CHICAGO — At the Chicago Yacht Club on a sunny weekday afternoon, a few couples were lunching on the breezy patio, a group of gray-haired, tanned guys slowly docked their boat, and vessels began rolling into the harbor before this weekend’s Race to Mackinac, the yacht club’s century-old annual sailing race.
Presiding over the race and its associated festivities is Lou Sandoval, a Bridgeport resident and the co-owner of Karma Yacht Sales, 3635 S. Halsted St.
“Even though you’ve got 12 months to prepare for the race, for the last 60 days it’s like ‘Whoa, it’s here,’” he said.
Sandoval, 48, was appointed to his two-year chairmanship in 2012, one year after a vessel capsized during a strong storm and killed two sailors, reportedly the first deaths ever in the century-old competition.
"Lou was a strong favorite. It was unanimous. He brings a unique ability to be able to get things done on the land and on the water," yacht club Vice Commodore Greg Miarecki said.
In his role as race chairman, Sandoval is equal parts party planner, party host and ambassador for the thousands of racers that will board more than 300 ships and depart Chicago for Michigan’s Mackinac Island. He's also a fierce competitor — his team has won their section of the race for six of the past eight years.
Although the big race is the weekend’s highlight, the event has become a weeklong destination party for the sailing set: theWit Hotel has a special race spa package and plays host to a private bash.
The world-class splendor of it all — sponsored by a French champagne company, “The Mac” draws sailors from across the world — is a far cry from Sandoval’s humble roots in South Chicago.
Instead of pursuing a medical degree as planned, he embarked on a biomedical sales career that’s taken him all over the globe, including jobs in Seattle and Miami — never far from the water — where he ran a boat management business on the side that "got to be a pretty lucrative part-time business."
That’s where the lifelong sailor's life took another turn.
After moving back to Chicago in the late 1990s, Sandoval and a few buddies pitched in for the “Chiquita,” a 1978 yellow 27-foot sailboat that took "more beer and cigar cruises than you can count," he said.
He mulled over a few different business pursuits with his friend Jack Buoscio and settled on taking over an existing sailboat and yacht dealership, renaming it Karma Yacht Sales and building it into one of the Midwest's premier dealerships.
It's now his full-time job, along with his involvement on various sailing-related boards, including programs for youths and the disabled.
Sitting next to the lakefront, with the boats bobbing in the distance, Sandoval gestured south toward his old neighborhood.
“The path to success isn’t linear. It’s filled with twists and turns sometimes,” he said.
Want to follow the action? Racers in the Chicago Yacht Club's Race to Mackinac will be using the #cycrtm hashtag on Twitter, and anyone can download a special app that sends tracking information to tablets, desktops and smartphones. The race also has its own Twitter page.