The Sailing's Great, Even When It's Landlocked

Don't fall into the trap of thinking all sailing happens on the coasts; there are vibrant lake and river sailing clubs that are just as passionate as their saltier counterparts on the oceans. From our July/August 2006 issue.

Sailing is a highly visible sport in many coastal towns, and along the shores of our Great Lakes, but there are vibrant sailing clubs operating on smaller lakes and rivers everywhere across the country. The enthusiasm for sailing in these landlocked venues is strong, and the sailors of America's inland waters are every bit as enthusiastic as those of us on our coasts. In my travels I've visited many of these places, including, but not limited to Lake Dillon, Colo., White Bear Lake and Minnetonka Lake in Minnesota, Lake Carlyle, Ill.; Lake Travis, Texas, and Lake Murray, S.C. I've been to the Thunderbird Sailing Club in Norman, Okla., and Geist Reservoir in Indianapolis. Each has its unique character, but among them there's a common passion for getting the most from experiences on the water. Let's visit a few that caught me by surprise."We like to pretend we're racing here in the Land of Oz," laughs Dr. Andrew Craig, a founding member of the Ninnescah Sailing Association, based inWichita, Kan. But this "crossroads of America" is one of the windiest parts of the country thanks to its flat topography. Cheney Lake, located in south central Kansas, lies within the North Fork of the Ninnescah River Valley. "It can be very windy for days on end making sailing on our 10,000-acre lake a real challenge," says Craig. "In 1965 the Ninnescah River [a tributary of the Arkansas River] was dammed, and we suddenly had a reservoir to use. Forty-one people showed up for the first meeting to organize a sailing club. We're lucky not to have many powerboats here."Enhancing Cheney Lake's prairie feeling, is the absence of houses along the lakefront, which is important to keeping the water clean. Over the years, about 150 homes have been built in the area, but they're set back one quarter of a mile from the lake. Because of this, it's a pristine area in which to sail, with more than 5,000 acres of wildlife area and nearly 2,000 acres of state park. To keep things simple, the lake has two marinas and one yacht club."Our challenge is to get the weekend crowd to sail their boats," says Craig. "Too many spend their time in their slips."In 1999 the NSA expanded its clubhouse to attract more people, and to encourage more of them onto the water more often they've been using a reverse starting system for its PHRF fleet, so, as Craig says, "the bigger boats have to catch up to the small ones by the finish." The club seeks out major regattas to host, and in 2005 they held the district's J/24 championship. "In addition to hosting regattas, our biggest emphasis is on our youth program," says Craig. "We have Optimists and 420s." There's also an active Hobie 16 fleet, and Flying Scots are popular here as well.In 1940, the U.S. Government created Johnson Lake, a water storage reservoir in South Central Nebraska, which covers about 2,500 acres. It's one of the most popular lakes in central Nebraska, and its oval shape stretches 3 miles long by 1 mile wide. Santana 23s and Mutineers are the area's most popular classes.One of its top locals, Ernie French, a two-time Santana 23 national champ, settled in the area because of the lake's reliable winds. With a high concentration of powerboats, however, French says the lake was getting crowded so the Johnson Lake YC started an education program. "Sailors needed to understand what fishermen want, which is to be left alone," he says. "We respect the fishermen and stay out of their way."One highlight of the season is the region's Trans-Ran Race, on South Dakota's Lake Francis Case, which has 107 miles of navigable water. Using a reverse start-sequence, the race takes the fleet (which averages 15 to 22 boats) across the lake. "In the early years it was 62 miles of sailing, and we used to start at noon," says its founder and chairman John Gerber, a self-described old-timer who also owns a local sailboat shop. "There used to be night sailing, but some people wanted it shorter, so now it's 42 miles and starts at 9 a.m., which allows more socializing."Johnson Lake YC, like many others around the country, has seen a decline in its numbers, a situation French says they must face. "We find that bigger boats require more crew, and this means fewer boats," he says. "We need to get more people on the water." Gerber, who says regattas would pull in 75-boat fleets back in the '70s, echoes French's concerns. "We're having trouble getting younger people into sailing-we've lost them to jet skis and other things. Part of the problem is we tend to teach sailing through racing, and as it gets more competitive, inviting the neighborhood kid no longer cuts it."Cowan Lake, located near Cincinnati, Ohio, is a man-made lake, which took four years to develop. It averages 35 feet in depth. Past US SAILING President Dave Rosekrans has spent his life racing Thistles with his family here. "All the land is public," he says. "Our docks are owned by the State of Ohio." In keeping to the area's rustic roots, many yacht club members camp in an adjacent park when they come to Cowan Lake. "When we host youth training sessions, all the kids camp out for several days," says Rosekrans."Sailing can be tricky on the lake," he adds. "There are patterns to the wind that are effected by the shoreline. At only 700 acres, Cowan Lake is small, but we have developed some good sailors," says Rosekrans. Most notable is Steve Bourdow, who won an Olympic silver medal in the Flying Dutchman in 1992.The Cowan Lake Sailing Association facilities include eight acres, which are owned by the membership. CLSA members maintain the grounds and buildings themselves, to keep membership fees low. There are seven sanctioned classes on Cowan Lake, and it seems there must be a Scottish heritage because Highlanders, Flying Scots, and Thistles are the most popular. Ironically, Gordon "Sandy" Douglass designed all three.Lake Hopatcong, nine miles in length and covered by 2,500 acres of freshwater, is New Jersey's largest lake. Unlike the others we've mentioned here, it formed naturally during the last ice age. "You can sail right up to the shoreline," says longtime Hopatcong sailor George Drawbaugh. "The lake has a steep bank, there is 64 miles of shoreline, and considerable public access." Drawbaugh describes the winds as irregular, and says "the high banks create geographic shifts, but there are always surprises."There are two yacht clubs on the lake, The Garden State YC and Hopatcong YC. The Hopatcong YC, founded in 1905, is a vibrant private club that's run by its members, and as you'd expect there's plenty of dinghy racing to be found. The most popular boats seen racing here are Stars, E Scows, and Thistles, which use the venue for their district championships. The scene has recently been spiced up with a growing A Class catamaran fleet.