Wind ninjas

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.

Their sprawling cottage gives the impression that it’s long been nestled among the island’s rocks and trees, but it’s actually only six years old, and deftly designed to accommodate an active family and their friends. The high-ceilinged open kitchen holds a double-wide fridge, and the dining room can easily handle a sit-down dinner for 16—its massive table is made from a section of flooring from a defunct Vancouver dance studio—with space for overflow on stools at the kitchen island. An alcove accommodates a sports store’s worth of lifejackets, bike helmets, and tennis racquets, and the mantel of the stone fireplace in the living room is crammed with sailing trophies and plaques. It’s easy for guests—no matter how active they may be—to feel like slugs.

Gail, or Gailymum, as the grandkids call her, can be found down the path from Don and Catherine’s cottage, in the rustic one-storey log cabin that’s summer-home for her and Gordie. It was built in 1932, and if the Three Bears had cottages, this cozy one would be Baby Bear’s: It invites you to settle in. Bright pottery dishes—and sailing mementoes—are arrayed on open shelves, and outside a little Buddha sits quietly. “He reminds us about calming down and living in the present moment,” Gail says. “Sometimes we leave him flowers.”

ping pong
"There's a competitive gene that runs through the family"

She’s not sure how she acquired her “Gailymum” nickname, but it captures her to a T. She takes gleeful pleasure in all the details of island life: not only her family’s competitive exploits, but also the way steam rises off the loaves of bread she bakes each week, the progression of flowers throughout the summer, the splendours of an early morning bike ride on the mainland. “This is my spiritual home,” she says. “It’s a magic spot.”

Like Gordie, Gail grew up spending summers on Lake of the Woods. “The yacht club has always been the community centre,” she explains, “because people are isolated on all these islands.” The club has an island all its own—straightforwardly named Yacht Club Island—and it looks like one of the lake’s old camps, albeit a particularly large one, with divided-lite windows offering views of the water, and a wide porch wrapping around its front. (A new sailing centre was added when the club celebrated its centennial in 2003, increasing the space but maintaining the turn-of-the-century style.) It received its “Royal” designation in 1925, when “Winnipeg was booming,” Gordie says, “and Lake of the Woods was on the radar of the monarchy,” reinforced by a visit from the Duke of Connaught and his daughter, Princess Patricia, a few years earlier.

But “Royal” didn’t mean stuffy formality for long, and the days when men were expected to wear white flannels and blazers at the club and white duck pants or fine khaki when sailing had disappeared by the time the clubhouse reopened after the Second World War ended, replaced by a more relaxed summer-at-the-lake feeling. On weekends in the late ’40s and ’50s, Gail and her girlfriends would spend “prime tanning hours” lying on the dock at one camp or another. “Then we’d head over to the club. You had to be there Saturday afternoon to watch the races from the lawn, and get a date for the dance on Saturday night.” Those who found dates went back to their camps to get ready, donning white dresses—all the better to show off their tans—before heading back to the club again. “There weren’t any telephones, so there was no other way to do it then.”

One weekend, it was Gordie who asked her to the dance. They married a couple of winters later, and of course continued to return to Lake of the Woods each summer: to their own camp they built on Coney Island. “We sailed all the time when the kids were growing up,” Gail says.

“Sailing” meant racing, naturally, with Gail crewing for both Gordie and his late brother, Bill, who by all accounts was the real hotshot in this family of hotshot racers. With a bit of residual pique, however, Gail points out that she only got to “skip” during the annual Powder Puff Derby, a regatta whose rules required a woman at the helm. Gail doesn’t mention it—no one in the family blows his or her own horn—but the records show she did well: Her performance in the 1963 Powder Puff helped give the Konantzes their unbroken string of victories that year.

These days, you’re more likely to find her painting in “The Grey Home in the West” than sailing or dancing at the yacht club. (“Been there, done that,” she says.) The Grey Home is a modest wooden structure near the log cabin, consisting of two rooms stacked one atop the other and connected by an outdoor staircase. The downstairs room is Gail’s studio—“my salon des refusés,” she self-deprecatingly calls it, though in fact her work is much accepted, and her canvases hang in camps around the lake. Upstairs is an open verandah with screens where she and Gordie sleep on hot nights, since it catches the lake breezes that don’t reach their log cabin amongst the trees.

the cabin
The Grey Home is a modest wooden structure near the log cabin, consisting of two rooms stacked one atop the other and connected by an outdoor staircase.

The Grey Home was built around 1900, when the island was owned by George Allan, a VIP at the Hudson’s Bay Company and an early yacht club member who lived in Winnipeg. He used it as a retreat from his main camp to the east, where his much younger wife, Muriel—known to one and all as “Mooge”—liked to stay up late playing bridge. (The main camp fell into disrepair and was demolished in the ’40s; Don and Catherine’s cottage now stands on the spot.) “Mooge had her House of Worth couture dresses in the city and—imagine!—apparently wore red satin pants at the lake,” Gail says. “Our log cabin was built as her winter camp, and ‘Indian Eddy’ would bring her out by horse and sleigh.”

Gail and Gordie bought Allans Island in the late ’90s—after Mooge and George’s daughter Enid died and her children didn’t want to hold on to it—and relocated there with Don and Catherine. Their other two kids, Leslie and Erin (also racers in their younger years), still summer with their families on Coney Island. Though it remains officially Allans Island, Gail and Gordie called the new spot “Spirit Island,” because the former owners continued to make their presence felt, especially Enid, who had been on the lake every summer of her 97 years. Things inexplicably moved and then returned to the same place, for instance, and the radio would suddenly change stations. “Aunt Enid didn’t like that kind of music,” Gordie says.

For decades, Gail kept journals documenting summer on the lake: the visitors, the weather, the races. At the front of one is a list written by her granddaughter Emily (Don and Catherine’s eldest), when she was eight: “7 Reasons Why I Had a Good Summer.” Number one on the list? “Sailing with Dad.”

Now 20 and an instructor at the yacht club, Emily admits she warmed to the sport slowly. “But my parents stuck with it,” she says, and soon her grandfather Gordie had another Konantz competing against him in the Laser class. By contrast, her brother Willy, 18, says he loved sailing from the start. “He really got the competitive gene,” says Don. When most kids were catching frogs for fun, Willy was already racing his own Optimist dinghy. As he got older, he too became a Laser racer (and, in winter, a downhill ski racer who was on the BC men’s ski team). Willy is also an instructor now, and sister Victoria, 16 and also a Laser racer, will begin teaching next year. It’s hard to imagine that Geoffrey won’t follow suit once he’s old enough.

“The club is a big part of everybody’s life,” Emily says. “I’ve been here every single summer. I met all my friends here. It will be so sad to leave and get a real job.” There’s a family tradition, though, that may draw her or one of her brothers back to “working” for the club: Their great-grandfather, grandfather, and father have all served as the club’s elected head honcho, the commodore. “We’ll see,” says Emily. “It’s a big commitment.”

yacht club
“The club is a big part of everybody’s life,” Emily says. “I’ve been here every single summer. I met all my friends here. It will be so sad to leave and get a real job.”

On the Saturday evening before the race for the Rat Portage Cup, the dining room at Don and Catherine’s cottage is controlled chaos, with kids ranging from toddlers to twentysomethings, and conversations bubbling everywhere. “Would you like to try one of these?” Don asks one of the dinner guests, a neighbour from a nearby camp. And he whips up another round of the before-dinner drink in his hand: soy milk with blueberries and a mixture of grains and seeds. Dinner—starring local lake pickerel, with homemade blueberry crisp and ice cream for dessert—appears seemingly without effort on the table. The youngest kids entertain the adults with jokes between courses, and Don grabs his iPad to show photos to set the scene for the regatta the next day. RLWYC has been more of a social club at times throughout its century-plus existence, but when sailing has been on the ascendancy—as it currently is—it has produced world-class sailors and made its mark on the international scene. (Among the notables is Sandy Riley, the club’s current co-commodore, who sailed for Canada in the 1976 Olympics.) And Don’s shots show a veritable forest of masts jockeying for position on the racecourse.

Gordie and Gail, meanwhile, are dining quietly in their own cabin. “You’ve got to have your own life. Everyone needs their own kitchen,” Gail says. Besides, she and Gordie want an early night: They’re heading to the mainland for a bike ride at 7 a.m. Gordie (78, remember) is training for a 120-km Vancouver-to-Whistler bike race that he’ll compete in with Don and Catherine in September. (He finished in just over six hours, raising $28,000 for prostate cancer research.)

Sunday morning dawns sunny and calm…glassy calm. Not what you want to see on race day. “It’s absolutely breathless out there,” Don says when he walks over to Gail and Gordie’s cabin to say good morning. But if the wind ninja is worried, he’s not showing it. “We haven’t had a day this summer we haven’t been able to sail. Look at the clouds—the wind will fill in.”

By 11:30, he and his crew—Emily, Willy, and Geoffrey—are at the yacht club. But it sure doesn’t look like today has the makings of an exciting afternoon on the water. There’s little activity on the docks, as other sailors have obviously decided conditions didn’t warrant turning out for a race. The clock ticks closer to the 1 p.m. start time, and a lone E Scow sits rigged at the dock. Not Don’s. His scow, E-motion, is still in the yard on its trailer.

And then the word comes down: “It’s cancelled,” the head sailing instructor reports. But, wait, as any sailor will tell you, you don’t need an official regatta to have a race. You just need two boats.

Don heads for the yard with the kids to rig and launch E-motion.

Any sailor will tell you, you don’t need an official regatta to have a race. You just need two boats.

Another E Scow drifts into sight offshore, just arriving from another camp. Catherine is dispatched in the runabout to tell them the real race is off, but an impromptu one is about to begin. The skippers confer and set a course, then move slowly towards the start line, between the club docks and the head instructor’s boat. The instructor sounds a horn, and they’re off…very slowly, with E-motion last across the start line, its crisp, high-tech sails barely filled.
“Okay, you’re rocking now,” Catherine calls from the runabout when the wind sends a few cat’s paws their way, and for a few minutes they skim along quite smartly. But the boats ahead have the wind first, and leave E-motion far behind. The day isn’t what Don wanted it to be—but that’s sailing.

After the race is lost, Don brings the boat nose to the dock to take their guests for a ride. Emily and Geoffrey jump off, and the new crew jumps on. The scow accelerates and takes off—finally, a steady breeze—until the wind dies again, utterly and completely. E-motion is dead in the water a good half-mile from shore.

Not a problem in this family. Willy jumps in the lake, takes a line from the bow and ties it to his foot—and starts swimming the boat back to the yacht club dock.