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14-year-old girl navigates 36-foot boat alone at night to win historic boat race

'I'm at a point as a sailor where I'm able to do this. It feels pretty cool,' the teen said.

14-year-old girl navigates 36-foot boat alone at night to win historic boat race
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/moodboard

After 33 hours of uninterrupted sailing, a 14-year-old girl participating in her first Bayview Mackinac Race with her father won Sunday night. Young Merritt Sellers and her dad, Scott Sellers, pulled into the Mackinac Island harbor just after 9 p.m. after setting out on their J/111 sailboat "nosurprise" at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday from just north of the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, Michigan. They'd taken on an ambitious challenge as their sailboat—which typically races with eight sailors—had only the two of them aboard. Despite all the odds stacked up against them, Merritt sailed her team to success by navigating the boat alone at night on the 204-nautical-mile journey (235 land miles) while her father rested below deck. 


"I sat there, trimming the sail, eating Sun Chips, and thinking about how much I wanted to go to bed," the teen told Detroit Free Press after the race. What makes their victory even more impressive is that they crossed the finish line more than an hour before their nemesis, a boat named "Utah" from Holland, Michigan, that carried seasoned sailors who had won repeatedly in the past. "We got 'em at night," said a proud Scott Sellers. "I worried they would get us. We went from 2 miles back to 2 miles in front." The 50-year-old credited his daughter for gaining the lead on their competitors.


According to Chris Clark, chairman of the 2022 Bayview Mackinac Race organized by the Bayview Yacht Club, finding wind at night is crucial to winning the Shore Course. "I'm at a point as a sailor where I'm able to do this. It feels pretty cool," Merritt said. "Everything was pretty mellow and manageable." However, according to Sellers, it wasn't all smooth sailing. They had four sail changes in the first two hours of the race, a challenging feat for just two people. However, Merritt maintained her cool at all times, using moonlight and flashlights to watch the little telltales on the sail and to track wind shifts and harness the wind. The teenager revealed that she learned more about navigation strategy during this race.


A critical moment in the race came at 3 a.m. Sunday when Merritt found herself alone in the cockpit having to make pivotal decisions that would ultimately place them in the lead. "That was a key part of the race," Sellers said. "Merritt wasn't here as a passenger." The historic Bayview Mackinac Race from Port Huron to Mackinac Island usually takes 30 to 60 hours. Established in 1925, it is now the longest consecutively running freshwater sailboat race. Although storms have wreaked havoc in previous years, the whole experience was picture-perfect this year.


According to Bayview Yacht Club in Detroit, a total of 172 sailboats ended up racing this year with seven boats taking part in the highly competitive Class J Double-Handed category with just two sailors aboard. "I learned I can do this," said Merritt. "I thought, 'Why did my dad choose me?'... Because he loves me. We made sure we each had time to rest. There was a lot of anxiety about where Utah was, compared to us." Although this was her first race from Port Huron to Mackinac Island, Merritt was part of the eight-member crew when their boat won its class and overall in the Chicago to Mackinac race last year.


"It's so cool to see so many girls sailing," Merritt said. "I'm on a sailing team with guys on it and, at first, I didn't feel I was quite one of them. I want more women in the sport." The teen now hopes her father will consider competing in the Transpacific Yacht Race from California to Hawaii, which is 2,225 nautical miles (2,560 land miles) and generally takes up to two weeks. 

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