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Ready or yacht, here they come

A chorus of clicks could be heard going off near Harbor Drive in Duluth on Monday afternoon. Bayfield-based (ported) Chewbacca was the first sailboat to arrive in Duluth as part of the 20th running of the biennial Trans Superior International Yac...

A chorus of clicks could be heard going off near Harbor Drive in Duluth on Monday afternoon.

Bayfield-based (ported) Chewbacca was the first sailboat to arrive in Duluth as part of the 20th running of the biennial Trans Superior International Yacht Race, and its 12-person crew was waiting to clear customs after having just endured a 338-nautical mile journey that started near Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., on Saturday.

Now was the time to celebrate after having completed the world's longest freshwater sailboat race, and curious onlookers watched as cans of Stroh's and Miller Genuine Draft were freely passed around and opened on the boat, with its 75-foot mast rising high into the air.

"Now the party starts," said race director Dale Hedtke as he handed a ceremonious bottle of Admiral Nelson's Spiced Rum to skipper Bill Peterson, the boat's owner.

"Splice the main brace!" Peterson yelled to the crew, referencing the old British Royal Navy expression for "double rum for everyone."

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Peterson's crew hails from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The boat came in at 4:40 p.m., 3 hours, 2 minutes ahead of Crazy Horse, but a handicap is used to determine the overall winner among boats with different performance capabilities. The goal is to reward the best crew -- the one that works well together and makes the best tactical decisions. About 35 boats took part.

"This is my 11th Trans Superior, and we've won our class before but never the overall title," Peterson said. "And we've never been the first finisher [until Monday]. It got a little slower toward the end, but for the most part, it was a fast race. Early this morning we could just barely make out Crazy Horse, but other than that, we haven't seen another boat since the Keweenaw [the upper peninsula of the U.P.]."

The first boats weren't expected to arrive in Duluth until today, but optimal conditions and fast boats obliterated that prediction. Conditions worsened later Monday.

"The boats were quicker than we thought. That's a very fast boat," Hedtke said of Chewbacca, an International 50-foot Nelson/Marek sailboat made in 1988 and made of carbon fiber. "Like they say with Old Faithful: We can predict when it's going to erupt, but we can't schedule it."

Peterson's crew was split into groups of six, which alternated every three hours, with watch captain Chris Nimmer of Minneapolis in charge while Peterson and his group tried to rest. With first clearly in hand and the finish line near the Aerial Lift Bridge quickly coming into sight, there may have even been a little pre-partying taking place.

"I'm not saying," laughed the crew's cook, Ginny Yingling of Maplewood, Minn., as she did the proverbial wink-wink.

"This is a big race and it means a lot to us, so we work hard," Nimmer said. "But at the same time, you've got to have some fun. This is some people's vacations."

Some of the boats competing in the Trans Superior race stick around for Blues Fest. Others, such as Chewbacca, will likely compete in a Duluth-to-Bayfield race Sunday, thereby returning the boat to its home port.

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Chewbacca's crew sat in the boat waiting less than an hour for U.S. Customs Border Protection officer Larry Lund to arrive and inspect the boat. The inspection was necessary since the boat had left Saturday out of a Canadian port.

"We'll be here until they allow us back into the country," Peterson joked.

Lund has inspected countless Trans Superior boats and said he didn't foresee any problems with Chewbacca, compared to other years when rougher conditions on the water made things a bigger mess back in port.

Even so, he didn't mind ribbing the crew.

"Drinking already?" Lund said.

JON NOWACKI covers local sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5305 or by e-mail at jnowacki@duluthnews.com

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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