Northern Michigan Sailing on Walloon Lake with Historic “17s”

The waters of Walloon Lake are rife with Northern Michigan boaters sailing the illustrious 17—a two-person craft steeped in the history of Walloon and surrounding lakes. MyNorth contributor Carrie Tebeau set sail with the 17s’ enthusiasts to learn about the revitalization of this Northern Michigan outdoor pastime. The following article was first featured in the July 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.


A persistent breeze tousles the surface of Walloon lake into short angular waves. Deep into summer, the cool wind makes everyone shiver a bit, but it also makes a perfect day for sailing. Two 25-foot-long sailboats, masts soldierlike and rigidly proper against the sky, slip primly over the waves several feet from shore where they are tied to buoys, waiting for us to hoist the sails that will swallow the wind and transform it to power.

TVM0714_WALLOON5The boats are called 17s, and they’re as much a part of Walloon’s history as Hemingway’s boyhood. Their 17-square-meter sails are tall, crisp, and engineered for speed. They were first built in the 30s expressly for racing on Walloon Lake, and these days they’re experiencing a renaissance on the same lake, generations later.

At the edge of the dock, I stand with Philo Lange, Stephen Kircher, his daughter Loren, Parker Boundy, and Joe Lane, all devotees of racing 17s. Our hair is raked by the breeze as we make our way to the end of the dock in white and red team jackets. Today is race day.

Philo Lange pauses for a moment to smile the sort of easy smile that always plays at the edges of his mouth when he stares out at the lake. He spends his summers racing 17s and trying to grow community interest in the historic design, with a dream of one day seeing a fleet of 20 boats chasing each other across the water on race days. He began sailing 17s in his boyhood, and he’s made it a self-appointed mission to make sure the boats will forever be a part of the Walloon waterscape.

“The 17s are like boats in the America’s Cup,” Lange says. “They’re just miniature versions.” He holds his forefinger and thumb apart before pushing them together to illustrate the scaling down. The gesture feels exactly right for describing a boat on Walloon—a scaled down boat for a scaled down lake, where a quiet appreciation for the surrounding nature has always been a part of the lake’s resort history. Big and ostentatious do not fit the lake’s personality so well as classic and refined. The sails for which the boats are named are 17 square meters. For Philo, the name and the design express a sense of clean proportion.

Lange shields his golden-brown eyes from a sudden beam of sun cracking through the clouds as he looks down the lake toward “the foot,” the part of the lake where the Village of Walloon is nestled. It is a sailor’s gesture, a constant habit of surveying the water. “Right there,” he says, pointing. “Right there is where they first made these boats in the 30s. The workshop is gone, but you can almost still see it in your mind. That’s how much these boats are a part of this lake—they were born here.”

TVM0714_WALLOON1It’s true that across the rolling water, past the docks and gently bobbing boats, you can imagine yourself in a time vortex, still looking at the same improbably small village that’s hosted more than a century of resort summers. No matter how the world shifts and changes, every summer Walloon still laps against its shores invitingly, beckoning people to enjoy it. In that spirit, to the people who sail them, boarding a 17 is an act of time travel; a way to connect with summers gone by.

TVM0714_WALLOON3We step off a rubber dinghy and onto the 17 we’re going to race. It’s small inside the 25-foot-long boat, the hull just big enough inside to accommodate three people ducking back and forth under the boom to hoist the sails. The boats have a small fixed keel, which Philo explains is a perfect balance to Walloon’s depth and feisty winds. “It’s such a tender little boat for this lake,” he says, and it’s hard to hear this as anything other than a line from a love letter. Above me is a flurry of hands and ropes; a practiced dance of command and action produces the sail, its fabric arguing against the wind as it rises up the mast. Philo places the ropes controlling the jib in my hands. This will be my job in the race. “When I tell you, then you pull this as hard as you can,” he says. Though sailing may appear effortless when seen from shore, up close inside the boat a different story becomes evident, one of dedicated study, concentration, and plain strength.

With the exception of one restored and retrofitted wooden boat, all the 17s racing on this Saturday are fiberglass reproductions of the original wooden models. Getting people excited about fiberglass is part of Philo’s mission. “The wooden ones are beautiful, but a labor of love to maintain,” he says. “The people who own the wood ones now—they’re mostly collectors. Using fiberglass versions keeps us connected to the racing history.” In the 1970s, when fiberglass became widely used in boatmaking, Walloon sailors took the hull of boat No. 24 (each 17 is sequentially numbered; they now reach up to No. 42) and used it as a mold, and No. 27 was born into a new era of sailing. The boat we’re sailing has an aluminum mast and a sail fabricated by Quantum Sails of Traverse City, one of the world’s top sailmakers. Quantum’s laminated sails are engineered for speed; computer modeling and complicated mathematics guide their design. The sails are a far cry from the sails available in the 30s, but they stay true to the original competitive spirit of the 17s, part of an evolution that straddles the boat between tradition and fresh technology.

As our boat takes flight across the water, Philo explains how you can read the wind before it takes hold of the sails. The wind “is like a book,” he says. “It will always tell you what it’s going to do. You just have to look ahead for the green line.” He points out to a smear between waves, where the water has flattened into a faint green line between the rollicking waves ahead of us. “Puff!” he shouts, and sure enough, a few seconds later the sails animate, capturing the wind. Suddenly the 17 surges forward. It tilts 45 degrees. My adrenalin rush is so potent I can hear it, a direct opposition to the boat’s soundless path. The effect is a sublime sensation of balance. To command a sailboat is to master the wind, the waves, the lake itself.

We pass an original wooden 17 anchored in front of a cottage. “Look at that one,” Philo says. “Those old wooden ones are like boat art. They’re beautiful just to look at, just to think about.”

The first 17 was manufactured in the winter of 1934, during a deep freeze where, according to legend, temperatures hovered around 40 below. There is a folkloric tendency in all the literature about 17s to mention this cold, this paradoxical passion of stiffly cold men feverishly hammering out a boat in anticipation of summer. The process was laborious; for each piece the men cut and fitted, they made a pattern from scrap lumber in anticipation of future 17s. Even from the start, the idea was to develop a fleet, a tradition. Keeping that notion alive, Philo and other 17 devotees contacted a boat manufacturer in Cleveland willing to make custom-ordered 17s. The fleet will certainly grow, Philo firmly believes.

The race course has the boats triangulate a set of buoys. For the straight stretches between markers, the race feels endlessly idyllic. We soar past hills topped with cottages. We see compounds with outbuildings and boathouses. We see quaint log cabins with wood-frame screen doors that undoubtedly smack satisfyingly closed—relics of Walloon’s resort beginnings. It is easy to see how this sloop we’re sailing is a part of this lake and the way it too straddles new and old. The sun glints on the white fiberglass hull and highlights the high-tech fibers running through the sail that make it seize the wind with engineered precision. But all you can hear is the sound of the water, the same waves that have lapped under thousands of boats commanded by people who want to make the most of this horseshoe-shaped Elysium named Walloon.

Philo points to a hill in the distance ahead of us. “That’s my wife’s family’s place,” he says. His own family history intertwines tightly with the history of the lake; his boyhood summers involved all the sounds you can still hear in July on Walloon—seagulls, waves, the free-spirited laughter of people truly at ease. The first 17 his family owned was No. 8. “We called it the 8-ball,” he says, his voice softening with the memory. “I still remember its yellow spinnaker with a big 8-ball on it. You always knew whose boat was whose by the spinnaker.” He recalls standing at the edge of the lake beside his brother, watching his dad race their 17. “I loved it,” he says. “All the stories my dad and everyone would tell, about the race and sailing. Sailors are notorious for having a fun time.” Decades later, No. 8 belongs to Tom Borish, who also owns Barrel Back restaurant in the village. Borish is currently restoring the boat, and it should be back on the lake soon, in the way that history never really leaves Walloon.

TVM0714_WALLOON2When the string of racing boats approaches a course buoy, the air seizes with a palpable tension. There is no sound to tell you that eight boats are suddenly within crashing distance of one other, but seemingly all at once the sky packs in with sails. Inside each boat, captains shout commands. The cryptic language of sailing stuffs complicated directions into single words. Ropes slither through their guides. Gloved knuckles tighten. Abs pull in. All muscles tense against the wind. As the boats pivot around the buoy, sailors duck swiftly under the switching boom, the wind punches the sails as it tucks them in a new direction. Bigger than everything is the palpable sense of concentration, the wall of sailing knowledge slapped up against capsizing, crashing, going too slow.

Around the last bend of the race my arms, spent from unfamiliar motions, aren’t strong enough to yank the jib sheets taut. Our course alters, and I watch Philo’s face stiffen with confident concentration as he singlehandedly keeps us from crashing into two other boats around the tight turn at the buoy.

We finish last. As we glide up to the mooring buoy, Philo lights up with a brilliant smile. “That was great!” he says, and means it. This is what they will talk about post-race at the Barrel Back: why Philo ended last when he was ahead for awhile, which tack proved quickest, why No. 30 won again. They’ll laugh and raise their glasses, toasting Walloon, its waters, and blue summer days that seem to last forever.

Racing Schedule

The Walloon Yacht Club racing season runs from late June through early August, rotating among the three parts of the lake—in the foot near the village and in both of the arms. Look for the sails on Tuesday evenings and Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Check WalloonYachtClub.org for time and place specifics. When the race is near Walloon Village, the best spot to watch is from the deck of Barrel Back restaurant, rum cocktail in hand. Stick around for the post-race party; invariably the sailors will end up there, happy to tell you about the race, answer questions, and raise their glasses to 17s.

A 17 of Your Own

Love the sleek elegance of the 17? The boat’s acolytes have put it back into production on a very limited basis. At press time, two new boats are available. The boats come with standard fittings but can be customized with personal colors and choices of different sail makers, though the standard sailmaker is Quantum Sails. If interested, contact the club through WalloonYachtClub.org.

17s by the numbers

  • 17: The number of square meters in the sails.
  • 1934: The year the first 17 was built in Walloon Village.
  • 42: The number of Walloon 17s, including both old wooden models and newer fiberglass versions.
  • 20: The number of racing 17s the club hopes to see on the lake by 2020.
  • 8: The number of racing 17s in 2013.
  • 20: The approximate number of 17 races each summer.
  • 1907: The year the Walloon Lake Yacht Club was formed.

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