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Interview: The Crew of Kutty's Ark

By Chris Karr in Miscellaneous on Aug 23, 2005 2:01PM

In a previous entry, Chicagoist covered the results of the Race to Mackinac, an annual sailing competition in July on Lake Michigan. Last week, Chicagoist visited the crew of Kutty’s Ark, the winner of the race's Mackinac Cup. On a clear evening last Tuesday, Joe McGinnis and the crew of Kutty’s Ark took us out on the lake to show us the ropes. After our sailing lesson, we went belowdeck to chat about the boat and the race.

Joe McGinnis, George Morrissey, Leo Morrissey

Chicagoist: Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

George Morrissey: I’m a retired judge, and I’ve owned Kutty’s Ark with Joe McGinnis for about 10 years.

Joe McGinnis: I’m division counsel for United General Title Insurance Company. We purchased Kutty’s Ark from Chester Kutner, who purchased the boat new in the 1970’s.

Leo Morrissey: I’ve been retired from Argonne National Labs since 2000. I’ve been sailing on Kutty’s Ark for fifteen years, on and off. At Argonne, I was a manager and budget administrator for the chemical technology division. I’ve been sailing since the Sixties.

Joe: Leo’s our light air specialist. He’s the guy we pull out when the winds go light. There’s a saying that anyone can sail a boat when there’s a lot of wind. It’s when you have a little bit of wind and gotta extract every little piece of horsepower out of the sail to make it go. He’s our “horsepower-wringer”.

Chicagoist: How many times have each of you run the race?

George: It was my thirtieth race.

Joe: I think I’m at twenty-four, but I’m not positive.

Leo: I’m around... I’m gonna say thirty-five. I started around ’67 or ’68 – something like that. There were a couple years where there was a competing race and maybe I’ve missed three. So, close to thirty-five.

(More below the fold...)

Chicagoist: How many times has Kutty’s Ark run the race?

Joe: This was the thirtieth time this boat’s gone to Mackinac Island in the Mac race. It took its section in... Was it ’92?

George & Leo: ’92.

Joe: In ’92 we won our section.

George: It was our first win.

Joe: She scored, which means first through third place, probably another eight to ten times. Maybe more. But this is only the second time she’s got a first in it. And the first time she’s gotten first in fleet. Which is exceptional when you think that the race has only been run ninety-some times.

George: Ninety-seven.

Joe: Ninety-seven times, so there’s only ninety-seven winners.

Chicagoist: Can you tell us a bit about the history of the boat?

Joe: The boat is a 1972 design, 1973 build, designed by William Shaw. It was built by Pearson Yachts in Rhode Island. It was one of the transitional boats. It was built in a time when boat-builders were learning fiberglass and there were still a lot of wood hulls being made in those days. So it was built as a very strong boat. It still is.

George: They didn’t know how thick to make the glass. So when they were laying these boats up, they made a very solid hull. This boat weighs sixteen thousand pounds. We race against boats that weigh ten, nine thousand pounds.

Joe: Eight thousand.

George: It makes a big difference when you get the momentum going, the boat going. If it’s a light air day or when the wind’s velocity is variable, when the wind picks up, these lighter boats get up and go and it takes us a bit to get started. So that’s one of the challenges we have. It makes the sailing much more challenging when you got to get this older, heavier boat going in real light air and this guy next to you just kind of takes off.

Chicagoist: Where does the name “Kutty’s Ark” come from?

Joe: The boat was owned by Chester Kutner, who at one time had more Mackinac races than anyone living or dead. He had fifty-seven. I think that there are now some people who have overtaken him, but not many. He used to race the Mackinac with other boats.

He had a sister, Sis Kutner, who wanted to race with him, so they bought the Kutty’s Ark together because it was at a time when women weren’t allowed... weren’t easily taken aboard another boat. It was a male-dominated sport. So Chester bought this boat so that his sister would have a Mack racer to sail aboard. And of course, she was an owner of the boat as well. In later years, after Sis passed away, Chester sailed the boat, literally until the day he died. And one day, he invited George and I over to his home and turned to us and said, “You’re gonna buy my boat. You two.” And the rest of it was fate accomplished.

Leo: When I first started sailing on the boat with Sis, they were so classy. Lunch, you would have three different kinds of cheese and two different kinds of wine. I mean, this is while you’re racing! This was the boat to be on. Besides, Chester was a tremendous mentor. He would take you in and was definitely a father image. He was very tough on you and everyone respected him and he was a super sailor. Boats would come up to us and stay away, ‘cause Chester was known for doing things that they wouldn’t like. So the name on the back was the reputation.

Anyways, Sis was really something. She added something to the boat.

Joe: Dinners during the Sis era were sit-down, white tablecloth, two types of wine.

George: The whole nine yards.

Joe: You cleaned up and shaved before dinner and you did it on an off-watch. And it was a formal dining experience. Sis demanded that.

Leo: (Pointing to the space between the bunks inside the boat) There was a table that went right there. These bunks come out and were seating.

George: Our watches are four on, four off, so we have eight or nine people. Some years we went with ten. Basically, the concept is that there’s four people on a watch, and four off. Then every hour, we change one person. So, when Sis was here, you’d have four people off. One of the off people would help her start the stove and she’d watch over that and orchestrate the kitchen. And at some point in time, there’d be four people sitting at this table, with plates, napkins, silverware, a little wine glass – red or white, depending upon it was beef or chicken. You’d finish dinner and she’d bring out the little hostess cups with some fresh fruit and whipped cream. And then you were done. And you’d go up. That was the only time that we’d switch watches all at once. And these four guys would come down and go through the same program. Now, if it was heavy weather and you were on your ear, we didn’t do that. But if it was light air or an average day sail, you could do this program.

Chicagoist: How was this year’s Mackinac races?

Joe: We had nine people on the crew and we had very light airs in the beginning – the first two-thirds of the race were light airs – and then the last third of the race, the wind just started to build and build. We started off the race barely able to go two, three, four knots of speed. It was considered cause to jump up and cheer. And then the last third of the race was winds of twenty and thirty knots – I don’t think it went below twenty or so, except for little stretches – for the last fourteen hours.

Leo: We did not see a boat for over twenty-four hours. There’s over three hundred boats in this race and for twenty-four hours, we were wondering where the heck is the rest of the fleet? It was a very interesting race ‘cause we’re usually looking out for who’s there and who the competition is. That’s part of the race – the strategies and connecting that with the competition. It was strange – visibility was up. You could see stars and up, but the sideways visibility must have been much reduced.

Joe: We didn’t see our first sailboat until late Sunday around nightfall when the air started to clear a bit and that was the first time we started to see boats. We didn’t know who they were. We just saw masts and sails and we were looking around and saw that some of them were pretty big boats, which made us feel good. When you see a tall sail and a large stick over there, these are boats that should be further up the lake. And so we were in good temperament.

Leo: The last hour, we saw this boat ahead of us – which was in our class – and we had to make the time. I’m gonna say it’s thirty minutes. And that was the boat that we beat by a minute and a half to get first in section. And that was the whole ballgame. First in fleet is just a mathematical calculation that we had corrected over everyone else. That’s like a super... Kutty’s Ark is forever on that big trophy.

George: They took the three hundred boats and divided them into three groups. The monohulls – single hulled boats – were split into a group of about a hundred and fifty boats and the multihulls were about twenty-five boats, which we don’t usually consider we’re racing against. The seventy-footers were in one section and we were in another section based on handicaps and the lengths of the boats. Everyone’s rated on corrected time, ‘cause otherwise you wouldn’t have a chance of winning anything. So when we were all corrected, we beat everybody – big boats, small boats, the multihulls.

Joe: The Mackinac race is a fun race because you get a half-dozen of your friends together and everyone on the crew is people we brought and have a beer with, or a coffee with, or a glass of lemonade. We enjoy their company and we get all these guys together and with the commonality of making the boat to sail fast. That’s what makes the race a wonderful experience. Whenever we are getting to the other end of the line we are in sync with each other and we’re ready for another day or two. If we could. The race ends and we sit on the boat and have a little celebration regardless of how long it took us to get there or the conditions we had getting up. It’s always a grand celebration when we cross the finish line.

Chicagoist would like to thank Joe, George, and Leo for the sailing trip and the interview afterward. We'll be rooting for Kutty's Ark in next years's Mac race and beyond. Thanks to Mary Schuller for the photo.