Racing on the Largest Freshwater Lake in the World
Story and photos by Tyler Sklazeski
For those of us whose fates have intersected with the greatest of lakes, there is a sense of ancient power that lies just beyond the threshold where ice-sculpted rock meets the pristine waters of Lake Superior. The wild ones who choose to race across this great abyss are no stranger to the power that lies at our doorstep, as a chance wind can summon primal forces and transform a tranquil scene into a roaring frenzy of foam and towering, ocean-like conditions.
It was against this backdrop that I set out on the Thunder Bay Yacht Club race committee boat with member and long time sailor Mike McDonald and his friend Carlos, who helps on the course. There are 21 race days in the season as part of the Wednesday Night Series, along with casual bouts happening Mondays and Fridays—if you’re looking to join in on the action, these are your best bet as the emphasis is on fun and skill development. The crews come from a variety of backgrounds, and are united by a desire to compete and connect with the unique energy and challenges that come with navigating a lake like Superior. Race days find our harbour peppered with a small army of brightly coloured spinnakers—a quick-to-deploy sail that gives many of the boats a splash of personality.
Our task on the water that evening was to set up the pairs of buoys that serve as markers at either end of the course for the regatta. I hopped on the boat and we set out past the breakwall that stands vigil against the “real weather.” We quickly encountered the roaring late spring winds and surf that is common this time of year. As we were being tossed about in the pounding surf, McDonald and Carlos were busy inflating the buoys and launching them into the water, marking the length of the course via a GPS unit. As wind cut through my coat and water sprayed up from the boat’s hull, I was surprised to realize all the while that Carlos had been wearing shorts and a T-shirt—attire that would put most native northerners on the lake to shame.
Once the course had been prepared, McDonald steered us deftly alongside the now tightly packed group of boats, where crew members waved and called out to each other from the bows of their respective vessels. Several shouted out to Carlos as he mounted the rear of the boat to wave the starting flags. And with a blast of our horn, the crews leapt into gear, adjusting riggings and latching onto the powerful headwinds howling across the bay. Meanwhile, I was attempting to disconnect my lower body’s motion from the parts that required a steady aim to capture moments from the race with my camera.
Far out past the breakwall, the boats soared across the open water, syncopated as they leapt through the white froth of the lake, framed by distant salties and the Giant looming from afar. As the boats rounded the far end of the course, launching their spinnakers to quickly corner and head back, one of the vessels was caught off guard and was dramatically pulled onto its side by the pounding force of the wind. Fortunately, after some tense moments the crew recovered and rejoined the fleet to finish the race—a reminder of how quickly things can change on the big lake, and how much skill is required to recover from a bad situation.
After completing the journey, I felt like the real winner, as I’d managed to hold my dinner in for two hours of rolling waves while staring through a zoom lens. Next time I’ll be sailing backbench!
For more information on the race season and local sailing programs, visit the Thunder Bay Yacht Club website at tbyc.on.ca.