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The Best Most Terrible Race

Each summer, a handful of plucky sailors square off in one of the world's most unsung regattas -- a marathon contest across Great Slave and back. The lake usually wins. 

Story and photos by Katharine Sandiford.

A wave crashes over the nose of the sailboat and gives me a thorough ice-water soaking, rendering the hand-held wind meter useless. The last reading was 32 knots. But it’s too late to do anything. We’re well into the storm and the wind’s too strong to reduce sail – something we should have done as we approached the ominous thundercloud half an hour ago. Instead, the rails are in the water and all four crewmembers are wedged as far up on the deck as possible, gripping lifelines and handrails to avoid falling overboard.

The skipper, Jim Merritt, eases the sails out to spill wind so the boat doesn’t capsize. But the flapping of the jib is unnerving. “I’ll protect my crew over my new headsail,” Jim hollers over the noise, “but I’m sorry baby!” The sail’s custom stitching weakens with every violent snap.

Unlike his sail, Jim is unflappable. He’s grinning ear-to-ear, confident in himself and his crew. My heart’s thumping loud, but I’m smiling too. As we hammer through the squall, I feel like I’m on an amusement park water-ride, not 30 hours into an epic sailboat race across one of the coldest, largest, deepest and most dangerous lakes in the world.

We’re one of five boats in the 29th annual Commissioner’s Cup, a race that takes sailors between two and five days to go from Yellowknife to Hay River and back. The boats cross the widest section of Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America and the ninth biggest in the world. Although the course is 420 kilometres as the crow flies, sailboats don’t go straight. Most will clock 500 to 700 kilometres before the race is done.

There are only a few other long-distance, freshwater sailboat races in the world of comparable length and challenge. The Ontario 300 and the Chicago-to-Mackinac attract hundreds of sleek racing boats and widespread publicity. The Commissioner’s Cup only gets a handful of sailboats, and almost no media, but the challenge is as great if not greater – it is, after all, the northernmost race of its kind. Smaller, older, less well-equipped boats spread out across an ice-cold lake that’s subject to harsh Arctic weather and a scarcity of ports and search-and-rescue infrastructure. One only has to dig through the race’s three-decade history to find accounts of knock-downs, dismastings, gales, boats abandoned and washed up, terrifying electrical storms, super-heroic rescues and near-death catastrophes. But as our boat crashes over the dark blue waves, all I feel is joy.

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