Lake Minnetonka glistened in the harsh evening sun on a recent Thursday, its waters serene and relatively empty considering its reputation as the Twin Cities’ busiest lake.

But that was about to change, as more than 100 sailboats filled the bay for race night at the Wayzata Yacht Club — home to one of the largest weekly racing programs in the nation.

“There’s no place in the country that looks like this,” said Blake Middleton, the principal race officer. “Look at how many people are out here for this. Most clubs would be lucky to get half of this.”

The west metro yacht club, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year, has come a long way since it started in 1965 with 60 boat slips and 15 members. Now, the Wayzata Bay marina holds 186 boats, the club has more than 600 members and weekday races draw as many as 500 people of all ages from across the Twin Cities area.

“It grew quickly,” said Bert Foster, who was one of the first members and still has a place on the club’s board. “I think it’s a really big deal to reach 50.”

While other coastal states or cities may seem like obvious sailing hot spots, the popular yacht club in the small lakeside town of 4,200 residents has helped propel Wayzata’s reputation as a sailing destination beyond the borders of Minnesota. In 2008, Sailing World magazine ranked Wayzata as one of five top little-known sailing cities. Some of the club’s racers also compete nationally and internationally.

“What other sport do you get to go up against the pros?” said Kevin Kenny, a St. Louis Park attorney and longtime member who competes nationally. “We’ve got a special niche here.”

Sometimes, though, he gets a startled reaction at national races: “ ‘You’re from Minnesota? They’ve got sailing there?!’ ”

‘Working man’s yacht club’

While boating is a big part of Minnesota life (the state claims No. 1 in the nation for the number of recreational watercraft per capita), sailing numbers have taken a hit.

Registered sailboats in Minnesota have dropped by the thousands. In 1990, nearly 24,000 sailboats and sailboards were registered to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. By 2014, there were 10,173 registered sailboats. The club also has to combat stereotypes of yachting as a stuffy sport exclusive to the very wealthy.

“It’s a different culture [here],” club commodore Randy Gould said, adding that the club has worked hard to make it accessible to all people.

Annual crew memberships cost $95. There’s no dress code. And signs encourage anyone from the public to show up for a free ride on race day if a boat needs additional crew members.

“We’re the working man’s yacht club,” Gould said.

And the working woman’s. The Minnesota Women’s Sailing Team, which promotes women in the sport, is based there. The club also partners with neighboring Wayzata Community Sailing Center, which instructs children and offers adaptive sailing. Unlike clubs that might draw mostly residents from its lake, Wayzata’s attracts boaters from across the region.

“It’s really welcoming and really open to everybody,” said Sara Godfrey of Maplewood, who is on the women’s team.

Boating and free beers

As soon as the ice goes out on Lake Minnetonka, sailboats arrive and stay on the lake until fall, soaking up Minnesota’s short boating season.

Thursday night races, which take place over 14 weeks from May to September, are casual, but they’re the most popular of the yacht club’s 76 races.

“There’s no one doing this much sailing this intensively,” Middleton said.

On race day, he cruises out to set up the course based on the speed and direction of the wind. Middleton knows what he’s doing, with 41 years of experience coaching and directing races. He picked up the sport when he was 10, living in nearby Deephaven, and later went on to coach at the U.S. Naval Academy and Stanford University. Now, he runs races full-time for the Minnetonka and Wayzata yacht clubs, as well as U.S. events.

On a recent Thursday, he talked excitedly as he rushed to measure the wind speed and direction. Then he and his crew plopped buoys into the water to mark the race course, creating a modified trapezoid-shaped course.

“Flag down in 10 … 9 … 8 … .”

As Middleton shouted out the different starts for multiple fleets, the boats stormed the line and maneuvered, waves splashing their sides. The boats tacked back and forth, their sails whipping in the wind. A couple of fishermen looked on while passing.

Middleton zipped off on the boat to the finish line and waited as the boats zigzagged across the course. An hour later, the sun melted into the horizon as the first sailboats crossed the finish line.

But the night wasn’t over. As dusk fell, the sailboats slowly returned to Wayzata Bay, and the yacht club’s raucous social hour followed. It’s almost as popular as the races themselves, with people mingling over barbecue, free beer and soda.

“There’s an image of yachting as elite and expensive,” Middleton said. “One of the reasons Wayzata Yacht Club is successful is it diffuses that … there’s something for everybody.”