BIG SKY SAILING
Eastern exposure and some wild weather: DOUG HANSEN recounts this year’s truly unique Montana Cup Regatta on Flathead Lake.
North Flathead Yacht Club sits on the north end of Flathead Lake in the town of Somers, Montana. Directions to the club are somewhat unconventional, involving heading down the back road behind the famous Del’s Bar & Grill and continuing down past the old mill. The club itself is an awesome arrangement of dry storage, grassy picnic area, and rows upon rows of sailboats all waiting to drop their lines and head out on the waters of Flathead Lake.
Thirty-six of these sailboats were signed up for this year’s Montana Cup Regatta, with cruising classes ranging from nonflying sails to J24 One designs, and even a class of PHRF handicap racers going toe to toe in full fledged race boats. The racing format here is somewhat unique but certainly stands out against other clubs. The traditional wind is a morning thermal that kicks off at sunrise, holds until mid-morning, then dies off for several hours. In the afternoon, the breeze comes along from the west until just before sunset. With this being the case, the weekend’s racing was scheduled to kick off no later than 8 a.m. each day, with a scheduled “nap time” around lunch, before heading back to the racecourse in the afternoon to catch the evening breeze.
Our Seattle contingent was made up of two crews sailing onboard a chartered J24 and a recently fully rebuilt Moore 24. Chartering a boat always comes with some unknowns and in our case, we learned our boat had not been raced hard in several years as a number of blocks began to fail as the traveler track came clear out of the boat on Friday’s practice. Thankfully, the damage was isolated to the mounting beam itself, and after a quick trip to the local hardware store for some lumber, a few frosty beverages, and a tube of epoxy, she was ready to race Saturday morning. It was all smiles as we put the final bolt in.
The Saturday morning 7 a.m. boat call came very early for the fleet and a lot of sleepy faces were walking the docks (I assume they were fixing boats like us and not at Del’s Bar). At the skipper’s meeting, racers were warned that, due to a weather system coming into the area on Sunday, it was likely that the normal mid-day nap would not be in the agenda as the wind was forecasted to hold through the day with the incoming weather pattern bringing light winds, rain, and lightning. A very unconventional southerly wind in the mid-teens settled and the nearly thirty-mile-long lake gave the waves plenty of fetch to build up.
We soon found ourselves slamming upwind in rolling swells and surfing downwind. Racing got underway with some subtle shifts and a variable breeze as the waves continued to build. Fleets continued to race throughout the day with pauses between races while the Racing Committee adjusted the course and sailors ate. The wind peaked in the early afternoon in the low twenties and a wave state that would make you wonder if you were still in Montana. And just moments after finishing in an adrenaline-fueled spinnaker run, the wind began to shift and drop off, and the fleet found itself firing up their motors to head back to the dock.
Coming in off the water just after 3 p.m. certainly made for a long day but there was still plenty of daylight left for racers to enjoy. Swimming, lawn games, an amazing two-piece band, and a wonderful catered dinner certainly made for a fantastic finish to an amazing day on the water.
Sunday morning arrived with an almost literal bang as the first rain in months pelted the boats in the storage yard and campground. With the whole region being ravaged by fire, it was welcomed and we all tried to remind ourselves of that as we headed out onto the water to see what we could make of the day’s conditions. The light air held long enough for the committee to get a race course set, but unfortunate technical challenges resulted in the first race of the day being abandoned. As the fleet reset for another race, the wind dropped off to swirling puffs without much push and with thunderheads on the horizon, it was time to get the fleet off the water. The weather cooperated for a couple of hours, allowing boats to be packed up and campsites broken down before the final downpour began. We all hoped the storm would do wonders for the wild fires that have been roaring for weeks.
For any sailor that enjoys a bit of adventure with their boat racing, a trip to North Flathead Yacht Club should be high on the list. Challenging water conditions, a thriving and welcoming sailing community, and an amazing venue in the heartland of the Big Sky Country certainly make this event the complete package.