Sailing’s Health Starts At Home

Our grass-roots racing is the most important foundation of the sport, and where we sail and what we sail is what matters most.
illustration of two people looking at a lake with sailboats on it
Our satisfaction isn’t really defined by where or what we race. Our rituals, our local fleets and our shared experiences are what keep us coming back. Illustration by Jen Edney

When I was recently prompted about what I love about our sport, my first thought was to write about a few of the cooler sailing destinations I’ve experienced over the years: Bermuda, Hawaii, Antigua and Mexico come to mind. But I’ve also enjoyed my share of grassroots regattas, small inland regattas at places such as Indian Lake, Ohio; Lake Massapoag in Massachusetts; and Branched Oak Lake in Nebraska. This sport can be experienced on so many levels, in so many places and in so many different boats, and while it’s easy to find ourselves hankering for something bigger and better, I’ve come to accept that it’s perfectly fine to keep it small, or as you might say, “keep it real.”

I’m betting that a sizable number of people who race are quite content doing just that. Weekend after weekend, we keep coming back for more. I was recently reminded of this while rigging my new ILCA dinghy at Colorado’s Union Sailing Club, when the owner of the boat next to me arrives, Martin Holmgren, a Scandinavian transplant with racing experience at a number of venues around the world. As we rig, we swap thoughts about the mirrorlike surface of Union Reservoir, our home body of water—all 736 acres of it—just north of Boulder in the city of Longmont. As dinghy-park neighbors, it’s a conversation we seem to be having a lot lately. Predictably, our conversations segue into nostalgic talk about all the other places we’ve sailed, all of which we’d probably rank higher than Union Reservoir on our all-time ­favorite-places-to-sail list.

I slide off into a daydream about a bigger body of water, more-consistent winds, and while we’re at it, let’s throw in a real clubhouse, a better launching area, a lawn on which to spread out sails, and…well, you get the idea.

Martin interrupts my mental meanderings. “I’ve sailed in a lot of places way better than this,” he says, “but somehow, I still love coming here and sailing. If I want to live in Colorado and I want to sail, this is where I have to do it. And my friends are all here too.”

So, he keeps coming back.

He’s right, of course. The essence of it is that we’re on the water—any body of water—hanging out with friends and doing one of the things we love most: racing sailboats. While we sometimes fixate on big coastal events at amazing venues, as well as the latest and greatest in sailing technology, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of us across the country, like Martin, who still look forward to each day of racing on whatever body of water is nearest in whatever class of boat being raced there, even if it’s a class that’s been around for more than 50 years. Sure, there are varying degrees of enjoyment affected by factors such as venue and wind ­velocity, but we’re still doing basically the same thing. And we keep ­coming back. 

I grew up on Lake Fenton, a similar-size body of water in southeast Michigan with a racing area just a bit smaller than what I’m currently sailing on in Colorado. At the time, the 1960s, we had active Lightning, C Scow and catamaran fleets that raced on Sunday mornings. It was a paper club, with no lakefront property, and a handful of C Scows and a small pontoon committee boat kept in front of someone’s house in one of the small bays. The rest of us were scattered around the lake, on hoists, or moored in front of our homes or someone else’s who sailed in the fleet.

Like most small inland lakes, summer winds there tended to be light. I recall waiting for winds that never came or ­chasing ­ripples on the water, hoping to get some races in before the powerboats started coming out and spreading wakes all across the lake. Still, everyone showed up every Sunday, we raced, and we had a great time. 

In the early 1970s, this paper club had the opportunity to buy a choice piece of lakefront property. They wisely grabbed it, built a clubhouse, and added docks and a hoist. Over the years, like at many clubs, their fleets have ebbed and flowed, and a few new ones have been added. They now race on Wednesday evenings as well as Sundays and have an active social program too.

Today, I’m sure the same type of conversations are happening on Lake Fenton Sailing Club’s docks that Martin and I regularly have: What else is out there beyond Fenton?

Still, they keep coming back. 

And, we keep participating even when we can’t race; there seems to be a spot for everyone. At Vermont’s Lake Champlain YC, where I was an active member until the Colorado mountains drew me away a few years ago, longtime member Dale Hyerstay is a case in point. Once he realized that he could no longer race, he began regularly helping out on the committee boat. And when getting around the committee boat became a challenge, he planted himself behind the RC boat’s helm and limited his role to driving the boat, letting others deal with flags, marks and horns. It allowed him to keep coming back. 

What’s great about our sport? There are so many little things: the joy of trying a completely new class of boat, the satisfaction of solving some rigging issue no matter how small, watching our crew perform a maneuver to perfection, the perfect start, that first win and then, just to keep our ego in check, that first DFL. And when we finally pull the cover over the boat at the end the season and cinch it tight, the realization that, come spring, we’ll be lucky enough to do it all over again.