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14-year-old girl drives 36-foot sailboat alone at night, wins Michigan race

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 7/18/2022 Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press
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MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — A 14-year-old girl sailing her first Bayview Mackinac Race with her father won the race in Michigan Sunday night after 33 hours of non-stop work.

As the duo pulled into the Mackinac Island harbor just after 9 p.m., a nearby crowd cheered, whistled and applauded. 

The competition began for the J/111 sailboat "nosurprise" at 11:30 a.m. Saturday just north of the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron for Merritt and Scott Sellers of Larkspur, California.

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Merritt Sellers needed to sail the boat at night alone on the 204-nautical-mile journey (235 land miles) while her father rested below. 

"I sat there, trimming the sail, eating Sun Chips, and thinking about how much I wanted to go to bed," Merritt said afterward.

Merritt Sellers, 14, racing the J/111 sailboat "nosurprise" in the Bayview Mackinac Race. She and her father, Scott Sellers, finished first in class on Sunday, July 17, 2022. © Provided by Scott Sellers Merritt Sellers, 14, racing the J/111 sailboat "nosurprise" in the Bayview Mackinac Race. She and her father, Scott Sellers, finished first in class on Sunday, July 17, 2022.

A sailboat that typically raced with eight sailors had only two aboard.

Not only did they win, but 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," Scott Sellers, 50, told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, immediately after the race while docking his boat. "I worried they would get us. We went from 2 miles back to 2 miles in front."

And that was all Merritt, he said.

His daughter, he said, began sailing at age 7, and has accomplished already what many sailors try for a lifetime to do.

In the first two hours of the race, the daughter-father due had four sail changes. A lot for two people.

But Merritt Sellers kept calm at all times, using moonlight and flashlights to watch the little telltales on the sail and to track wind shifts and harness the wind. She said she learned more about navigation strategy on this race.

A critical moment came at 3 a.m. Sunday when she found herself alone in the cockpit, making pivotal decisions on her own that vaulted them into the lead.

"That was a key part of the race," Scott Sellers said. "Merritt wasn't here as a passenger."

She glanced over at her dad and said, "He trusted me."

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Merritt Sellers, 14, of Larkspur, Calif., and Harbor Springs, Mich., rests during her off shift during the Bayview Mackinac Race. She and her father, Scott Sellers, sailed the 36-foot boat to win the doublehanded class on Sunday, July 17, 2022. © Provided by Scott Sellers Merritt Sellers, 14, of Larkspur, Calif., and Harbor Springs, Mich., rests during her off shift during the Bayview Mackinac Race. She and her father, Scott Sellers, sailed the 36-foot boat to win the doublehanded class on Sunday, July 17, 2022.

Their boat won its class and overall in the Chicago to Mackinac race last year with a crew of eight, including Merritt.

This was her first race from Port Huron to Mackinac Island.

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On Sunday night, Merritt called her mom after the finish. Jill and Scott Sellers, who actually met while sailing, now have three daughters who race. 

Merritt sailed with her father and six others in the Chicago to Mackinac Race in 2021 and they won. Next weekend, 18-year-old Hannah Sellers will race that course with her father. Merritt said she's on backup.

Merritt Sellers, 14, and her father Scott Sellers, of Larkspur, Calif., finished the Bayview Mackinac Race to cheers from a crowd at the Pink Pony on Mackinac Island. They had been up more than 30 hours and said they needed sleep and cheeseburgers. © Provided by Bayview Yacht Club, Martin Chumiecki Merritt Sellers, 14, and her father Scott Sellers, of Larkspur, Calif., finished the Bayview Mackinac Race to cheers from a crowd at the Pink Pony on Mackinac Island. They had been up more than 30 hours and said they needed sleep and cheeseburgers.

"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."

On Monday morning, island visitors were still talking about the young sailor.

Irene Hoy, 50, a preschool instructor from Port Sanilac, has raced 15 Port Huron to Mackinac races and said, as a mother of 15-year-old twin girls, "When Merritt Sellers came in last night, I was proud of her as a mom and a fellow woman sailor. It gives me goosebumps. When they came in, I watched people stop and saying, 'She did it.' "

Now Merritt Sellers says she's hoping her father will consider doing the Trans Pacific Yacht Race from California to Hawaii. That race, founded in 1906, is 2,225 nautical miles (2,560 miles) that generally can take up to two weeks.

Editor's Note: Family members of reporter Phoebe Wall Howard compete in the Bayview Mackinac Race as members of the Port Huron Yacht Club. She is not affiliated with the Bayview Yacht Club or the Bayview Mackinac Race in any official capacity. Lady Irene Hoy is a member of the Port Huron Yacht Club and wife of  a past commodore.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: 14-year-old girl drives 36-foot sailboat alone at night, wins Michigan race

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