MINNETONKA — The boat rocked back and forth. Eight-foot waves crashed onto the port and starboard side of the Big Boat.
Nathan Olmsted’s time asleep had just ended. He needed that shut-eye since his offshore sailing race on Lake Michigan from Chicago to Mackinac took two days to complete. His partner, Matthew Kickhafer, had been manning the boat and now needed an extra set of hands. Olmsted’s stomach had other ideas.
Seasickness came upon him like a virus and found a home for the next eight hours. For sailors who spend a large portion of their lives on the water, they know there is no antidote for the queasy, stomach-churning feeling of rocking helplessly back and forth in a sailboat.
“Seasickness is like being carsick, but times four,” Olmsted said.
Both Olmsted and Kickhafer, who recently graduated from Minnetonka High School, are a part of the Lake Minnetonka Sailing School (LMSS). Located on Lighthouse Island at the mouth of Carson’s Bay, the sailing school — which is home to the Minnetonka Skippers sailing team, which recently qualified for its second-straight participation in the national championships — has been around since 1972, serving more than 750 students per year.
One of those students is Graham Ness.
A recent graduate of Minnetonka High School, Ness has been sailing for the past decade, including six years with the high school team. Growing up, he followed in his mother and grandfather’s footsteps by sailing on Lake Okoboji in northwest Iowa.Living in Wayzata, he spent up to 14 hours some summer days at the school. In fact, during a four-day span, he spent 48 hours there.
If hours spent at the school doesn’t bring sailors close together, road trips in the back of a bus will.
Pokemon and card games were just some of the ways Ness and Olmsted entertained themselves when they were freshmen, sitting amongst a bus full of seniors. One time, on a road trip to Pewaukee, Wisconsin, the two friends talked nonstop about sailing for more than four hours. Fellow sailor Annika Irene remembered them not even talking with anyone else during that bus ride.
“I might have been a little addicted,” Olmsted said, looking back on the conversation.
“I feel bad about it ... I don’t think we said a single word to her [Irene] the entire trip,” Ness added.
One other perk of long road trips is time for studying. If a regatta took place on Saturday and Sunday, the team typically left Friday before their last period of classes. If it was a road trip, they spent on average five to seven hours in a car or bus, enough time to focus on their schoolwork.
“My grades were generally better during the sailing season,” Olmsted said.
They would get to the regatta around 8 a.m. Saturday and would leave around 6 p.m., then would get back to the site Sunday at 8 a.m. and were back on the road by 4 p.m. That meant getting back to Minnetonka typically at midnight, with school the next day.
Because of the quick turnaround from a weekend regatta, the team had Mondays off to recover and gear up for another week of practices.
As soon as school got out from Minnetonka High School, faster than any vehicle moving were the sailors sprinting to their cars. With school getting dismissed at 2:40 p.m., that gave the seafarers only a small amount of time to stop at a Holiday gas station and get a snack before sailing practice started at 3:30 p.m.. Twenty minutes of free sailing kicked off practices, followed by two hours of drills, and then a half-hour for practice races.
After their three-hour practice concluded, a three-hour homework session began. Turns out it tied right in to their passion.
“Sailing is a really mental sport,” Ness said. “The best sailors are pretty smart ... You have to think about a lot of different things at once.”
The ever-changing playing surface that sailing presents is one of them. As opposed to sports like basketball, hockey, baseball or football, sailing’s dance floor is a shape-shifter. It is at the mercy of whatever song the weather sings on any given day.
That is why these sailors’ best friend, aside from each other, is a weather app. NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Windy and Sailflow are just some of the go-to weather apps on their phones that give their index fingers a workout, one refresh after another.
Fellow senior sailor Susie Foster joked that she checked it 10 times a day.
SAILING IN MINNESOTA
Like most of the sailors in the school, Foster came from a sailing family. What is different, though, is that she didn’t start until her freshman year of high school. Snowflakes and 30-degree temperatures outlined her first regatta, and gave Foster and her partner, Ness, more to think about than just the race. With her dry suit covered in ice, even something as simple as reaching for her water bottle became difficult. Instead, she grabbed an ice chunk bigger than she is and threw it off the boat.
Kids from coastal and southern states, like California, Florida and Virginia, have the luxury of being geographically situated where problems like frozen lakes do not exist. While that may come across as a significant hurdle for schools like Minnetonka, Coach Gordy Bowers does not make any excuses.
The lack of time on the water doesn’t mean they give up, Bowers said. “There’s no excuse to lose.”
Before coaching at LMSS, Bowers won three Olympic medals as the U.S. Sailing head coach in the 1988 Olympics. Since 2013, however, these seniors have been his proteges.
“He [Bowers] has so much knowledge that it’s super helpful and what a lot of success has come from,” Ness said.
During the winter seasons, the teams revert to what Bowers calls dry-land training, which is a lecture in a physical format that replaces on-the-water training. Cerebral learning comes in handy for a sport like sailing.
Bowers calls it 80% to 20%, “in terms of brain work to physical work.”
Garrett Moen, who just finished his senior year, has sailed six years for the high school. He sees the relationships between him and his fellow sailors as one of the biggest keys to success.
“Group communication wins races,” Moen said.
And the proof of good communication is evident.
Minnetonka just got back from its second-consecutive trip to the high school national championships in Portland, Maine, and has been ranked first in the Midwest Interscholastic Sailing Association every season since 2016.
Credit friendship as one of the keys to the dynastic success of the sailing program.
“We’re all pretty close,” Ness said.
Most of the seniors on this year’s team have been sailing since they were 8 years old. However, it wasn’t always friendly growing up.
The boys were notorious for chirping and yelling at each other on the water. Once, Kickhafer went out of his way to intentionally hit Moen’s boat. As time went on though, the relationships got more friendly.
“We matured a lot,” Kickhafer said.In their six years sailing for Minnetonka, the seniors’ personalities have not been the only thing to mature. Success has followed.
Irene remembers the high five. The violent, palm-to-palm slap with her partner as she crossed the finish line capped off her first race at the nationals in Boston two years ago. At that time, Minnetonka High School had made a name for itself as a sailing powerhouse in the Midwest, but not on a national level. So when the Skipper, Irene, crossed the finish line first, the live-stream announcer emulated the national reaction: “Wow, Minnetonka is not actually doing that bad.”Now, the team is on the map. No longer is the Minnetonka Skippers sailing team just known for sailing on frozen lakes and having “Minnesota nice” attitudes. They have left their mark.
“It was cool to shock everyone,” Irene said.