On a lake in Michigan, succeeding generations of sailors have loved their home-grown classics. Gina Attee takes us along as the Walloon Yacht Club celebrates 100 years on the lake and 74 years of their thriving "17s"
Story by Gina Attee Images courtesy of the members of Walloon Lake Yacht Club
Although powerboat racing dominated the first two decades of Walloon Yacht Club’s 100-year history, it is sailboat racing that has withstood Walloon Lake’s test of time. The first recorded sailboat racing on Michigan’s Walloon Lake occurred in 1909, though the powerboat racing club had been formed in 1907. Serious sailboat racing under the Universal Rule on Walloon Lake began in 1926,.
A year later, Bill Loughlin designed the Walloon Lake One Design, a 20-foot, fin-keel sloop, and sailing on Walloon Lake took off. The name of the locally-geared boat was later changed to “W” boats for the insignia on the sail. Two “W” boats were built in 1929, and nine other open class boats sailed against them in their first season.
The “W” class grew quickly. By 1930, they outnumbered the open class boats six to four, and by 1932, only one open class boat remained. [There was also interclub racing with the Northern Michigan Review Sailing Trophy awarded to Little Traverse YC in ’46 & ’47, the Crooked Lake in ’50, and the WYC in ’48, ’49, and ‘51.]
The first six seasons were sailed using a single race course. New courses were established by 1932, though the standard Olympic triangular course would not be introduced until 1981. The course was further modified in the 1990’s and presently includes races not only in the main body of the lake, but also in the North and West arms, locales which help to get other sailboat racers involved. An “End of the Lake race” is also part of the season, with sailors racing an eighteen-mile course down the lake and back.
The fast-growing popularity of the “W” boats on Walloon Lake in the early 1930’s makes it surprising that a new one-design would emerge less than six years after the creation of the first. As the late H. J. Cawthra, past commodore of the Walloon Yacht Club and a Lightning U.S. and World champion, noted in a history of Walloon Lake, “It is difficult to understand why the building of the ‘Ws’ was not continued rather than shifting to a new class only six years after the first ‘Ws’ were designed and built specifically in order to promote and establish the one-design concept for level racing.”
Loughlin, however, was drawn to the new square meter designation and laid out plans for a 17 square meter in 1933. He would sell the business to Ted McCutcheon only five years later. Despite temperatures reaching 40 below, the first “17” was built over the winter and spring of 1934. Nearly all the fittings were custom made and patterns were made out of scrap lumber and iron to facilitate replication of the new design.
By the late 1930s, other newly popular boats made appearances on Walloon Lake, though none had the staying power of the new “17s.” The mid-fifties marked increasing interest in the Snipe class, numbering around twenty boats, the beginning of Sunfish racing on Walloon Lake, and the first attempts at trapeze usage on the new “17’s.” By 1971, the Sunfish class numbered 10 to 12 boats, but the splitting of the class in 1975 led to the discontinuation of Sunfish racing on Walloon Lake by the mid 1980’s. A similar chain effect happened within the Highlander class, which emerged on Walloon Lake in 1965 and numbered 10 to 11 boats by 1977. The popularity of the Highlander had grown so much that, by 1978, the Highlander National Championships were held on Walloon Lake, drawing 46 boats. By 1983, however, both the Highlander and Snipe fleets were merged back into the open fleet. Up to seven “17s” still raced each other on Walloon Lake by the mid-1990’s. Today, sailing still remains popular on Walloon Lake. Walloon Sailors, Inc. helps to encourage younger sailors to get involved in both Opti and JY-14 sailing and the Walloon Yacht Club invites anyone interested to sail up to two races or a weekend of races without fees.
The design of the “17s” incurred changes as their popularity remained steady over the club’s history. Despite the creation of patterns when building the first “17,” there was a good deal of variance among subsequent wooden boats due to the nature of the material. Twenty-four “17s” with wooden masts and fractional rigs were formed from the original templates, but the loss of the patterns to fire necessitated the move to fiberglass hulls in 1972. A hand-made mold was created from one of the last of the wooden “17s,” which was the newest and in the best shape, and the first fiberglass “17” was formed. The first fiberglass “17” was given the number 27.
The use of fiberglass for “17” hulls kept the fleet moving forward. To address the difference of materials involved in the switch to fiberglass, there was a significant effort in developing the new Seventeen Square Meter Class measurements and rules to allow wooden and fiberglass to race fairly and competitively against each other. Today, one original wooden boat (with a metal mast) remains competitive against the fiberglass hulls, other original wooden “17s” with wood spars compete under a “classic” division.
Perhaps it is the low beam-to-length ratio found on the tender and classically designed “17s,” or perhaps it is the large sail area relative to displacement that is particularly suited for the often light and variable breezes found on Walloon Lake, but the “17s” seem to hold a special interest for Walloon Yacht Club sailors. Bill Bray, the club’s Rear Commodore, said the “17’s” are “effectively designed for the lake where we race them.”
Walloon Yacht Club’s traditional racing season starts at the end of June and culminates with the Commodore’s Cup and an annual low-key award dinner during the first week of August. This year, however, the Walloon Yacht Club will celebrate 100 years of history with what gala chair Deb Stern called “a big blow-out shindig,” including a live band and sponsors from all over the area. Stern said the goal of the event is to “recapture what the club used to have and introduce newer members to that.”