Setting Sail Under the Big Sky

By Beacon Staff

Click the image or use the arrows to see more photos from a Tuesday night race.

From Mexico to Seattle, when Pete Sauer raises a sail, he raises eyebrows. People see his company logo and the words seem out of place: “Sail Montana.” Isn’t that like “Deep Sea Dive Kansas?”

Montana is known for big sky, not big water, yet in pockets of its vast landscape it harbors active sailing communities. Roaming these communities are sailors, both hardcore and casual, who have found enough water among the mountains to let their sails fly.

Northwest Montana is especially crowded with sailors. Sauer’s one of them. As a competitive sailboat racer, he travels the world and has even lived in a sailboat in Mexico. But he always comes home to Flathead Lake.

“We go compete on a national level or in Mexico and people start to laugh,” Sauer said. “People ask you all the time, ‘What are you going to do with that boat in Montana?’ They don’t realize we have Flathead Lake here and it’s actually quite famous for sailing.”

Sauer is a member of the North Flathead Yacht Club and the owner of Sail Montana, which is officially based out of Kalispell but is really anywhere you can find him: “It’s me, my truck and a cell phone.”

Raised on the shores of Flathead Lake, Sauer has been a child of the water since birth, sharing a unique mountain lake upbringing with other Northwest Montana natives. In a state known for blue-ribbon trout streams out west, and meandering rivers that pour into the vast plains out east, large lakes are rare. But where there are sizeable lakes, there are likely sailors.

“Pretty much any body of water with enough depth and enough public access for a sailboat,” Sauer said.

Among Montana’s sailors is a population of competitive racers like Sauer, and many of them can be found each year at the Montana Sailing Championships, battling for statewide bragging rights. The 2010 event is scheduled for July 30-Aug. 1 on Flathead Lake, hosted by the North Flathead Yacht Club.

The roots of the Montana Sailing Championships trace back to the 1970s, Sauer said. A yacht club out of Canyon Ferry Lake challenged other clubs around the state to a sailboat race. Sauer said the North Flathead Yacht Club won, earning a silver cup.

The silver cup has since bounced around between several clubs. The championship is generally hosted by the North Flathead Yacht Club, Sauer said, because of its location on Flathead Lake and because the yacht club owns its own facility. Other Montana clubs use marinas, and asking marina owners to host such a large event is a tall order.

“We can easily overrun a place when you get 30 to 40 boats with three to 10 people per boat,” Sauer said. “There’s going to be a couple hundred people floating around.”

Clubs from Dayton, on Flathead Lake, and Canyon Ferry Lake participate in the annual championship, along with teams from Canada and Idaho. Sauer said the Glenmore Sailing Club from Calgary will bring a few boats this year, as will a team from Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille. The Dayton club, called the South Flathead Sailing Association, is made up largely of Missoula residents, Sauer said.

Over the years, sailing has gained in popularity on Flathead Lake and throughout Montana, but Sauer said sailboat racing is staying steady. It’s one thing to buy a boat and take it out for leisurely cruises, but it’s quite another to assemble a crew hell-bent on rising at dawn to unleash their competitive spirit.

“It’s hard to get into the sport, especially if you weren’t born into it,” Sauer said. “You don’t just pick it up one day. It’s not like golf – you pick up a club and there’s golf courses everywhere.”

And sailing is expensive, for even the casual sailor and more so for the competitive racer: buying the boat, maintaining it, paying for a place to keep it and, for some, transporting it.

Montana’s sailboat racing population consists of both longtime residents like Sauer who arrive at it “organically” and those who arrive at it from out of state. The out-of-staters often come from sea coastal cities or the Great Lakes region, bringing a love of sailing to their favorite Montana lakes.

The homegrown racers typically begin sailing as a non-competitive activity, become more infatuated, and then join a skipper’s crew. Some of them eventually become skippers, manning their owns boats and crews during races.

But, as of late, Montana’s sailboat racers are increasingly coming from out of state, Sauer said. They might have a second home here and money in the bank during an economic downturn when many other folks aren’t willing to spend what little cash they have on a sailboat.

“That’s where the growth is coming from,” Sauer said. “We’re not getting much organic growth.”

For Montana sailors, transitioning to the ocean, with its sea winds and currents, can be tricky. But Sauer does it on a regular basis, through racing and business.

In March, racing in the J/24 class and partially funded by the Mexican transportation department, Sauer took a crew to the Copa de Mexico and placed 14th out of 54 teams from around the world. Sauer’s team also placed ninth out of 35 teams at a North American championships earlier this year in Seattle.

Also, a component of Sauer’s sailing business is Big Sky Yacht Delivery. People sail across the ocean and then discover they don’t like sailing as much as they previously thought, or they run out of time or they simply don’t feel like making the trek back. So they pay somebody to retrieve their boat, somebody like Sauer.

Sauer has taken boats from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to California and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., up to Georgia.

“There’s a small contingent of (yacht delivery) captains right here in Kalispell,” Sauer said. “It’s really interesting because people don’t think of Montana as being a center for anything like that.”

Ginjer Yachechak, a member of Sauer’s crew, left for Hawaii on July 23 to retrieve a sailboat to take back to California. Her crew planned to spend a week in Hawaii and then two weeks sailing back to California. She met the crew while working at sail-making shop in Mexico. Yachechak sews sails in a small town in Mexico in the winter and works at Sportsman and Ski Haus the rest of the year.

“I’m very excited,” Yachechak said shortly before she departed for Hawaii. “I’ve never done any open water like this.”

And that, Sauer said, is precisely what drives sailors – the thrill of new experiences. Even for the most veteran crews, each outing on the water can seem fresh, with oscillating winds and lively water altering the landscape.

Unlike a basketball court or a golf green, the playing field in sailboat racing is always shifting. It’s what keeps Sauer returning to Flathead Lake, and to distant oceans.

“That’s one of the greatest things about sailing and sailboat racing, it’s what makes it so exciting,” Sauer said. “I need change in my life all the time. In other sports, at least there are constants. That’s why people want to do it. It’s completely new every time.”

For more information on the Montana Sailing Championships, go to www.nfyc.org.