Chasing the elusive puffs

It isn't the high seas, but sailboat racing on the Chain of Lakes can be exhilarating and challenging

For the sailboat racers of Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet, it's all about the wind. It determines how many crew members they will take on their fiberglass-hulled boats, how they trim their sails and who yields to whom during the competition. Ultimately, the skipper who reads the wind best wins the race.

A good day for golf is usually a bad day for sailing. While cloudy skies and blustery gusts can ruin a good day on the links, for Minneapolis sailors it creates some of the most exciting conditions and the fastest times. The racing season begins on Mother's Day and goes until the middle of September.

"If you sail on Lake Harriet you know what an inscrutable lake it really is," said Wendy Peter, commodore of the 80-member Lake Harriet Yacht Club, most of whose members live in Southwest. "Of the two Southwest racing lakes, Lake Harriet is the trickier one to read. It's known as a shifty lake. The wind has a tendency to come over the hill near Beard's Plaisance on the west side of the lake and hit the lake in the middle. On Calhoun, the wind sweeps across it more evenly."

In her job as commodore, Peter is responsible for making sure that the thrice-weekly races go according to plan. She also organizes the two Lake Harriet regattas held in early May and late September that draw boats from as far away as White Bear Lake, Lake Minnetonka and Iowa's Lake Okoboji.

Over the past few years, Eurasian milfoil has become an emerging issue in local sailboat racing. Randy Penrod -- who has been the crew on the Lake Calhoun for 18 years and currently mans the 20-footer "OUI C" -- said when the water level is high, as it is now, it's hard to see milfoil when racing.

"It's like hitting a marshmallow wall," Penrod said. "We put out buoys to warn boaters of the milfoil, but if your rudder or keel gets stuck in it, you are not allowed to paddle your way out of it. You have to do it with the wind."

The Lake Calhoun Yacht Club has existed since 1901, its counterpart on Lake Harriet since 1941. Lake Calhoun Commodore Jerry Peterson said the two clubs have a good relationship and often socialize together. They send each other staff and boats for each other's regattas. But when the races start, each roots for their own home team.

The Calhoun club is bigger than its counterpart, with about 110 members. Generally speaking, Peterson said, Harriet's members are single, while Calhoun's is mostly made up of families. About nine years ago, they started the Lake Calhoun Sailing School in order to pass the skill onto young people. Last year, they trained about 500 kids.

A "C scow" -- the boat of choice among Chain of Lakes sailors -- generally costs about $10,000 new. Other expenses include club dues, which are $220 annually. Renting a buoy costs $300 for a season, and it costs $60 to enter a regatta on a guest lake.

What makes a good sailor?

"Practice," said D. O'Neil, chief judge of the Lake Harriet Club and a CARAG resident. "It's someone who can read the waves and can handle a boat right. That only comes with years of experience. You think you have a good wind and then all of the sudden it switches and the guy over there is heading straight for the mark, and you are getting blown away from it."

Most races last between an hour and an hour and a half. There are six judges watching the

races and O'Neal, now in his 80s, is the chief judge. He decides how long each race will be. The more wind, the more laps. If the wind dies, O'Neal calls off the race.

When racing her 16-foot boat, Peter looks for puffs, small wind-whipped rolls on the water that look a little bit like gray streaks. That's where she steers her craft because it's where the wind is stronger relative to the wind around it. Then she decides whether to be on the port (left) or starboard (right) of the puff.

"Is this puff knocking you down away from the buoy you are trying to race around or lifting you up? That's what you have to figure out. It can confuse a new sailor," Peter said.

Sailing a boat in the city on a warm summer day may seem like a relaxing way to pass the time -- until the cannon goes off from the judge's boat in the middle of the lake announcing that the race will start in five minutes.

Boats begin inching their way to the starting line. The key is to be right on the starting line when the race starts. But it is not as easy as lining up for a marathon or a bike race because you are on the water and at the wind's mercy; you can't just stop the boat at the start line, and you are not allowed to cross the line before the race starts.

Peter warned that like wallpapering your bedroom, sailboat racing might not be a something you want to do with your significant other. "It can be too stressful for lovers to do together gracefully," she said. "Things get a little intense, and there aren't a lot of 'please' and 'thank yous' uttered. Sometimes, your voice gets a little shrill when you are heading towards another boat and you have to give orders to avoid hitting it."

Racing occurs thrice weekly. Harriet races are Wednesday nights at 6:30 p.m., Saturdays at 1 p.m. and Sundays at 10:30 a.m. On Calhoun, races are Wednesday nights at 6 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m. and Sunday at 10 a.m., with as many as 22 boats competing.

Even if you do not own a boat, crews are needed on both lakes and they take newcomers along, especially on windy days when they need extra bodies to stabilize the craft to keep it from tipping.

"Over time, you get to anticipate what the captain is going to do," said Penrod. "It's great when you have a long-term relationship with your skipper. You know when he is going to tack and you know what he is looking for. It is a team effort; one person can't do it alone."

His advice to new crew members is to follow directions and don't talk so much because you have to keep your head in the game to watch what the wind is doing and where the other boats are.

While not particularly dangerous, racing can cause bumps and bruises.

Several female members of Peter's club have been questioned by their doctors about possible domestic abuse because of scow scars they've gotten while in the heat of battle, which come from bumping into the objects sticking up out of the deck .

Ultimately, it is not the competition that Southwest sailors seek. It is the social aspect that keeps their clubs together. They picnic and party together and embrace an aspect of southwest life made possible only by the area's unique natural resources.