Wilmette’s Matt Beer has taken to sailing despite landlocked youth

Will Beer (right) is pictured with the crew of the Retriever, a sailboat owned by his dad. The crew included (front row, left to right) Dirk Hacker, Darren Beck and Ryan Childress; (back row, left to right) Matt Beer, Trey Sprinkman and William Chapman. | Photo courtesy the Beer family
Will Beer (right) is pictured with the crew of the Retriever, a sailboat owned by his dad. The crew included (front row, left to right) Dirk Hacker, Darren Beck and Ryan Childress; (back row, left to right) Matt Beer, Trey Sprinkman and William Chapman. | Photo courtesy the Beer family

In the 106th Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac, most skippers of the 300-plus sailboats grew up at least reasonably close to a lake or ocean.

Wilmette resident Matt Beer is an exception. But for the seventh year in a row, the man who came of age in landlocked Newton, Iowa, just outside Des Moines, was in charge of his own boat called Retriever. It’s a 33.4-foot white vessel that Beer and his wife Chris named in honor of their dog Kirby.

Retriever placed 10th Monday in Section 6, finishing with a corrected time of 45 hours, 55 minutes, 34 seconds.

Matt Beer, 39, is a lifelong dinghy sailor who raced those small boats during his childhood and teenage years, often on Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa.

When Matt Beer came to Chicago in the late-1990s, he went to the Chicago Yacht Club to see if his small-boat skills were of any use on a much larger boat. He quickly found they were.

“I was a good dinghy sailor, and that translates well into big-boat dynamics,” he said. “Dinghy sailors understand what makes smaller boats go. The psychology is the same [on a big boat], there are just more lines and things to pull on.”

Others recognized Matt Beer’s talent. In 2004, former Mackinac race chairman Rick Lillie asked Matt Beer to be the alternate helmsman on his boat for the Mac, giving him the coveted responsibility of steering the boat in the oldest annual freshwater distance race in the world.

Matt Beer, by then an avid sailor, continued to work as a crew member in races, but with an eye toward one day running his own ship. Over time, he assembled his own crew. Eight years ago, he purchased his boat.

This year, Retriever sailed with a six-man crew. Matt Beer was joined by Darren Beck and William Chapman Jr. of Barrington, Trey Sprinkman of Madison, Wisconsin, Ryan Childress of Austin, Texas, and Dirk Hacker of Phoenix.

“I have a really great crew, most of them I’ve known and sailed with for more than 10 years,” said Matt Beer, the director of oncology solutions at Quest Diagnostics. “[The crew] is a great group. They do whatever it takes to get the job done, and that’s what makes it work.

“It’s an extremely competitive crew. We’re out there to do well. We’re always intent on having a safe, fun race. Part of having fun, is doing well.”

Matt Beer said the most important member of the crew has never been on the boat during a Mac race. Instead, Chris Beer does much of the behind-the-scenes coordination for the team, and, crucially, prepares for the food for the race.

“She’s the one that helps me pull the pieces together,” Matt Beer said. “On a longer race like the Mac, the food is a big part of it. Good food is good for morale. We’re not the largest boat [in the race] by any means, but we have one of the best menus. We’re known for having a gourmet menu for a sailboat.”

Chris Beer prepares meals for a race that could last anywhere from 50 to 70 hours. This year’s menu included items such as buffalo chicken sandwiches, pulled pork, Asian broccoli slaw, crab cake sandwiches, roasted corn and black bean salad and brownies.

“Matt sailed on one boat [previously] and lived on hard boiled eggs and granola for three days,” said Chris Beer, an options trader at the Chicago Board of Trade. “When he started this program, we realized the crew has to eat, and often one-handed and sometimes in bad conditions. The menu is nothing fancy, just good Midwestern fare.”

In recent years, sailing has become even more of a Beer family affair, as son Will, who will turn 4 next month, has begun taking on minor responsibilities during leisurely excursions. Chris Beer said her son has fallen in love with sailing, and even tracked his father’s progress during this year’s Mac via an iPhone app.

During the boating season, Matt and Will Beer have spent the occasional overnight on the boat, which is docked in Chicago. It seems only a matter of time before the Beers’ 2-year-old daughter Kate will be part of those outings.

Someday, the children might truly come to understand what their father loves about sailing and competing in the Mac.

“It’s time well spent with good friends and family,” Matt Beer said. “It’s time away from computers and cell phones and everything else, where you’re just focused on enjoying the moment and beautiful scenery and potentially beautiful weather. Or, it could potentially be dangerous out there. But to be out there and deal with nothing but what’s in front of you, it’s a nice change of pace.”

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