On any given day of the week, it's common to look from the shores of Lake Minnetonka and see the lake dotted with large clusters of sailboats. With groups often more than a hundred strong they crisscross the lake with their graceful and colorful sails in a seemingly random fashion. However, they are part of organized races that occur nearly every day of the week. That’s a lot of boats and racing events, even if you are talking about a large coastal city. This has not gone unnoticed at the national and world level, so much so that US Sailing, the primary organization which has administered the sport of yachting in the United States since 1897, lauds Lake Minnetonka’s Wayzata as one of the top ten “sailing towns” in the USA. This is a well-deserved and not easily attained status that is recognized the world over. That’s saying a lot when the competition for this honor is the likes of San Diego, New York, or Seattle.
A Rich History
Competitive yachting began on Lake Minnetonka about the same time as what is referred to as the ‘resort period,' generally recognized to be the early 1880s. With the lake providing its inviting, cooling summer breezes to the heat-stricken city, residents and people wasted no time, taking advantage of the ‘free air conditioning’ of a sailboat. That and consider an old saying amongst sailors: “when two sailboats are within sight of each other, there is a race.” Thus are the beginnings of the competitive yachting scene on Lake Minnetonka. With national-level regattas dating as far back as the 1890s, Lake Minnetonka became and continues to hold its own as a venue and origin of championships and champion sailors at the world level.
Yacht Clubs Abound On Lake Minnetonka
With this momentum, it wasn’t long before the first social club involving competitive yachting was established with the Minnetonka Yacht Club in 1882 (minnetonkayachtclub.org) on the Lighthouse Island enclave, just offshore from Deephaven.
Tom Burton, a lifelong sailor on the lake probably says it best in describing the length and depth of the tradition. “I am especially proud of my family’s five generations or 140 years of sailing as members of the Minnetonka Yacht Club, co-founded by my great grandfather Hazen Burton.”
Since then, three other yacht clubs have formed, Wayzata (wyc.org, est. 1965), Upper Minnetonka (in Mound, umyc.org, est.1963), and Shorewood (as a part of Tonka Bay Marina, tonkabaymarina.com, est. 1979). Each of them has now been a key part of the competitive yachting scene for many decades.
The shores of Lake Minnetonka also boast two highly regarded sailing schools: Wayzata Sailing (wayzatasailing.org) and Lake Minnetonka (lmss.us). Each of them hosts at least 1,000 students per season ranging from kids aged seven up to adults. The sailing schools not only give youngsters the foundational skills, but they also give adult newbies the basics on which to take their new sport to their own boats or even explore the world. The sailing schools also facilitate secondary and college-level competition, drawing sailing teams from all over the country. As a result, Lake Minnetonka has been continuously developing world-recognized sailors up to and including the Olympic medal levels, inviting international competition to its waters ever since.
The Yacht Racing Culture Of Lake Minnetonka (and its surrounding communities)
Let’s not forget the skippers and crews that make these boats go and where they come from. On any given summer weekend, there can be as many as a thousand sailors participating in competitive events across the lake. Not only are these participants present on the lake when they race, but they are also members of the community and patrons of the businesses where they keep and prepare their boats. On any given race day near the communities that have a yacht club, the bustle and excitement ‘in town’ is readily apparent. The enthusiasm is especially palpable in the spring after the long hiatus.
"It’s that time of year when yacht racing holds the sport’s fascination for sailors and onlookers alike,” reported the Minneapolis Tribune in August of 1933.
One of the things that is distinctive about the Lake Minnetonka competitive yachting culture is its inclusive nature. At Wayzata Yacht Club, for example, there is a table sign that’s displayed before every race: ‘Reserved For: Crew Looking For A Ride.' Different from many of the big coastal yacht clubs with membership card access only, the tradition of the Lake Minnetonka yacht clubs has always been to include newcomers just wanting to try it out. A newcomer only needs to show up at the table before a race to be welcomed onto a boat. Many a newcomer has visited this table, only to still be sailing decades later.
“I was fortunate to be invited aboard as a crew member of a local yacht club boat for a race event. It was exciting and fun and even though I was nervous knowing very little about sailing, the crew was warm, fun, and very welcoming. I now know why people love this sport,” shares Matt Jerome, a local resident and new sailing crew member.
The result is a rich yachting tradition and unique culture that mixes first-time sailors with experienced champions, often even sailing on the same boat together. Visit any of the yacht clubs on a ‘race day’ and it’s easy to see why the yachting culture on Lake Minnetonka has thrived well into its third century. While the boats have evolved over the years, the culture of inclusivity and friendly competition from the gilded age to today has not, and the Wayzata title of “Sailing Town USA” continues to be well deserved.
You can be a part of this too. Why not look at one of the clubs or sailing schools mentioned above and give becoming part of “Sailing Town USA” a try?