Sailboat racing in the Saginaw Bay should be on your bucket list

Ben Tierney serves as the Director of Communications and Family Engagement for Bay City Public Schools and is a frequent contributor to Issue Media Group publications. He has been active in sailboat racing in the Saginaw Bay since 2010. The following story is a first-person account of his experience with the Wednesday Night Main & Jib Series through the Bay City Yacht Club.

In the spring of 2010, a family member announced that he had purchased a boat. As a then-20-something adrenaline junkie, I envisioned jetting around inland lakes: Wakeboarding, tubing, and a roaring engine capable of creating wakes big enough to launch friends from said tube.

The Sharon Kaye crew sails on a downwind leg during a recent Main & Jib raceInstead, he proudly showed us a picture of a sailboat named Wampum: A nearly 38-foot vessel built in 1978. I had never sailed, and recall inwardly groaning at how slow this 6,000-pound behemoth must be compared to a power boat. Reluctantly, I joined the crew for the new owner’s maiden voyage in the Saginaw Bay. Stepping foot from dock to deck, I struggled further to understand why anyone would forgo modern power in favor of a maze of lines and equipment that appeared to require an advanced degree to operate.

The crew of mostly beginners eventually managed to raise the mainsail, and the owner and helmsman turned the engine off. Silence. From the moment that boat went from diesel power to wind, it took about ten seconds to fall in love with sailing and endeavor to learn everything I could about it.

The Wampum crew sailing to weather in a Main & Jib race.As we silently sliced across a Great Lake using a method of transportation invented in ancient Egypt (with a few improvements since), the appeal hit me like a rogue wave. I was then invited to help crew the boat during a race, and the newfound love of sailing combined with a competitive nature has been put to use ever since. Any qualms of boredom dissipated – sailboat racing offers some of the most heart-pounding moments you’ll find anywhere.

If you’ve ever peered out on the Saginaw Bay on a Wednesday evening between May and early October, you’ve seen the 20 or so sailboats jockeying for position as they race around their marks. While the Bay City Yacht Club bills their Main & Jib Series as a less competitive variant to their weekend races, in 12 years I’ve never seen a crew take that to heart. Winning is the goal.

Wampum crosses the finish line in a recent Main & Jib race.“Main & Jib” refers to the two primary sails on these boats – the main being the larger of the two, connected to the mast. The jib is a headsail, sitting forward of the main and controlled very differently, requiring the majority of crew attention. Sailboats of this size can deploy a variety of other headsails, but the appeal of Main & Jib racing is in its simplicity: Sailors focus on navigating the course as quickly as possible under power of just the two sails.

Motor out through the Saginaw River into the mouth of the Bay, you’ll eventually come across one of nine race bouys. Eight are spread out to form an octagon, with the ninth directly in the middle to serve as the start and finish point. Depending on the direction of the wind, three points are chosen as the race course. Teams gather around the starting buoy prior to the air horn blast at 7:05 P.M., signaling the start of the race, which typically takes around an hour to complete.

Sharon Kaye skipper Jim Ferency keeps track of race times during a recent Main & Jib race.The first of three legs of the race is called a weather leg, where wind is most favorable and sails are under full power. With enough wind, the boat can heel (tilt) to the point where the wall becomes the floor. A good crew will keep safety top of mind and make room for each other to accomplish the variety of tasks: Skirting the headsail, bringing the mainsheet up or down on the traveler, grinding in the line for the jib sheet, “reading” the sails and making adjustments, and a seemingly endless number of other tasks that all need to be performed quickly and accurately if there’s any hope of winning.

The thrills are part of the appeal, but my favorite moments come between the action. Taking in a sunset while sailing downwind on the final leg, slowly overtaking another boat and realizing you must be doing something right, conversations with the crew after the race.

The Wampum crew prepares the boat for racing.Twelve years later, Wampum still races in the Wednesday Night Main & Jib Series. I now crew with Sharon Kaye, a J 29 built the same year I was born ­– 1985. While sailing does not in fact require an advanced degree, I still feel like an amateur, even many years after my first experience. There’s always something new to learn, a challenge to overcome, and a skill to improve upon – sailing is, in many ways, analogous to life.

The Bay City Yacht Club offers several educational opportunities for sailors of all levels, and those interested in sailing or other boating activities can find more information at