderbilt start, which is “when you set your chute about a quarter mile from the line and stand back behind the helmsman and look as grand as you can as you go for the line. When you turn the wheel on this boat, you sort of sit there and wait for things to happen. It’s not like the Volvo boat, which was instantaneous. This is going to be a lot different. We’ve got to have very gentle starts. We’re not crashing the line for sure.”
Sarah Renz, chair of the race committee, said she’s impressed that Thornton continues to be involved in the race.
“He’s going from an offshore racing machine to a beautiful cruising yacht but he brings his high level of racing to each of those boats,” she said. “Most of all it’s his passion for the sport that’s inspirational to all of us.”
There will be some fast boats, most notably four TP52s. Among them is Windquest, owned by Doug DeVos, one of three principal financial backers for American Magic, the New York Yacht Club’s team for the 2021 America’s Cup.
“You never know what you’re going to get on this Race, that’s for sure,” said DeVos, who will sail in the race for the 40th time. “It’s Lake Michigan and it’s always unique. Last year’s conditions were very difficult and very rare, then the year before that we had to retire. But, I also remember other years when there was no wind and it took until Wednesday to finish. The race is unpredictable, and that is another reason we all keep coming back.”
Bora Gulari, a member of American Magic’s crew, will sail aboard another TP52, Natalie J.
Follow Bernie Wilson on Twitter at https://twitter.com/berniewilson