Sailors hailing from saltwater ports of call are blown down by the thought of it: Sailboats in Montana? Have you heard you need water for that?
But old hands charting a course for the Can-Am Fort Peck Sailing Regatta, set for Aug. 20-21, 2016, know how to answer back: The water’s in Fort Peck Lake, and that lake is 134 miles long, with 1,520 miles of shoreline in six counties. It’s the fifth-largest man-made lake in the country and it’s more than 200 feet at deepest. And – this is the part that sailors love – that old prairie wind comes skating across that lake just the way it comes off the slope of the Rockies, steady and reliable, from the northwest.
Wind – that’s the other component that makes Montana a great place to hoist canvas.
“It’s really a great place to sail,” says Montana sailing enthusiast Page Anderson of the Fort Peck Sailing Club. “What a sailor wants is steady winds, both in speed and direction. What we see a lot of is steady winds, both in speed and direction. It’s pretty much always windy on the prairie. There’s just this weather machine that creates these prairie winds. We get more days when we can’t sail because of too much wind than too little wind.”
And, he added, the reservoir behind the Fort Peck Dam makes one of the largest inland bodies of water in the United States next to the Great Lakes. That’s why an increasing number of racers and sailing enthusiasts take part in the regatta, headquartered at the Fort Peck Marina at the Fort Peck Dam, 17 miles from Glasgow, Montana. This is the third year the regatta has been held at Fort Peck Lake.
As the name suggests, some Canadians take part in the Can-Am Fort Peck Sailing Regatta, just as some of the Montana sailors take part in events in Canada. One of the sailors from north of the border, John Cormack, has been instrumental in helping carry out the regatta.
“There’s a lot of equipment you need to put on a regatta,” Anderson said. “He offered to bring what he called a ‘regatta in a box.’ He would bring the flags, stopwatches, the inflatable marks that you make your turns around for the course, the anchors, the anchor lines.”
Much of the course is set up in easy viewing distance of the highway that runs across the dam so that motorists can stop and watch a bit of the event.
The regatta is just one sign that sailing on Fort Peck Lake is coming of age.
Rafe Sigmundstad, another Fort Peck enthusiast, said the Fort Peck Sailing Club was officially organized in summer 2015 by the core of sailors who organized the first sailing regatta at Fort Peck the year before.
Anderson said that brings to five the number of sailing clubs in landlocked Montana. The others are North Flathead Yacht Club in Somers; South Flathead Yacht Club, Dayton/Polson; Canyon Ferry Yacht Club, Helena/Townsend; and Hebgen Lake Yacht Club, West Yellowstone.
Anderson said sailing Fort Peck Lake does have its challenges. One is the water temperature, which can be bone-chilling during some parts of the sailing year. And the lake is big enough for a roaring wind to build some tall and dangerous waves.
But Sigmundstad said that sort of weather always blows out of the country before long; and quite often the winds are just right.
“For me, the sweet spot is between 8 and 15 miles per hour,” he said. “Anything over 20 miles per hour and we generally won’t go out.”
Sigmundstad said sailors sometimes have the Fort Peck waters to themselves. It’s another way to see eastern Montana, he said, especially on overnight journeys up and down the lake.
“There’s a certain romantic element to it and I really can’t begin to describe it in its splendor,” he said. “It’s kind of spiritual: Find a sheltered place to camp for the night, wake up on the water and make a good cup of coffee.”
Then hoist a sail.