Sailing the Flathead

An evening race with the North Flathead Yacht Club

By Xavier Flory

We’re in the back of a 40-foot sailboat, trying to find a place to sit amongst spaghetti piles of ropes.

“Grab that line!” Ginjer Yachechak, “Captain Yak,” yells. “No, that’s a sheet, we’re not tacking!”

“What color rope?” I ask.

“If there’s one thing you learn tonight: ropes are for cowboys, lines are for sailors,” says Jim Kelley in a stained regatta shirt, grabbing the correct line.

Sailing terms are ostensibly used to befuddle, but according to Kelley, they were in fact coined to avoid confusion. Most of them have their origins in the old sailboats, from Roman galleys to 17th century Dutch schooners: port and starboard refer back to Roman ships where a massive steering board prevented people from docking on the right; hence “port” refers to the left side of the boat.

Others have less obvious explanations: “poop deck” gets its name from the Latin word for stern, and bathrooms are called “the head” because sailors relieved themselves at the front of the ship in order to be with the wind.

Kelley, who served as the North Flathead Yacht Club Commodore in 1991, is explaining all this on Yachechak’s 40-foot, crimson J/Boat, the largest at the club, and we are out in the middle of Flathead Lake on a Tuesday evening, waiting for the weekly race to start. There are seven of us on the boat, and there’s room for a tiny bedroom and kitchen downstairs, plenty of booze and yes, a head.

The North Flathead Yacht Club was founded in 1976 (Yachechak, a board member, joined in ‘78) and currently has 132 members. Although it is open to sailors of all levels and sizes, “We want people who want to race, who want to be part of the club.” Yachechak says.

It’s inclusive, but there’s a competitive streak among the sailors. Jim Thompson, a founding member of the club, says, “To this day, even when I’m just cruising along, when I see someone sailing past me, I say to myself, ‘I’m gonna show this guy how to sail.’” He has no doubt about what makes a great captain: a good crew and dedication.

Kelley, whose name seems to be engraved on every other trophy in the clubhouse, had a halyard break during a recent race and still won. “I’m always out there,” he chuckles when asked what makes him successful.

Most people who join the club already know how to sail. Thompson learned while serving in the army in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany; Jack Muir, who joined the club in ‘87, started on Whitefish Lake, “a great place because you can learn the basics and then you get onto a lake with wind, and you’re like, ‘wow, this is incredible!’”

A visitor notices the predominance of gray hair at the clubhouse, and Muir says the club wants novices and younger sailors to join the club. “Us geezers, Yak and me, we’re getting older,” Thompson says, and although one has to be invested in the sport, it’s not as exclusive as Rolex yachting ads might suggest. A smaller, used boat, such as a J/24, costs around $8,000, and annual dues hover around $500, depending on the size of the boat.

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On race nights, beginning around 6 p.m. people congregate on the grass in front of the clubhouse. A pair of septuagenarians enjoys a picnic of ribs, salads and wine, and a couple of teenagers dive off the landing dock. Yachechak introduces us to “the old fogeys” of the club, and they assure us they’ll leave us in their wake.

“It’s a great community,” is a common refrain at the clubhouse, where people come to sail, but also to ice skate by the shore in the winter and socialize in the summer. The clubhouse is minimalist, with a grill area and an open-air staircase that leads to a cozy upstairs room with trophies, sailing manuals and a view of the lake over the masts of the sailboats. The rhythm of the club revolves around race nights on Tuesdays and Fridays, with Friday reserved for more competitive sailing and Tuesday an evening for novices and friends to learn about the sport.

We launch the boat on to Flathead Lake at 7:30 p.m., but must wait for the sun to set behind the hills. Once it’s gone, the land cools faster than the water, leading hot air from land to create a high-pressure zone and roll over the lake.

We’re sitting in the doldrums – another maritime term for parts of the oceans with little wind – for about an hour when Kelley points out the increased ripples at the western side of the boat.

“Can you feel the hot air from the sails?” Yachechak asks. “The only hot air I feel is coming from your mouth,” a crewmember retorts.

In sailing, the banter starts with the boat names: “Hot Ruddered Bum,” “Pennele$$” and “BLEW-BY-U” are just a few of the most provocative names on the dock. “5 Cows” refers to the number of cows one man had to sell in order to buy his boat.

Other names, such as the Desiderata, are more elegant, although I never found out whether the boat’s owner was a Latin scholar or simply a fan of Max Ehrmann. As we unfurl our sails and leave the docks, the first line of Ehrmann’s poem is certainly apropos. “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

The silence on the lake is eventually interrupted by a loud horn, signaling that we’re five minutes away from the start of the D-class boats, the smallest and slowest vessels. In order for the race to start, the narrow wind channel has to blow across the starting line, but once it does, it’s difficult to tell that we’re in a race. Boats cross the starting line at different times; one of the smallest makes a false start and has to loop around to the starting line; and the 23 boats on the lake are soon scattered, all desperate to pick up the faint wind.

On board, “Captain Yak’s” orders become urgent: “Prepare to tack!” and, when we seem set to collide with a rival boat, “We have right of way!” to the neighboring captain. Kelley peers around the sails, advising the captain when to tack, and where to turn; Yachechak’s wife, Jodee, hauls on the sheets when ordered; and Dennis Hatton is the “galley wench,” who brings up drinks from the hold. An experienced sailor himself, Hatton says he’s happy to let someone else on board do the work, saying, “I’ve done it often enough.”

In the slow wind, the race is akin to a game of chess, with plenty of time to consider each move, and many traps to fall into. The first imperative is to stay in the wind channel; several boats fail at this and are stranded in the middle of the lake at 10:30 p.m. when the other boats are finally finishing.

The second challenge is the size of our boat. Although longer boats with more sail area are faster, Yachechak’s J/40 is best suited to the ocean. As we approach the turn-around buoy, the boats become clustered and we are forced to veer away from the buoy, losing valuable speed.

We get our revenge on the return leg of the race when we come level with two smaller boats. With sails rising 65 feet from the water, the J/40 completely blocks the wind, causing the two smaller boats to bob helplessly until we pass them.

At another race the following week, the wind again only comes in spurts. When it blows, the boat tips to its side, and “grinding,” the task of tightening the sheets, becomes nearly impossible. “If you’re not up to it, you’re overboard,” the captain says. At top speed, with the deck of the boat tipping toward a 45-degree angle from the water, we’re never in danger of overturning thanks to our ballasts – four women sitting on the rails of the high side of the boat who are derided as “butt cleats” when they’re still sitting on the sheets when it’s time to tack. They clamber from one side of the boat to the other with every tack from starboard to port, but when they’re late or the wind slows, Captain Yak curses.

As the sun sets, leaving the clouds behind the Rockies pink and luminescent, Jodee Yachechak encapsulates the reason people sail in the first place. “Look!” she says pointing first to the horizon and then to the white sails slowly disappearing in the dusk and inky waters, “Aren’t we lucky to be alive, to be out here?”

Thompson confirms the sentiment. He says there’s no better way to appreciate the lake than on a vessel that is dependent on its every breeze and undulation.

A Short History of the North Flathead Yacht Club

When Jim Thompson wanted to sail on Flathead Lake during the early 1970s, he would cast off in a 12-foot dinghy at Elks Rest, where the Cherry Hills Condos are today. He was one of a handful of sailors who would meet there regularly in 1973 to race, rain or shine.

Incidents were frequent – one squall left the little fleet overturned and stranded in the middle of the lake; on a rare occasion when Thompson took his boat to Whitefish, he was caught in a hail storm with his 3-year-old on board – and as the group graduated from dinghies to 20-foot boats, they needed a larger space to launch from.

So they approached Ken Bailey, who owned a couple of acres of lakefront on the north side of the lake. In exchange for taking care of the dilapidated docks on the property, the “Montana Sailing Association, Northern Fleet,” as they called themselves, got to use the space for their races.

A lot of the land around the docks was swampy, and it had also been the site of an old sawmill. “It was a mess,” Thompson remembered, with railroad tracks and cement lying around. But strapped for cash and with a burgeoning group of sailors, the group bought 3 acres of the lakeside property for the “insane” price of $6,000 an acre.

With land and 49 charter members, including Moose Miller of Moose’s Saloon and other prominent members of the Flathead community, the North Flathead Yacht Club was founded in 1975. That’s when the real work began.

In the winter of 1976, the members and their families cleared the land, rebuilt the docks and erected a cabin to serve as the clubhouse. An architect, Thompson planned and oversaw the entire operation. “Every weekend that winter, we had 20 to 30 people here, driving nails and everything else,” he said.

The club is “the pinnacle of volunteerism,” according to Thompson, who also designed the current building and docks. “In the day, I had the older folks working, cause they could, and then at night the younger folks would come from work to help.”

The clubhouse is still maintained by the members, who say that the club encourages responsibility and independence. Beyond the weekly races, the North Flathead Yacht Club hosts junior sailing events to attract younger generations and the Montana Cup. Although there are some very serious sailors, “the club is mainly a great community of sailors and we’re always looking for new people to introduce to the sport,” Ken Yachechak, a member since 1978, said.

 

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