Before the first horn sounds, the starting line is a frenzied mess of boats jockeying for position, making sharp turns to avoid losing momentum or accidentally crossing between the starting buoys.
“Imagine running a cross country race, but instead of everyone standing there ready to go you’re not allowed to stop jogging before the start,” North Flathead Yacht Club Vice Commodore Ashli Slawter said. “Then somebody on the boat will be counting down to the start, you find a hole where you can turn and head to the start and it’s on!”
That was the scene on display last weekend in Somers Bay as the North Flathead Yacht Club (NFYC) hosted the 44th annual Montana Cup Regatta, the de facto sailing championships for the state and the largest regatta in the region. Dozens of boats participated across various divisions and crews came from across the western states to compete.
The first Montana Cup Regatta was held in 1977 in Canyon Ferry and was attended by three different club teams. In the competition’s early years, the victorious club won the privilege of hosting the next year’s regatta, but NFYC has retained hosting duties for all but two editions of the race — only three times has NFYC not come away victorious, and this year was no exception.
“The rivalry keeps people’s spirits going,” said Patrick Cirillo, Commodore of the Canyon Ferry Yacht Club. “Racing is a way to encourage each other and teaches you to be a better sailor.”
Slawter started sailing when she was 6, but was involved with NFYC even earlier, as her father, Jim Thompson, was one of the club’s charter members. She has memories of laying down bricks to help with construction projects as a kid.
“My brother and I were some of the first kids in the junior sailing program here,” Slawter said. “We pretty much spent our whole childhood down here, kind of growing up in this place.”
One of Slawter’s favorite parts of sailing culture is its multi-generational appeal.
“We can be out with my dad on the helm, I’ll be on the boat and my daughter and her friends will be on the boat,” Slawter said. “My dad can be driving and I can be coaching the teenagers. Everybody can race together.”
This year’s Montana Cup was extra special for Slawter because her son, Jack, served as race steward.
“There’s other sports that are like that, but sailing is just very family oriented,” she said.
The weekend’s races got underway early Saturday morning to make use of the northerly winds flowing down the valley in the morning. Usually, as the day warms up, a weaker southerly wind allows for another set of races later in the day.
Jack Slawter, as race steward, was in charge of altering the courses in real time based on weather conditions, to make the most of each shift in the wind.
Ashli Slawter brought one of her boats over from Idaho in order to race. She said the feeling of racing is impossible to describe.
“There’s so much strategy and so much going on on the boat to trim the sales and figure out how to make the boat faster,” Slawter said. “It feels like you’re going really fast even though you’re not. I always say sailboat racing is the most fun you can have going four miles an hour.”
Cirillo said there is a marked difference between sailors who just cruise and those who race.
“The beauty of racing is it encourages you to stay out in inclement weather,” he said. “Sailing give you nerves of steel, is what it does. You get out there and you can’t be afraid to be one foot away from the boat next to you.”
The NFYC came away from the regatta with yet another victory, with the Canyon Ferry club taking second place.
The sailors emphasized that even with the inter-club rivalries and competitive nature of the Montana Cup, they enjoyed bonding over their sport more than anything.
“Holistically, sailors can be a really interesting, eclectic, laid-back and humorous group of people,” Slawter said. “It’s just a good, cool group of people to hang out with.”
“Once you get the vibe, once you get the nice Zen sailing feeling, you’re just hooked,” Cirillo said. “And I’ve been hooked for years.”
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