Photo by Thomas Fricke

Wind ninjas

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August 2011, and Don Konantz is on track for a dynamite summer. With assorted family members as crew, he’s skippered his 28-foot sailboat to victory in every regatta so far at the Royal Lake of the Woods Yacht Club. Four big wins, no “pesky” incidents getting in the way—unlike the previous summer, when eldest son Willy pitched through the mainsail in one race, or when half of Don’s thumb got ripped off after they capsized in a squall during another. Pesky. Truth be told, they did capsize in last Sunday’s race—but got back in the groove so fast that they still toted the victor’s spoils home to their camp on Spirit Island.

“Donnie’s on a roll,” says his 78-year-old father, Gordie, who knows a thing or two about winning streaks himself. He was one of the Konantzes helming a sailboat on Lake of the Woods during the summer of 1963, when the family won every club trophy. And some 25 years before that, his father (Don’s grandfather) was the one bringing home the hardware. Gordon Konantz Sr. was so passionate about sailing that he kept the Royal Lake of the Woods Yacht Club operating out of his own camp for three years during the Second World War, when most of the lake’s young men—including his eldest son, Bill—were off at war and the clubhouse was shuttered. He even passed along gas rations, so people on the lake could boat out to the de facto club.

“Coming out tomorrow?” Don calls from his runabout as he passes a cottager in another boat on a breezy Saturday afternoon. Don is heading back to Spirit Island after a quick trip to nearby Kenora, and he’s showing his colours, dressed in a polo shirt with the club crest, which he covers with a similarly crested pullover when the wind picks up. “Sure thing,” comes back over the water, and Don speeds on. A few minutes later, passing a camp on another of the lake’s nearly 15,000 islands, he points to an E Scow bobbing at its dock: one of the competition. “He’ll be out tomorrow too.”

“Tomorrow” is race day, the fifth club regatta of the summer, and Don is hoping for his fifth win. “He has this sixth sense right now and he’s on fire,” says his sister Erin, who also spends part of every summer on Lake of the Woods. “He’s a wind ninja.” Don will be competing on Sunday for the Rat Portage Cup, and he’s lined up three of his four kids to crew with him on E-motion, his own E Scow, one of 13 on the lake. His wife, Catherine, raced with him last weekend. This week, however, she’ll be at the helm of one of their runabouts, so their guests can watch the action from the water.

Though the word “scow” tends to conjure images of fat, dumpy, unexciting work boats, the 28-foot E Scow sloop is a sleek, shallow-hulled speed machine—so fast it can tow a wakeboarder or waterskier. It’s the most recent in a long line of such boats that have been mainstays of RLWYC’s racing program since the club’s founding in 1903—from 38-foot A Scows in the early 1900s to 20-foot D Scows in the late ’40s and ’50s. But scows haven’t been the Konantzes’ only vehicle for bringing home the honours. Over four generations, the extended family has made its mark in many other sailboats, including Finns, Lightnings, and Lasers, and has raked in an armload of swimming trophies for good measure.

The 28-foot E Scow sloop is a sleek, shallow-hulled speed machine—so fast it can tow a wakeboarder or waterskier

This is clearly not a bunch of hammock potatoes. When Don ties up at Spirit Island and strides up the path from dock to cottage, his youngest son, Geoffrey, 12, is learning to do backflips on a trampoline; he’s just returned from an “away race,” having recently started competing in a Laser. Nearby, a swing to beat all cottage swings hangs on heavy chains from a tree branch about 45 feet overhead; you don’t merely swing here— your legs pump, your heart pounds, and you fly. On the deck, Catherine is planning a run with guests for the next morning. Though she sometimes crews for Don, her thing is running…and cycling…and swimming. She’s been the fastest female finisher eight times in the yacht club’s annual three-kilometre Three Island Swim (the Konantzes were among the founders of this event), including the year she was seven months pregnant with their youngest daughter, Victoria. The year she was eight months pregnant with Geoffrey, she placed a mere third. “I couldn’t get my wetsuit zipped up,” she says.