It’s a sunny, breezy Sunday in August, and that means one thing to the dozen or so people readying their sailboats at the Smithville Lake marina — good racing weather.
Alex and Jackie Haldiman of Kansas City, North, are loading their Hunter 28, a “cruiser”-style sailboat, after spending the morning blowing up large, bright yellow buoys that one passer-by said resembled cartoon Minions. Those are now being taken out on a pontoon boat to the 7,200-acre lake’s main body to be anchored at the key points of the race course.
The Paradise Pointe Yacht Club — one of more than a half-dozen sailing clubs in the Kansas City area — holds these buoy races several weekends from late April to early October.
Up to a dozen sailboats jockey for position at the start line before taking off at a predetermined combination of symbol flags. Captains at their wheels coordinate with crew members to position their sails to take the best advantage of the wind as they chase each other around the buoys.
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Sometimes they go in a zig-zag pattern as they tack before a headwind and other times careen so far over to one side as the wind billows their sails that crews become “rail meat,” tasked with leaning way over the railing to counterbalance and keep the boat upright.
“It’s 25 minutes of chaos and five minutes of calm and relaxation,” said Cary Welk of Liberty. “It’s kind of nerve-racking at the start-finish line with all of the boats moving close together. Sometimes it’s like a game of chicken. My wife doesn’t like racing because of the start-finish line. She’ll often go below until the start is over.”
The Haldimans participate in these races. But they also enjoy the more frequent “Beer Can” and “Wine Cooler” races held on Wednesday and Thursday evenings. These are generally shorter and less strenuous than the buoy races with each boat racing from port to a specific point and back. It also lets them admire the lake at dusk and relax with their friends.
“We try to be very friendly, very open,” said Jackie Haldiman, 31. “If we see someone on a boat, we tell them to come to a club social or hang out after the races. I think it’s just about being open and inviting people and not making it seem like an exclusive club.”
But why “Beer Can”?
“Maybe because of the joke you can track boats by the trail of beer cans?” Alex Haldiman says with a laugh, explaining that the “Wine Cooler” races require a female skipper. “The first time I went out with this guy’s boat I heard someone say, ‘Boats don’t run on fuel or wind. They run on beer.’”
The Haldimans had been involved in sailing for several years before joining the club five years ago. Although they can certainly sail by themselves, they said they joined the club to be around fellow lovers of riding the wind and the waves.
“I grew up in Springfield and did a lot of fishing and tubing and skiing on Table Rock,” said Alex Haldiman, 33. “So I always liked boats and lakes. But the idea of sailing, no motoring, was always appealing to me.”
He’s not alone. The Kansas City region may be hours from the nearest ocean, but most lakes in the area have some level of sailing every weekend, and many have their own sailing and yachting clubs that provide racing, sailing classes or just pure fellowship.
Dan Jurgensen, the Paradise Pointe’s “commodore,” or club president, said around 70 families belong to the club. That’s double from six or seven years ago. He said he couldn’t pinpoint why the group has gotten bigger other than efforts to attract younger families and provide a social outlet, including lots of cookouts and even movie nights at the lake.
“The club was a racing club 10 to 15 years ago,” said Jurgensen, 62, of Liberty. “We’ve evolved to the point, and the membership is large enough, that we try to accommodate everybody. We have socials and Snark Day once a year with a small boat for the kids. It’s a volunteer organization so you really gotta be receptive to what anybody is wanting to do.”
Club members are also dedicated to showing off the sport, making it a point to never leave anyone on the dock who might want to sail — whether they’re a member or not.
“Sailing is a lot like golf,” said Jurgensen, who has sailed since his early 20s. “Over a couple, three months you can learn how to sail a boat, how to get from point A to point B. And then you can spend the rest of your life getting really, really good at it.”
Many clubs see their main mission as creating new sailors.
At Shawnee Mission Park Lake one cloudy Saturday, the whispers of wind that barely rippled the surface during the morning have, by midday, given way to a stronger breeze that tousles hair and stirs treetops.
For the group of sailors rigging their boats in the parking lot, it’s a welcome sign that they’ll have something to work with as they prepare to race each other back and forth across the 120-acre lake. For the handful of novices on the dock still learning the difference between a tiller and a mainsheet, however, it’s a challenge.
One student flips his 13-foot Sunfish dinghy not once but twice while sailing out to a buoy and back. Another barely keeps her boat upright, hanging way over the opposite side to counterbalance the sail suddenly billowing in a gust and dragging the boat sideways. Still another finds herself “in irons,” stuck going backward as she struggles to find the right combination of sail angle and steering to tack forward in the headwind.
The class instructor, John Truitt, shouts recommendations and encouragement from the dock. With his long gray beard and ponytail, Truitt looks every bit the old salt passing along his love of the wind and water. He helped found the Johnson County Sailing Society at Shawnee Mission Park in 1969.
“Worry about your steering, not where the mainsheet is going,” he tells one student, referring to the cord that controls the Sunfish’s single mainsail. “The mainsail will come back if you let it, but if you lose your steering, you’re in trouble.”
Truitt, from Overland Park, said he gets the most satisfaction from teaching sailing — the club offers two beginning Sailing I classes and one moderate Sailing II class a year — when he sees students go from having no idea what they are doing on the water to going out on their own with confidence.
“If you’re doing it right, it takes all of your concentration, so anything that’s bothering you otherwise goes away because you don’t have time to worry about anything else,” he said.
Tom Yeggy of Olathe has taken to sailing quickly, generally guiding the Sunfish where he wants it to go and eagerly volunteering to go out again and again. He said that his wife got him the sailing lessons for his birthday and that he’s already looking at buying a boat of his own.
“I’ve always been interested in the water,” said Yeggy, 29. “Living in the Midwest, I’ve always wanted to live near the ocean. It’s a childhood dream I guess.”
He said he’s truly learned to love sailing. “When the wind is going strong it’s a blast, and when the wind is calm it’s serene.”
Truitt said he’s happy more younger people are getting interested in sailing again, given the competition from other outdoor sports, electronic games or other distractions.
“Back in the day, you’d have 100 boats racing on Lake Jacomo; now it’s 30 or 40,” he said. “Kids have too many things to do.”
Nationwide, interest in sailing classes has increased in recent years, said Charlie Nobles, executive director of the Los Angeles-based American Sailing Association, which certifies sailing schools.
He said enrollment in beginning sailing classes is up 15 percent from last year, which was up 12 percent from the year before that. Nobles said that he thinks sailing in general has held its own in terms of popularity and that the gain in classes partly reflects the continued economic recovery as more people can get involved in sailing.
It is not a cheap hobby. Boats can begin at around $1,000 when combined with sails and other supplies, although cheaper used boats are always available either online or at dealers. Boats that can be moved from lake to lake will also require a trailer. Cruiser-type boats are major investments on par with a new car or higher, although they rarely leave their home lakes.
In addition, Kansas and Missouri require owners to register their boats, with an added fee if they have a motor of any sort. Finally, some public lakes may require the owner to buy a special sticker before being able to unload their boat.
Private lakes often restrict outside boats, especially if they worry about potential contamination by invasive species, such as the zebra mussel, that can stow away in a boat’s hull. Also, most clubs charge an annual fee, which often includes social events and, in the case of the Sailing Society, the opportunity to rent Sunfish during club events.
Rod Holcomb, who serves as the Sailing Society’s commodore, taught himself to sail on Lake Shawnee in Topeka 20 years ago after borrowing a couple of books on sailing from the library in Lawrence. The Overland Park resident sometimes helps Truitt teach the beginning classes, even climbing into the small dinghies to give students pointers while on the water.
He said he started sailing because, as a structural engineer, he was fascinated with the ancient technology and the technicality involved in getting the most out of his boat during a race.
“I constantly have these three retirees, I can’t best them,” he said. “There’s a little bit of a chess match that goes on and I appreciate that a lot.”
The natural beauty of sailing, as well as its reliance on natural forces, is a big draw for many sailors.
“Growing up, my grandparents lived in Brighton Beach in New York and we’d see sailboats off the beach all the time, and I thought there were gorgeous the way they glided across the horizon,” said Paul Barnett, of Shawnee, who teaches the Sailing II class. “The appeal of getting from point A to point B without using fuel, without putting fumes in the air, without polluting in any way really appealed to the naturalist in me. I think that appeal is somewhat universal.”
Holcomb said most of the club’s 30 families sail a mix of dinghies and sloops, include Flying Dutchmen, Windmills, US-1s, catamarans and Sweet Sixteens, a popular style of dinghy manufactured in the Kansas City area until the early 1980s. He said most of the club members limit their sailing to Shawnee Mission Park Lake because it doesn’t allow motor boats, which can cause wakes that the smaller sailboats have trouble with and interfere with the relative quiet of sailing.
Over at Lake Jacomo in Blue Springs, Alan Fransen of Leawood is getting his own Sweet Sixteen ready to sail. The retired Honeywell project manager has been sailing since 1979 when the Jacomo Sailing Club had more than 100 members. Now the club works hard to keep itself around 50 families, also by offering classes and offering to let anyone who shows up participate.
“If you had wanted to crew today, I would have taken you out with no experience, and my challenge for the day would have been how well can I communicate with you,” said Fransen. “You’ve got new terminology, need to learn what needs to be done. The better I can do that, the better you can crew. So it’s kind of fun to have new crew.”
During his years, Fransen has made many friends in the club, swapping stories at the bar or restaurant after the day’s sailing is over. Some friendships have extended well beyond the water. One of his best sailing buddies passed away recently, but he’s still friends with the man’s widow and took her on the club’s moonlight sail to coincide with the July 31 “blue” moon.
“So some friendships endure,” he said.
Like other clubs, Jacomo is looking for new blood.
A good example is Bob and Renee Asher of Kansas City. The couple said they fell in love with sailing while on a scuba trip to the Bahamas last Christmas and took the club’s classes in April.
“I had no idea there was a whole sailing life in Kansas City,” said Renee Asher, 43. “I’ve met so many people since we took our class that sail. Twenty-two to older people. There’s a lot of young people with boats. When we took our classes some of our friends were like, ‘Oh, you’re learning to be sailors; how bougie.’
“It’s shockingly not bougie. It’s like the opposite,” Renee Asher said.
Over the next few months they came out to the lake and crewed on other people’s boats during races, developing their skills and making friends with the boat owners. They recently bought their own boat on Craigslist, a Sweet Sixteen, and on this particular Sunday planned to let one of their non-sailor friends crew with them during a race, another newcomer getting a taste of the sailing life in Kansas City.
Sailing clubs and classes
▪ Paradise Pointe Yacht Club (Smithville Lake): www.paradisepointeyachtclub.org
▪ Johnson County Sailing Society (Shawnee Mission Park Lake): www.jocosailing.com
▪ Jacomo Sailing Club (Lake Jacomo): www.jacomosailing.org
▪ Perry Yacht Club (Lake Perry): www.perryyachtclub.com
▪ Kansas Sailing Association (Clinton Lake): www.kansassailing.com
▪ Shawnee Yacht Club (Lake Shawnee): www.shawneeyachtclub.org
▪ Missouri Yacht Club (Lake Lotawana): www.moyc.org
▪ Weatherby Lake Yacht Club (Weatherby Lake): www.weatherbylakeyc.org