WIND RUNNERS: The Evolution of a Sailing Scene

By Beacon Staff

On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. But unlike most Americans glued to their televisions that day to watch Armstrong’s “small step for man,” Montana boys Bill Crawford and Bob McConnell were doing some exploring of their own, pushing a sailboat out onto Flathead Lake.

Crawford and McConnell were part of the cult following for sailing on Flathead Lake that began to take root in the late 1960s. Back then, few people in the area had their own sailboat. But as those first sails unfurled in the wind, people standing on the rocky shores of Flathead Lake took note and wondered, “How do I do that?”

In those days, the wave of a land-stricken arm was all it took to persuade a sailor ashore. Soon-to-be newsman McConnell was among those interested parties – and his arms were flailing, so desperate was he to try sailing. With no boat of his own, McConnell crewed on a Thistle owned by an old Missoula doctor who, with a group of other doctors, had loosely organized a sailing club that met every Sunday morning in Polson Bay. After a summer of securing lines, McConnell’s interest was piqued; he had learned enough to try on his own. He wanted a boat.

Circumnavigating Flathead Lake by car, McConnell hunted for a boat to rent or buy. Then, as he passed through Bear Harbor he found “a hot little racing boat,” he said. He found his baby, an International-14.

Decades have passed since McConnell and Crawford cut their teeth on the bow of that International-14, but the lake hasn’t changed all that much. Sure, more homes cluster along the shores and more boats travel the water. But after all these years, Flathead Lake’s integrity persists – and the wind, she’s still blowing.

Nowadays, you don’t have to look as hard as McConnell did to find a boat. Hands On Sailing in Lakeside is your one stop sailing destination, offering guided and catered tours and lessons. If you are a certified sailor, you can rent one of three boats: a Cal-25, Santana-21 with a swing keel or a Santana-20. If you are not certified, after a lesson you will be able to sign a release and head for Wild Horse Island.

“This year we will be offering some promotional tours, including a full moon sail and possibly a treasure hunt,” said Jarod Grubb, Hands On Sailing’s owner and skipper.

Crawford’s son, Ian, is upholding the family tradition with his own Flathead concierge service, thevalleyhost.com. Ian can be hired by the day or by the week and is able to provide everything from a morning sail to an afternoon hike to a night out on the town. As a Flathead native, Ian Crawford knows about the secluded beaches that elude most tourists, and he’s willing to let his clients in on the secrets

At the Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, guests have access to a 27-foot Soling, an Olympic class boat. If you are just in town for the day, you can charter one of two 51-foot wooden sailboats built in 1928 and 1929.

The sailing scene is thriving now, compared to those days in the late 1960s. Tuesday and Friday nights you can watch league sailors catch evening thermals in Somers Bay. If you are feeling adventurous and want to get out on the water, strike up a conversation with a sailor at the Dayton or North Flathead Yacht Club and get your sea legs that way. Just don’t buy too much into tall tales and legends of the Flathead Lake Monster.

May and June mean unpredictable weather in Montana and sailing conditions on Flathead Lake can be hit or miss. But as the old saying goes, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.” As the temperature begins to rise in early July, good wind can usually be found in the morning, late afternoon and evening. The wind can grow a little sparse in late July but by August it picks back up and continues through mid-September.

The winds that rip along Flathead Lake have attracted more than just those thrill seekers of the late 60s. Markus Daly III, grandson of mining baron and “Butte copper king,” Markus Daly, was known to sail Flathead as well as artist and Butte native Rudy Autio.

Sailing has guided civilizations from the Phoenicians to the Vikings, and according to McConnell, it is a skill which crosses all lines. “I met a lot people through sailing,” he said. “Some people that I would not have been friends with, political enemies, were just my sailing friends.”

Thirty-nine years – and as many dumps in the lake – later, Crawford and McConnell recount those early days of learning to sail with clarity. Montana was as remote and distant as the moon to many in 1969, and Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were not going to spoil a good day of sailing.

Late in the day of the moon landing, Crawford’s father-in-law was watching the NASA footage on television when he saw through the window that the two sailors had dumped their boat. He got up and went down to the lake to make sure everything was all right, and it was. But by the time he had made it back to the television it was too late; he had missed Armstrong’s steps.

“The poor fellow missed his big moment in history – but I’m sure he saw it on replay,” McConnell joked. “We didn’t really care; we were more interested in sailing – we were keenly interested.”

Hands On Sailing & Kayaking
Jarod Grubb

Dayton Yacht Harbor

Flathead Lake Lodge