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Generation X Boat

On America's inland lakes the X Boat scene is where youth sailors hone their racing skills and make everlasting friends.

Team Triskaidekaphobia
Team Triskaidekaphobia charges upwind at the ILYA X Boat Championship. Hannah Lee Noll/Melges

At the first weather mark of the final race of the 2021 ILYA Senior Fleet X Boat Championship on Pewaukee Lake, Wisconsin, hometown heroes Kamron Kaiser and Peter Goggins round somewhere in the midteens. They’re second overall in the standings, but regatta leader Henry Ackley, of Pine Lake, is having a shocker.

“Can you see him?” Kaiser asks his crew after the whisker pole is set.

“Not sure,” Goggins says. “Wait, there he is. He’s still going upwind.”

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Halfway down the run, it’s clear Ackley is racing his throw-out, which means Goggins and Kaiser need to finish in the top four to win the regatta. With 47 boats clogging the Senior Fleet racecourse, and another 64 in Junior Fleet, Pewaukee Lake is a mess of mains and jibs, but for Kaiser and Goggins, the path to victory is clear.

“One boat at a time,” Kaiser says. “One boat at a time.”

Before the leeward mark, they rein in two boats. On the next beat, they navigate a light and fluky Pewaukee breeze, which at times feels more like playing checkers than sailboat racing. As they sail from puff to puff, they manage to leapfrog another clump of six boats. On the final downwind leg, they notice a bit of texture coming off the northern shoreline.

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“See that?” Kaiser says. “It’s going to go right.”

Minnetonka team
Sailors from Minnetonka enjoy the opening ceremony. Hannah Lee Noll/Melges

Goggins agrees, and after reeling in two more boats, they round the gate ­seventh—a ­minute behind the fourth-place boat, which, along with the rest of the leading pack, sails blindly toward the left side of the course. But Kaiser and Goggins stick to their plan and dig into the right. Sure enough, the breeze fills in from the dock-cluttered shoreline, giving the duo a glory shift toward the top of the beat. Along the edges of the racecourse, families and friends watch with bated breath. In this part of the world, sailboat racing is a spectator sport, and as Kaiser and Goggins pass the committee to finish fourth—good enough to win the regatta—the spectator fleet erupts into a cacophony of horns and whoops.

“Way to go boys!”

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“Nice job!”

“What a way to end it!”

Though the regatta comes down to the wire, 15-year-old Kaiser isn’t new to high-stakes moments. The year before, he won it all in the Junior Fleet, and coming into this event, Kaiser and Goggins, 11, had bagged two other X boat championships. But everyone knows the Class X Championship trophy, which has been raced for since 1940, is the most ­coveted prize of the season.

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The X boat isn’t the flashiest youth race boat. At 470 pounds, it weighs about two and a half times more than a Club 420. The hull is wide with a rigid chine that gives it the look of a miniature Lightning. Downwind, a whisker pole is used to project the jib instead of hoisting a spinnaker, making for some less-than-thrilling runs, but what the X boat lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in simplicity.

Because it is slow to heel, learning the basics of steering, sail trim and weight placement become simple enough for a youth sailor to grasp. Most X boaters start crewing around age 10 to supplement their Optimist racing, which can be socially isolating. The X boat gives them an opportunity to enjoy the sport with another person, and because the ideal crew weight is so low, older skippers typically race with younger crewmembers, creating a mentorship unique to the class. This skipper-crew ­relationship can even be viewed as a sacred bond, with many duos remaining lifetime friends.

Fritz and Meta Simon
Fitz and Meta Simon, from Pewaukee Lake, on V-213 ­Simonized. Hannah Lee Noll/Melges

Cousins Jimmy Hughes and John Kotovic, from Minnetonka YC, are a prime example. This pair won the 64-boat Junior Fleet, which, with a younger crop of sailors, typically ­features similar-age teams.

“The X boat has been so much fun,” says 14-year-old Hughes. “I’ve sailed a couple Inlands with my dad on the A scow. They’ve won a couple times, which really helped me understand how a team has to come together to win.”

Unlike most X boat ­skippers, Hughes was forced to bypass the crewing phase of the progression. His victory at the Junior Inland marks a dramatic turnaround for the Lake Minnetonka X boat fleet, which was recently all but extinct. A dedicated group of parents brought the class back from the brink, and now, at nearly 20 club racers, it boasts one of the healthiest fleets in the Inland.

Jackson Walker and Paxton Denton
Jackson Walker and Paxton Denton, from Lac La Belle, Wisconsin, on Landshark. Hannah Lee Noll/Melges

“I live about 20 seconds from Jimmy,” says 13-year-old Kotovic. “So, it’s easy for us to get out on the water. I’ve sailed a lot with my dad on the E boat, and he has taught me so much about how to be a good crew.”

Kotovic’s father, Rick, grew up sailing at Pine Lake and graduated into E scow racing on Pewaukee Lake. In 2002, he met his future wife, Nancy, at the ILYA Championships at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

The Inland Lake Yachting Association has been fostering these types of relationships since its founding in 1897. For adult racers, the summer annual has provided ground for scow racing for more than 120 years. Today, the various ILYA championship regattas host some of the most competitive one-design racing in the country. Big fleets, big courses and big wind shifts are hallmarks of these annual affairs, and most importantly, there is something for everyone to enjoy. One of the most difficult aspects of the sport of sailing is creating a progression for sailors to begin at a young age and continue racing into adulthood. With the Inland, there is always something for developing sailors.

Beginning in the Optimist, they can progress to the X boat, MC scow, C scow, E scow, and eventually the 38-foot A scow. With the recent addition of the Melges 15, the gap between the X boat and the more high-octane E scow is bridged, which should see even more youth development in these traditionally adult-­oriented one-design classes. “My mom and my sister race the Melges 15,” Hughes says. “Those are really fast compared to the X boat. The downwinds are so much fun.”

Racing in the Midwest isn’t just about getting to play with flashy new toys, however. It’s about family, friendships, and an overall sense of regional community that keeps sailors young and old returning. This is where the X boat truly shines. Every ILYA lake boat has a designated letter displayed at the top of its mainsails: M for Minnetonka, V for Pewaukee, for Geneva. The X boat is the first class in which sailors get to display their letters proudly. Many of them will continue to use the same sail numbers into adulthood, giving them a unique sense of personal identity. X boat sailors don’t only learn the basics of championship racing, they learn how to ­operate inside an intergenerational community of sailors.

Anna Regan
Anna Regan, from Lake Minnetonka, chats with her coach. Hannah Lee Noll/Melges

“My parents met sailing X boats,” Kaiser says. “My mom sailed on Pewaukee, and my dad sailed on Beaver. My grandparents also met that way. My grandma raced X boats and then MCs, and my grandpa raced X boats and then Cs.”

Like those before him, Kaiser is already stepping into bigger and faster boats. “I’ve been racing on the E and the MC,” he says. “I just started skippering a Melges 17 too. There’s something to race almost every night on Pewaukee Lake, so it’s been fun to check out other boats.”

And then there’s the silver. As competitors and parents gather around the flagpole on the lawn of the Pewaukee YC for the awards ceremony, nearly two dozen perpetual trophies line a long white tablecloth with the words “Inland Lake Yachting Association: 1897”inscribed in red lettering. This annual ritual has been repeated since 1940, and by now, X boat sailors are competing for the same hardware their parents and grandparents once did. In 1968, the X fleet had become so large that regatta organizers decided to split it into Junior and Senior divisions. Kaiser will be the ninth sailor to have his name inscribed on both Junior and Senior trophies, and if he continues his current trajectory, this won’t be the last time he gives a speech in front of this crowd.

Though these silver trophies serve as official record, the true legacy of ILYA X boat racing lives on in the memories of those who have sailed them: the countless mornings going down to the dock and rigging up with a sibling or neighbor, the painful moments in the parking lot learning how to trailer a boat for the first time from an overwhelmed parent or coach, road trips through the American heartland watching rows and rows of cornfields blur by the window—all in anticipation of arriving at some small inland lake to rekindle friendships from the summer before. Most kids who sail X boats never win a regatta, but a competitive round of volleyball or one good shift on the racecourse is enough to keep them coming back for more. All these memories, from the barbecues to the racing, are something they will share with their kids one day, and so the progression continues.

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