Sailing Takes Me AwayAug 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By David O'Reilly
A six-knot breeze is blowing down Cayuga Lake, dancing the afternoon sunlight into diamonds. Sublime, but I’m watching those stone cliffs looming large on the eastern shore. Time to tack.
No need to shout “coming about.” I’m the only one on board, and as I push the tiller away this nineteen-foot O’Day Mariner starts to turn. The mainsail flaps and flutters noisily as we cross through the wind, but then fills out and stiffens into the graceful curve of white Dacron that will drive us upwind, in apparent defiance of all physics. That’s sailing.
I’m alone, yet in the company of what feels like an old friend. My first sailboat, Grey Goose, was a Mariner nearly identical to this, and it’s the first time I’ve sailed one since I sold “the goose” twenty-eight years ago. Yet everything about this boat feels familiar.
Alas, with no crew I must let go of the tiller to scoot forward and switch the lines, or sheets, securing the foresail. But, dang! The jib cleats are tight, they don’t want to pop, and the jib sail is stuck on the windward side, pushing the bow downwind. Grrrr. This is taking too long, we’re going off course—ah! There it goes. I yank the jib sheet into the port cleat, scramble back to the tiller, and give it a tug. We heel over gently and pick up speed, leaving a wake as I steer for that shaded gazebo on the far western shore.
Welcome to the New York Finger Lakes: eleven slender, glacier-carved marvels of geology that most folks only ever encounter from on shore. Scenic, certainly, with splendid wineries. But on a blue-sky summer day, wouldn’t you rather be sailing?
Calm and Peaceful on Cayuga
You may think of sailboats as playthings for the rich. But just an hour earlier I joined the Merrill Family Sailing Center in Ithaca, giving me immediate access to about thirty of their sailboats ranging in length from fourteen to twenty-six feet. Members who have the skills can take any one of them out—including this red-hulled Mariner—for three hours at a time, as often as they’d like, from late spring through early fall. No varnishing, no hull scraping, none of the headaches of boat ownership. A half-season is just $300, full season is $550, and if you don’t know port from starboard, they’ll teach you.
“We’re the only community sailing facility on the three lakes,” says Ivan Sagel, program director for the Merrill Center. “Everything else is either yacht clubs or private marinas.” In those places, members own and maintain their own boats. He’s looking to expand membership and upgrade the fleet over the next few years. Though not an entity of Cornell University, Merrill Center sits on university property, and shares its modern, wood frame boathouse with Cornell’s sail racing team. It was the creation of the late Philip Merrill, Cornell ’55, a newspaper publisher and U.S. diplomat. “The idea [behind it] was to get as many people as possible out on the water,” says Ivan. “On a sunny weekend afternoon, all the boats are gone.”
But not around the bend. That would be Salt Point, five miles from the boat house, where the Cayuga turns west. “Then we can’t see you,” says Ivan. “So that’s as far as you’re allowed to go.” Cell phone reception on the lake is good, and the club provides two-way radios as needed. The staff will come get you if the wind dies or you get in trouble.
It’s the only way to sail, some members say.
“I’ve never owned my own boat and have no interest in doing so,” Shank Kohlhatkar, fifty-seven, an engineering production manager, says as I fill out the paperwork. He was preparing to step aboard Priscilla, a stable, twenty-four foot sloop that’s his favorite.
“I learned to sail here, my daughter taught sailing here, and I’ve been a member for thirty years,” he says adding that he tries to get out on the water at least twice a week. “Sailing is so calm and peaceful. It beats any other water activity.”
Sailing comes in a variety of sizes and flavors, too. Besides small-boat daysailing—what I’m doing today—there’s racing, coastal and offshore cruising in bigger boats, and “gunkholing.” That’s where you sail broad, inland waters fed by creeks, like Chesapeake Bay, then find a quiet anchorage to spend the night. It’s you and your companions, making dinner as the sun glows coral on the horizon.
I’ve done them all, they’re all great, but you can’t do them all on the Finger Lakes. The glaciers that scoured these hills ten thousand years ago gouged them to astonishing depths—more than 600 feet in places—that forbid most anchoring. And their steep, rocky shorelines don’t have sheltered coves for gunkholing.
“We have picnic benches here where people can hang out if they want,” says Ivan. “But anchoring out is not something we do. Sailboats are made for sailing.”
Tell that to the folks at Keuka Yacht Club, where boats run on wind and adrenaline.
Adrenaline-Fueled on Keuka
“I much prefer racing because of the competition and camaraderie,” says Jeff Braddon, sixty, of Canandaigua. It’s a Saturday in June, and he’s just eased his sixteen-foot MC scow back to the dock after two hours racing single-handed against six other boats.
“Racing forces you to sail the boat as efficiently as possible,” explains Jeff, a retired plastics manufacturer, “and it’s very intense. You have to be focused every second on the currents, the wind shifts, your sail trim, and what the other boats are doing.”
“It’s the only sport where you can compete against world class champions and have a chance of winning,” says William Hudson, sixty-nine, a financial manager for an international investment bank who regularly trailers his boat to competitions along the East Coast. “It’s just you and the waves and the wind. It’s something you can do with your kids and into old age.” (Used MCs range in price from $2,000 to $15,000.)
Founded in 1872, Keuka Yacht Club sits seven miles above Hammondsport, where its modern clubhouse and lawns command a splendid view of the seven-hundred foot rise, called The Bluff, where Keuka splits to form a crooked “Y.” Just half a mile wide for most of its nearly twenty miles, it’s the narrowest of the major Finger Lakes.
Keuka, one of America’s oldest yacht clubs, seems to attract professionals—lawyers, judges, business owners, stockbrokers—but the gilded sign out front bespeaks friendliness: “New Members Welcome,” it reads. “A friendly club without airs,” reads its website, though prospective members need two sponsors.
The club offers six-week sailing classes open to the public, has activities for kids, and boasts a fine restaurant serving lunches (like mahi mahi fish tacos) and prix-fixe dinners on summer weekends. Finger Lake wines are, of course, on the menu.
Racers are always looking for crew, and I could have volunteered, but on a recent Sunday morning I accept an offer from George and Elizabeth Welch of Corning to watch the Lightning and E-scow races from their powerboat, which they keep at a slip at the club.
“We’re a family of sailors. We used to race together,” says Elizabeth, a retired nurse. She points out their son, George Jr., at the helm of Mojo, one of the eight E-scows. flat-bottomed and twenty-eight feet long, E-scows were created for inland sailing in the 1920s and are the fastest class on the lake. The nineteen-foot Lightnings were introduced on nearby Skaneateles Lake in 1938 and, with more than 16,000 produced, are among the most popular sailboat designs ever made.
We head for an anchored pontoon boat where the race committee will signal the start. It’s blowing six knots out of the south, good enough for a twice-around the mile-long course, and at nine a.m. the E-scow race starts with a horn blast. Wind force is exponential, so that a ten-knot breeze is twice as strong as a seven, and knowing where and how to ride the friendly gusts—the “lifts”—is a big part of what makes a winner.
“I knew this would be interesting,” says Elizabeth as half the E-scow fleet heads towards the western shore in search of a lift. Mojo goes early onto starboard tack—the wind is now on its right, or starboard, bow—and is first around the first mark.
On the downwind leg, four boats again go west looking for extra wind, and four go east. “We’ll see how they do going to shore,” she says, but this time it’s Corning’s Bob Cole, with an all-female crew, first around the second mark. Bob takes a long lead as George Jr. and some others search for better wind again on the western shore. Mojo picks up speed but must tack twice to reach the finish line, losing ground, and finishes in the middle of the pack.
In the second race the wind shifts, and George finds himself blocked by four other boats. The race is shortened after the wind dies, and Finale wins again. By 11:15 everyone is heading back to shore, dropping sail, waiting their turns on the cranes.
“We beat the young’uns today,” exults Ann Penwarden, one of the three women on Bob’s crew. “That’s always a good thing.” Their ages, she notes proudly, range from sixty-one to seventy-two.
Caroline Welch, thirteen, describes her duties on Mojo as “weight distribution” and adjusting the lee boards—fins that poke through the hull—on the downwind legs. “It’s fun,” she says.
And what does she like best about racing?
“Winning,” she replies, instantly and emphatically. It seems to be in the Welch blood.
“Sailing is relaxing,” explains her dad, a Corning lawyer like George Sr. “Racing is for intensity and adrenaline. It’s a physical as well as cerebral thing.” But then there’s the “leisure” time after a race, he says, where competitors mingle on the lawns or the club bar, boasting about their clever moves, sharing advice, teasing one another, and revisiting their mistakes.
“The best beer of the year comes after racing,” says George. “You’re exhausted. You’re exhilarated. And it sure tastes good.”
Sedate and Stately on Seneca
If adrenaline-fueled athleticism is not your thing, know that “sailing” can simply mean being out on somebody else’s boat, letting them nurse and curse the wind shifts while you sip something frosty. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” you call out as you rattle your ice cubes. And there may be no grander way to do passenger sailing on the Finger Lakes than on board True Love: a vintage, sixty-seven foot wood schooner on Seneca Lake.
It’s another blue-sky weekend in June, and, at half-past noon, owner Terry Stewart emerges from his gazebo-like office on Watkins Glen’s town dock.
“Let’s get outta here and go sailing,” he calls out to the ten passengers waiting on the pier. In an instant they’re clambering onto the navy blue cushions laid around the cabin top.
The boat can carry twenty-two passengers, although “that’s a squeeze,” says Terry. The rate for a two-hour sail is $69 per person. A Coast Guard-certified captain, he shows everybody where the life jackets are, then invites me to join him in the cockpit, where he seats himself alongside the varnished steering wheel. The wind today is a “gentle southerly,” he says, meaning out of the north, and the forecast calls for breezes of six to ten miles an hour.
“But even with light wind we’ll be moving.” In a moment his young crew—Spencer Beaver and Maria Brubaker, both twenty—have cast us off, and we’re motoring out into the lake.
Schooners typically have two masts, with the aftermast taller. They’re the aristocrats of sailing yachts, and True Love is a blueblood.
Designed by the legendary yacht builder John Alden and launched in 1926, she was featured in the 1956 film High Society, starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, and Frank Sinatra. The great Cole Porter even wrote a song about her.
Terry, a retired New York State trooper, acquired her in 2021, after co-skippering for her former owners.
“My accountant said ‘Are you crazy?’” he recalls with a deep laugh. “I said ‘It’s a challenge. Something to do. Let’s see if we can make it work.’” Now in his third season as owner, he has “no regrets.”
A hundred yards out he points the bow into the wind as Spence and Maria hoist the larger sails. Already the wind has begun to pick up, and Terry instructs them to raise just one of the two foresails. (Less canvas means less heel.)
Then, with a turn of the wheel, Terry eases us over gently, and we’re gliding toward the eastern shore. As we approach the cliffs, he jokes he could scrape his bowsprit against them and still be in deep water, but tacks well out. We start angling northwest. Soon the wind is blowing ten and gusting to fifteen. Waves are less than a foot but forming whitecaps, and the boat is heeling over more.
“This is normal early-summer wind,” he explains, “good but schizophrenic,” meaning it’s shifting often in strength and direction. Today’s breeze is a far cry from the fierce “howls” of October, he says, and more fun than the “doldrums” of July and early August. The fall winds are best. “They blow steady all day long.”
Spence comes back to say that a family of three is expressing anxiety about our heel. Terry instructs him to lower the large gaff-rigged sail on the foremast. A minute later True Love is sitting up more. “Way more comfortable,” he says.
At 1:38 we tack again to the northeast, and he points out Hector Falls in the distance. By 2 p.m. the wind is blowing a steady fifteen with gusts in the low twenties. Big stuff. “It’s coming westerly or straight north,” he says with a scowl, and tells Spence that for the four o’clock sail they’ll reef, or shorten, the main before leaving the dock.
We tack and tack again, and this time stay on a beam reach, perpendicular (or abeam) to the wind. Spence eases out the main to keep us from heeling too much. “How’s that?” he calls out, and Terry gives him a thumbs up. By now we’re about four miles from the dock, but the wind is so strong Terry will need little time to get back.
It’s a glorious sail, and I mention how much I miss Cirrus, my Lippincott 36 sloop of twenty years, which my wife and I recently sold. (The six-hour drive to Chesapeake Bay proved too much after we moved to Wellsboro.) Turns out Terry learned sailing as a boy on a Comet dinghy built by Howard Lippincott, builder and first owner of Cirrus. And Terry may have bought his previous boat, a Cabo Rico 38, from the same guy in Annapolis who sold me an Irwin 25 on the Potomac River in 1995. Small world, sailing.
At 2:15 he declares it time to head back, and we “run” downwind with the whitecaps. He starts the engine as we come close to the dock, turns us into the wind, and, as the sails drop, noses us onto the pier.
“I loved it,” says Erin Czesak, thirty-four, a sunglass designer from Brooklyn whose dad had discovered True Love on the internet. “Very relaxing. I love being on boats,” says her boyfriend, Josh Richmond, thirty-five.
Today was her first time ever on a sailboat, says Theresa Jopson of Conesus, New York, but the heeling motion never scared her. “I loved it—the calmness, with no motor running.” She’d been on powerboats before. But, she says, “sailing is different.”