As more than 350 boats launch from near Navy Pier Saturday morning in the spectacle that is the 104th annual Race to Mackinac, they'll be sailing under stricter rules and more training than ever before.
The 333-mile race from Lake Michigan to Mackinac Island, Mich., usually takes more than 24 hours to complete and is an annual touchstone in the sailing world.
But the race suffered its first fatalities in 2011, when WingNuts, a Kiwi 35 sport boat, overturned in northern Lake Michigan off Charlevoix, Michigan. The boat's skipper and one crew member was killed and six other crew members were rescued by a competing boat.
Organizers have spent the previous 12 months looking at how to make the historic race safer.
"Sailing is a very dynamic thing. We've made some changes that will provide less chance of something going awry," said Lou Sandoval, chairman of the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac.
"There was a lot of introspection," he added. "People sat back and said, 'That could have been me.'"
US Sailing, the national governing body for the sport of sailing, issued a report in November that said WingNuts had too little stability, and was unsuited for the competition because its sails were too big for its weight.
The Detroit Free Press quoted the report as saying the boat was "highly inappropriate for a race of this duration ... in an area known to have frequent violent thunderstorms."
Since then, the Chicago Yacht Club has consulted with US Sailing to change the rules about what types of boats and crews are allowed in the race.
The race now has a more stringent selection process with requirements about the seamanship skills of the skipper and the types of boats that are allowed to enter. More extensive boat safety equipment is required on each vessel this year, Sandoval said. Pre- and post-race boat inspections are being done.
The Chicago Yacht Club also strongly recommends that at least 30 percent of the crew on each boat, including the skipper, go through safety at sea classes provided by the U.S. Navy.
One of the skippers that took the extra training is Bob Metzen of Prospect Heights, who added he's been getting safety memos and tips by email every few weeks.
Metzen is in his 10th race on Saturday, making him one of the greener skippers in a race that has some sailors returning for more than 50 years.
"There's no better place than being on the water," Metzen said. "I tell my wife it's cheaper than a psychiatrist. You have a bad day and after a few hours on the water, you're feeling great."
Other suburban skippers said they feel safe on the water and are looking forward to the race.
"We're well prepared and our boat is strong," said Sheldon Dummer, 61 of Grayslake. "The race can't be made perfectly safe. There are risks taken and you try to do the best you can."
Dummer will compete in his 28th race this weekend and has high hopes for how his team will perform. Last year, his boat, Celerity, came in second place in his division and he's hoping to grab the top spot this year.
"To win your boat has to be well-prepared, your crew has to work well together, you have to read the weather and then there's some amount of luck that factors in as well," he said.
One of the race's elder statesmen, Thomas Vigil of Barrington, will be participating in his 34th Mackinac Race on his boat Cahoots.
"I'll keep doing this as long as I'm able," said Vigil, 74. "It keeps me alive, it keeps me involved in what's going on and gives me something to look forward to."
Weather forecasters are predicting light winds, which may actually slow the race down this year.
"You always have to be concerned about the weather, there's no doubt about that," said Glen Gordon of Vernon Hills.
Gordon missed last year's race because of a health issue, but will compete in his 29th Race to Mackinac this weekend. He's not concerned about coming in first.
"It's all about good friends sailing together, and maybe with some luck we'll do all right," he said.