Young Sailors at the Starting Line

Young crewmembers are an important part of these Mackinac sailboat race teams. // Photography courtesy of Trish Kirkman
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Family Sailing
Young Michael Kirkman steers the family sailboat Hot Ticket, while crew members (left to right) Dan Lorenz, Lynn Kotwicki, Danielle Pytel and Mike Kirkman keep an eye on weather, water conditions and the rigging.

This summer, William Kar will do his first Port Huron to Mackinac race on the family boat, Sliante. He’s just 11 years old, but his dad, Joel Kar, said William did the Windsor Overnight race last June and proved he was ready.

You can see them every year, as the boats leave their harbors for the Chicago or Port Huron to Mackinac races: The skinny little 11- or 12-year-olds standing on the deck with the rest of the adult crew — usually with a huge smile.

Sailing is a family sport. Grandparents took their kids sailing, and those kids are now taking their own kids sailing. It’s an experience that becomes woven into the family lore over the years.

Joel Kar of Detroit said taking kids sailing enhances the adult experience. “They see new things we don’t see anymore because we’ve been doing it for a while,” he said.

Don’t think young sailors hurt a boat’s chance of winning. These sailing families are serious sailors and with plenty of experience — most have a long string of winning flags to fly from their halyards. The kids onboard are just as serious.

Michael Kirkman, now 15, already has done five Mackinac races on the family boat, Hot Ticket. Today, Michael is on the national team for Optimus dinghies, a small boat designed for single-handed sailing by young sailors. The national team includes the top 25 Opti sailors in the country. His brother, Connor, 13, who did his first Mackinac race last year, is on the Opti development team, which includes the next 60 top Opti sailors nationally.

“Most people, when their kids get older, they don’t have the same passions, the same activities,” said mom Trish Kirkman, whose family lives in Novi.

Paul Lee’s three children began doing Mackinac races when they were 10. The Lees, who live in Bloomfield Hills, bought their boat Genesis in 2000 when their children were ages 4, 2 and a newborn.

“They had an opportunity to go below and play with their toys, or come up on the deck and participate,” Lee said. “I didn’t really tell them what to do, they figured that out by themselves.”

The Mackinac race is the annual family vacation, said Lee, who began sailing when he was 6.

“Most people, when their kids get older, they don’t have the same passions, the same activities.”
— Trish Kirkman

“I wanted my kids to have the opportunity to have that feeling, that understanding of the sport, that lifestyle,” Lee said.

Douglas Gmeiner Cowan started racing to Mackinac when he was 9.

“As a mom, it was a bit nerve-wracking,” Amy Gmeiner-Cowan said. “I caught a lot of flak for taking him as young as he was. A lot of people I know thought I was irresponsible.”

It was the memory of her own early sailing that prompted her to go ahead and take her son. Amy, of Grosse Pointe Woods, was very disappointed when she was 12 and had to miss the Mackinac race. It was the family boat Apache’s 50th birthday — and her grandfather’s last race. But the family rule said kids couldn’t race to Mackinac until they were 15.

“So, when I had a chance to take my son, I jumped in a heartbeat,” she said. “For his first Mackinac, he pretty much had the run of the boat. I didn’t prohibit him from doing anything.”

Larry Andreano’s daughter asked to do the Queen’s Cup, a night race across Lake Michigan, when she was 15. “I said see if you can get some of your friends to crew,” said Andreano, of Cascade Township near Grand Rapids. She did, and now she loves sailing. “Now when she comes home from college, we go to the boat.”

Perhaps the ultimate family sailing experience was in 2012 aboard Bernida, the boat that won the first Port Huron to Mackinac Race in 1925. Al Declercq refurbished the boat to its original condition and then decided to race Bernida to Mackinac one last time. He invited two of his closest friends.

“Three friends who’d sailed thousands of miles together. We had a chance to bring our sons. And as it worked out, we won,” said Declercq, of Grosse Pointe Park.

The boys were 16, 17 and 21 at the time. But each had done their first Mackinac race when they were around age 12. Sailing, Declercq said, is one of the true family sports.

“You can have two or three generations that can participate,” Declercq said. “You can start as a kid and do it ’til the grave.”


Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki is a sailing enthusiast and retired Detroit Free Press reporter.

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