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Lake Michigan Is Not For the Faint of Heart

As her husband and son prepare to sail in one of the longest freshwater sailing races in the world, our columnist comes face to face with the power and potential danger of the lake

Evanston beachgoers are all too aware that Lake Michigan is one fierce body of water. Riptides close the beaches, weather systems change in an instant, and conditions prompt many to compare Lake Michigan to an ocean. In fact, one young man recently made a trip from Hawaii to windsurf 56 miles across the lake while members of his chase crew succumbed to seasickness. Lake Michigan is not for the faint of heart.

A week or so ago, I sat at the Dempster Street Sailing Beach, watching my oldest son and his friends enjoy a perfect summer day out on the water. The sun was hot and the breeze was strong...perfect conditions for a bunch of teenagers to enjoy some kayaking and sailing.

However, when the boys took their vessels beyond the point at Northwestern University, out of my line of vision, I got anxious. If something happened to one of them, I wouldn't be able to do a thing from shore. I ran to the Dempster Street Beach Office and let a lifeguard know I was concerned that I couldn't see the boys.

Suddenly, I felt like I was on a reality showed called BAYWATCH Evanston. Within moments, walkie-talkies were deployed and a powerboat engine had been revved up. A lifeguard took off at full-throttle toward the area I'd said I'd last seen the boys, and in a matter of minutes, all four guys were headed back toward the sailing beach. While I felt guilty using Evanston tax-dollars to assist in the retrieval of my child, I was grateful for the immediate and available help. I also had a heart-to-heart with my son about sailing where I can see him -- after all, he's not a Red Bull-sponsored windsurfer like the young man mentioned earlier.

Then, when I heard the story this week of an Evanston lifeguard who after spotting her floating face down in the water, I couldn’t shake my feelings of relief. A story with such a positive outcome is, as I’ve mentioned before, .

As this column goes live, my husband and eldest son will be sailing in their second Race to Mackinac, one of the longest freshwater races in the world. Two Evanston friends, Sean Jolie and Chris Froeter, will once again accompany them, and I’ll be on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, anxiously awaiting their arrival at the finish.  when two experienced sailors lost their lives in a violent, middle-of-the-night storm.

Even after last year’s experience, I shouldn’t be surprised the boys want to head back for more; the pull of Lake Michigan is a mighty one indeed. Still, I’ll be tracking their course hour-by-hour (in case you’re interested in following a particular boat in the race, there’s a new tracking system called Yellowbrick. Our boat is Chief in Class 6, a Beneteau 10R) keeping my eyes on the skies. Most of all, I’ll maintain the deepest respect for the mighty waves of Lake Michigan as they carry each of the sailors safely to shore.

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