A Change of Course

Photos by David Thoreson Photo

Veiled behind the rolling hills of Iowa cornfields exists a watery oasis dubbed the Iowa Great Lakes. The Midwest is home to many bodies of water, but Okoboji, Iowa, is home to some of the clearest blue water around thanks to Lake Okoboji’s exceptional water quality. This attracts Midwesterners for all kinds of water activities. Among the most prevalent is sailing, which will be catching international attention this upcoming summer season.


The Okoboji Yacht Club (OYC) was originally founded in 1877 on the shores of Manhattan Beach on West Lake Okoboji. It moved to Miller’s Bay in 1908, where it stands today as a place for sailing fans to come together. Members of the club make up a large portion of the Iowa Lakes sailors in the region and the nationwide sailing community. Some sailors come from as far as Canada, California, Hong Kong, Spain, and beyond, according to Randy Gould, OYC Sailing School Program Director. They all have one thing in common: A love for the clear blue water that is the Iowa Great Lakes.

Local X-Boat sailing class takes a trip down to the Arnold’s Park Amusement Park in downtown Arnold’s Park, Iowa. The amusement park is a landmark location for the Iowa Great Lakes Area and draws people from all over the country each summer because of its vast history

Okoboji will host several events this coming season and the US Sailing’s Junior Olympic Sailing Program at the end of June. However, with all the sailing options available throughout the nation, local Iowa sailors are eager to make sailing more accessible close to home.

Most sailors at the OYC have had the chance to sail all over the nation—if not the world—crewing and captaining on several different sizes and models of sailboats. The seasonal OYC members come back each summer to live as part-time residents, reconnect with their Iowa roots, or to enjoy Okoboji’s amenities.   

“The quality of racing [on Lake Okoboji] is pretty good,” says Gould. “We’ve got great water, we’ve got big wind, and we’ve got a very round basin. There’s interesting topography around the lake that makes it challenging at times as well, so that’s another opportunity for sailors to have a fun time on the lake.” The Iowa Great Lakes is home to the biggest and deepest lakes in Iowa, which formed from a prehistoric glacier movement. The clear water is also attributed to an inversion process where the water from below the surface flips and rises, known as “lake turnover,” which happens halfway through the summer as a natural filtration system. Because the water quality in the area is so important to the local economy and sailing quality, the OYC encourages sustainable lake use through green efforts within the sailing community by hosting “Green Regattas.”

Through their sustainability efforts, the OYC has partnered with the Lakeside Lab in Okoboji to promote their new program, “Adventure Sailing.” The experiential program covers limnology, or the study of lake environments, and looks at environmental impacts of different types of invasive species—all important things when it comes to keeping the Iowa lakes beautiful and healthy.

“We’re lucky to be next to a beautiful lake,” says Jock McDonald, OYC sailing member and five time qualifier for the Yngling Class World Championships. The Inland Lakes Yachting Association works in conjunction with the Iowa Great Lakes Association in getting and organizing sailing competitions, or regattas, onto Okoboji. Yacht Clubs around the midwest are part of the ILYA to form their own independent community from coastal sailing.

“I like Inland sailing lakes much better [than coastal sailing],” says current OYC Commodore and nationally ranked sailboat captain, Larry Jensen. “I was living in Florida for many years, and I did sail down there, mainly in ocean racing, but I didn’t like it very much.” Jensen was born in Spencer, Iowa, about 20 miles from the Iowa Great Lakes, and has traveled around the United States in many different types of boats. “[When we sailed] on the ocean you could be on one tack (a sailing directional maneuver) for a very long period of time because you had a lot of open water. I feel that the inland lake racing is much more fun.” Returning to Iowa provided the opportunity to do more inland sailing.

“There’s something magical about sailing in the middle of cornfields with the clear water around you. It’s like everything else fades away and you’re floating.” —fleet captain Jim Coddington


On lake Okoboji, youth sailors line up before the start of youth sailing race regatta in the X-Boat model sailboat

Sailing clubs have difficulty attracting interest because of the perceived unaffordability and lack of accessibility of their programs. However, OYC is working to weather these obstacles. Through partnerships with local organizations like the Bedell Center YMCA, the Lakeside Laboratory, and Camp Foster, OYC members plan to re-engage the people of the Iowa Great Lakes and reimagine what it means to be a part of a sailing organization. Within the last 20 years or so, Lake Okoboji, once with very few things to do but sail, has transformed into a top Iowa tourist destination.

Gould has been gearing up for overhauls in the OYC community engagement initiatives meant to bring sailing back into the spotlight. “Some of the branding and marketing approach that’s coming out of the sailing center is in a synergistic approach to helping also build the yacht club membership back up,” says Gould.  “So when we talk about community sailing, it’s really [bringing] focus back onto the Great Lakes area.”

Yacht Clubs are known to be lavish organizations, but the social aspect of a yacht club and the sailing aspect are often two different parts. “We want to focus on the sailing aspect. We are renaming our sailing school actually to try and change that stigma locally,” says Gould. According to Gould, members can get into competitive sailing for around $600, including all fees for a season. And with the recent program partnerships, students have the chance to get involved through high school team events.

The OYC anticipates having a high school program this year where students from three different high schools around the area form a team. These students will come from Spirit Lake High School and Okoboji High School —  two schools in the area — and from Lincoln High School out of Sioux Falls. The Okoboji Board of Education will vote on joining program in April. “We got a lot more interest than we thought,” says Gould, “But this will be the first regional sailing program in Iowa.” The OYC purchased four new boats this winter and are working on them this spring to get them ready for sailing season in June.

OYC hosted national Opti Regatta last season, which is a single person boat with one sail. Traditionally a youth boat used for training, these smaller vessels are used for sailors anywhere between the ages of four to sixteen.

“I think every club is struggling getting the young sailors to commit to a program of competitive sailing,” says Jensen. McDonald says that engaging with sailing is much easier after the initial purchase of a boat, but encourages fixing up older ones rather than buying new. “Fortunately, the boats are one of a kind, and if you take care of them, you can get into sailing fairly reasonably,” he says. The sailing center of Okoboji also offers scholarships and leasing options alongside it’s new programs, according to Jensen.


Coddington and McDonald sail against each other each season for the top spot, but their rivalry is one based in friendship and support. “We compete, but we really respect each other,” says Coddington, who emphasizes the unique community-based sailing in Midwest yacht clubs. “We just enjoy racing against each other so much … it’s a culture of mutual respect and trying to help others that are newer to the game to [get] better.”

McDonald sails all over the nation for regattas, but continually returns to Iowa because of the OYC. “I have great friendships here, and you get to really build a community,” he says. McDonald and Coddington expect to travel this season for the North American Championships, which is a qualifying event for the World Yngling Championship Regatta. “For me, it’s that kind of competitive energy and building a team,” says McDonald. “You get to the point where you can read each other’s minds, you trust each other implicitly. It’s really something special.” Sailors compete for a variety of reasons, whether it’s the water quality, location, competitive drive, strategy of sailing, or the crash of the boat against the waves.

“When I’m out on the water everything else falls away. I just want to hear the splash of water against the hull and feel the wind on my face, and forget everything else. Nothing else matters in those moments,” says Jensen about racing.  All these sailors emphasize how sailing has been a part of the community for generations, and while the club continues to expand, they hope to build on and strengthen that community in Iowa sailing. “I’m most excited about the relationships we’ve made,” says Gould.