Big Sails, Big Fun: Competitive sailing on Flathead Lake
Posted on 03 February 2016
By David Reese
We motored our boat to the starting position with a slight wind behind us.
The Somers water tower stood tall in the late afternoon sun, just above Somers bay on Flathead Lake. Suddenly we were surrounded by tall, white sails, like wings everywhere descending upon us. We realized quickly we were in the wrong place.
Huge sailboats slipped inches away from our boat, each of them setting up for the Tuesday night race at North Flathead Yacht Club. “Get the ___ out of my way!” one sail boat captain shouted at us, as we drifted ever too slightly in front of them.
A woman tends a mast during the Tuesday night race series on Flathead Lake. Dave Reese photo
An airhorn sounded. The sailboats began to jockey for position at the invisible line on the water between a starting buoy and the race officials’ boat, and in another 60 seconds the boats were off — tacking their way upwind toward the weather mark in Fish Hatchery Bay.
While one person’s highly competitive spirit came out in the heat of competition, the Tuesday night race series at North Flathead Yacht Club is all about fun.
The series has been going for over 30 years, and for sailors like Kalispell mayor Pam Kennedy the Tuesday night series is a way to blow off some steam and have some fun.
“Of course you get out there and you want to try to win the race,” Kennedy said, “but at the same time it’s an evening of camaraderie and having fun. It’s a time for me to get out of the political scene and just enjoy myself with friends.”
“Some people are out there for the great win, and it’s unfortunate that some people carry it to that extent,” Kennedy said.
The Friday night races at North Flathead Yacht Club are where the truly competitive sailors gather. And that’s where you’ll usually find sailors like Ken Yachechak, who has sailed Flathead Lake for three decades and has had more than his share of competitive moments on the water.
Tuesday nights, though, is time for Yachechak, his family and friends to share a boat. “That’s our night to get together and race,” Yachechak said. “It’s our bonding time.” He broke his daughters into sailboat racing at young ages; in fact his daughter Kaci, now 25, was “born in June and racing in August,” Yachechak said.
He relinquishes the boat on Friday nights for his daughters to race on their own — if they want to. “You just have to let go,” he said.
After the Tuesday night races, the sailors drop their sails, dock their boats and head for nearby Del’s Bar in Somers, a funky roadhouse bar where the sailors commiserate over who fouled whom, what the weather did, and “just talk sailing,” Yachechak said. “It’s just a lot of fun. I look forward to it.” (surely they were talking about the big red boat that was in the wrong place at the starting line.)
Five fleets of boats take part in the Tuesday night series; three fleets don’t use their billowy spinnakers and fly “white sails” only; those are the fleets that don’t require highly experienced crews. Meanwhile, the other two fleets get after it. The B Fleet is where Yachechak, 58, competes. “It tends to be a little more aggressive,” he said. “I’ve been sailing against these guys for 30 years. On any given week, any one boat can win.”
The most tense moments come at the starting position, where boats are trying for the best spot to be when the clock starts. Captains are looking for a position on the line where the wind might be more favorable, or where your competition may or may not be. To the untrained spectator, it looks like a mess; a Chinese fire drill of the aquatic kind. “After you’ve been doing it a while, you learn how to handle your boat,” Yachechak said. “And if you make a mistake, or get to the wrong part of the line, you tack away.”
The boats make two laps around the weather mark and the leward mark, doing about five miles total in the course of one hour.
Veteran sailor Jim Lekander has been sailing in the series longer than anyone, and on Tuesday night he was racing with his daughter, Alison, 18, who captained their 1970 San Juan 21. Although he owns and operates the Dayton Yacht Harbor, farther south on Flathead Lake, he comes up to the Somers club to compete a few times each summer. He is one of the charter members of the North Flathead Yacht Club.
“I was racing here before we even had a club,” he said.
He and his daughter got off to a good start, being the first ones to the windward mark and to the leward mark. A hint of competitiveness showed in Lekander: “We made them pay to catch up to us,” he said. But that’s as far as it went.
Tuesday nights at North Flathead Yacht Club, Lekander said, are for sailors of all abilities to share the lake. “It’s for friends and neighbors and relatives. It’s that spirit that I like. If people can out-sail us, we want them to have the chance. It’s a lot of fun and a great thing to do.”