A Day at the Lake — July - August 1998

Text and photographs by Jay Rendall

sailor on lake

Imagine spending a summer day splashing through the waves in a sailboat race. A day at the lake starts early. A golden glow reflects off the tanned face of a sailor named Pat as he rigs his boat. He unrolls the sail and carefully ties it to the aluminum mast and boom, using a thin rope (line) and square knots. Then Pat, his dad, and a friend carry the boat to the water, being careful not to scratch the smooth surface of the fiberglass hull. More boats are already on the water. Soon the race will begin.

A brisk 10- to 15-mile-per-hour wind makes sails crackle as they flutter. With a quick adjustment (trim) of the sail and a tug on the long steering handle (tiller), a sailor named Lisa scoots her boat across the waves. From a distance, the boats look like water bugs scooting around on a pond.

When they race, Pat, Lisa, and the other seasoned sailors will be on their own. They must steer their boats, trim the sails, choose their course, and outsmart competitors.

The start is one of the most important parts of a race. Before they start, the boats must stay behind an imaginary line between a buoy and the judge's boat. Tom, the judge, tells the sailors how many minutes to the start. Each sailor must time the approach to cross the starting line on time. Depending on the event, 10 to 100 boats might be trying to get the best start.

Lisa checks her watch as Tom announces, "Three minutes ... 30 seconds ... 20 seconds ... 10,9,8, ... 3,2,1." Finally, Pat and Lisa see the red starting flag and hear the starting gun fire. Boom! The race is on.

Lisa keeps her eyes on the other boats and the water ahead. She sees some dark spots on the water's surface that show stronger wind (puffs), so she pushes the tiller to turn the boat and head in that direction. Other skippers choose their course too.


Talk Like a Sailor

If you learn some sailing terms, you can figure out what this sentence means: The skipper placed both feet under the starboard hiking straps and hiked to windward to avoid capsizing in the puff as he sailed closehauled away from the leeward shore.

bow front of a boat
buoy floating marker anchored in place
capsize to tip the boat on its side until the mast hits the water
closehauled sailing as close as possible (about 45 degrees from wind direction) to where the wind is coming from
hiking straps straps that you hook your feet under, so you can lean over the side of the boat to balance it
in irons headed directly into the wind with no forward speed and little ability to steer
jibing changing the sail from one side of the boat to the other while sailing away from the wind
leeward side away from the wind
port left side of a boat
puff strong gust of wind that causes dark areas on the water
reaching sailing across the wind
running sailing with the wind from behind
skipper person steering a sailboat.
starboard right side of a boat
stern back of a boat
tacking changing the sail from one side of the boat to the other while sailing into the wind
telltales yarn or light material attached to the sail to help you know the wind direction
transom flat back end of a boat
windward side toward the wind

Only minutes after the start, the fleet has spread across the course. All are racing toward the first large orange buoy.

sailor hiking

Pat turns his boat toward the wind and then turns a little further, letting the sail fill on the other side (tacking), because it points him closer to the first buoy.

Looking at the telltales, yarn attached like small tails on the sail, Pat can tell that the wind is flowing on both sides of the sail - an important position to maintain when sailing against or across the wind.,/p>

All the skippers try to get around the first buoy without bumping into each other. They avoid fouling other boats by following a few basic rules. For example, a boat on port tack must keep clear of a boat on starboard. If one skipper does foul another, the boat that was wrong must complete a 720-degree turn as its penalty.

As Lisa rounds the first buoy, she lets out her sail to catch the wind. She is on the downwind part of the race. Now each sailor looks for the best wind to catch up to or pass competitors. Pat scans the glistening water behind him, looking for puffs, which move down the lake like cloud shadows. As a puff of wind hits his sail, Pat tugs on the line (the mainsheet) to trim the sail and speed up the boat, making it surf over the 2-foot-high waves. Soon he will round the next buoy.

Approaching the finish line, Pat is hiking hard and gaining on the lead boat. He tries to stay in clear wind and avoid the churning air behind the lead boat. He knows that sometimes a race isn?t decided until the last few feet.

Tom fires a gun into the air as the first boat crosses the line. A few seconds later, Pat sails through the brief white plume of smoke, which smells of gunpowder. He calls out congratulations to the winner.

competitors after the race

Pat grabs his water bottle for a cool drink and waits for the rest of the fleet.

The wind holds, and Tom runs three more races for the young fleet.

At day's end, the judges total a combined score for each boat. The skippers relax and reap their rewards - a glass of cold lemonade, the smiles of friends, and maybe even a medal. All agree - it's hard to find a better way to spend a warm summer day.

optimist dinghy

The Floating Soapbox Racer

Fifty years ago Clark Mills of Clearwater, Florida, designed the Optmist Dinghy. The local chapter of the civic group Optimists International had asked him to design a children's sailboat that a parent could build for about $50 at the time.

A few years later, a sailor from Denmark visited the United States, and then promoted the boat in that country. Now the dinghy is sailed on five continents and is the world's largest, fastest-growing class of sailboat. Most of the world's Olympic sailors learn to sail in these boats.

Designed for children, the Optimist is stable, simple to operate, and easy to right if capsized. It is environmentally friendly too - using no gas and making no noise. An Optimist costs more than a canoe, but much less than a personal watercraft.

diagrams of knots

Why Sail?

Sailing is fun, and you can enjoy it for a lifetime.Sailors learn to be good sports, to be self-reliant, and to make quick and reasonable decisions. Above all, they learn to understand and respect nature's forces - wind, waves, and changing weather.

Water Safety Tips

  • Always wear your life jacket. Orange, red, and yellow jackets are most visible.
  • If you capsize, always stay with the boat.
  • Watch the weather and go ashore if you hear thunder or see lightning.
  • Take swimming lessons.

Hook Up With a Fleet

Sailing schools, local park departments, yacht clubs, some YMCA camps, and the American Red Cross offer sailing lessons for young people to learn about water safety, boat handling, and enjoying the water.

To find out about Optimist dinghy fleets, events, dealers, and sail makers, visit the website of the U.S. Optimist Dinghy Association at www.sailing.org/USODA.

If you can?t find a fleet, start one. A dinghy will fit on top of a car and can be launched almost anywhere. With a few Optimist dinghies, some lessons, buoys, anchors, and a powerboat, you could hold races on a lake near you.

The Course They Sailed

Illustration by Jim Freitag,

race course

1. The start. After crossing the starting line, the red boat sails against the wind (upwind or closehauled) toward the first buoy. The red boat turns, which changes the sail from one side of the boat to the other (tacking). It sails toward a puff, which could speed the boat around the first buoy. The blue boat sails further from the starting line before tacking and heading to the buoy.

2. The windward buoy. Each sailor turns away from the wind and sails with it pushing them toward the reaching buoy. They loosen their mainsheets to let their sails catch as much wind as possible.

3. The reaching buoy. The skipper of the red boat turns, switches the sail to the other side (jibing), and heads toward the leeward buoy. The blue boat follows. Each looks for puffs to push them along.

4. The leeward buoy. As the skippers pass the leeward buoy, each pulls in the mainsheet to tighten the sail. The blue boat sails away from the red boat to find better wind. The red boat changes its course to stay between its closest competitor, the blue boat, and the finish line. Red wins the race!

(Note: the photos in this diagram show boats in positions similar to the red and blue boats.)

Jay Rendall, who works for the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife, has raced several classes of sailboats from the age of 10.

A complete copy of the article can be found in the July-August 1998 issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, available at Minnesota public libraries.