Inland Lakes: A guide for the Oceangoing Sailor

by Ken

"Sailing Cayuga lake, as all inland lakes, seems like not so much of a challenge after you've crossed oceans. It becomes mostly a social endeavor."



Following the usual policy, mine was the last of the boats in the marina. In anticipation of rain and later snow melt, the lake level had already been dropped so far that the ramp I used in the spring to launch was too low to recover the boat, and it had to be moved to a yard with a lift, to be put on its trailer. Nobody said the journey had to be a direct one, though, and, there being wind, there was opportunity for a last sail of the season.

Alice, my crew for this trip was new to sailing - this would only be her third time on a sailboat. Her first trip with me had been a sail to the other end of Cayuga lake and back, a 26 hour marathon with a full moon overnight and 12 hours of tacking back and fourth on the return leg. Our second trip out was in brisk winds, and I purposely left the biggest sail, called the 150% Genny, up to see how the boat handled when in these conditions. Several times during that sail I had stood the boat "on the rail", meaning that the boat was tilted, or heeled so far over that water flowed into the cockpit. Each time I was able to bring the boat back to stability and the water quickly drained through the cockpit drains. I was surprised how well the boat handled in these conditions, and it gave me further confidence that the boat was stable enough for a planned sail to the Bahamas this winter. I took great pains to explain to Alice that you would never, ever carry so much sail on the big bad ocean, but that it was OK to experiment on such a protected body of water. Throughout all our sailing so far Alice had proved an able partner. Just how able I was about to find out.

Cayuga lake is one of several long, thin lakes which straddle Central New York state. They're called the Finger Lakes in reference to their shape, but, having been formed when the glaciers ground their way south during the ice age, they might be more properly be referred to as claw marks. Each lies at the bottom of a steep valley, and this steepness continues past the water level, right to the bottom. While only 3 mi. wide at it's widest, Cayuga lake is over 400 Ft. at its deepest. Being in a long, thin valley sometimes made for tricky winds, but nothing an experienced sailor couldn't handle.

We set sail just about sunset, having the lake all to ourselves. Winds were favorable and light. Conditions looked promising for a very pleasant, mellow sail. Winds were at our back, and we were able to achieve a sort of sailing nirvana, sailing "wing on wing". Imagine a boat with one sail full extended off the starboard (right hand) side of the boat. The second sail, the bigger one is held off the other (port) side with a rigid pole. This could present some maneuverability problems, so you had to anticipate changing conditions and take the pole in early. We sailed downwind, both sails flying full above our heads, the weather vane at the top of the 30 ft. mast guiding us to the most favorable winds. Steering was done with thumb and forefinger alone. I was very pleased. The 150% genny sail had been bought for just these conditions. The gigantic sail was gathering the light winds and pushing us along at a steady pace. What a night! It was going to be nice easy sail. . Some light showers were forecast, but, what's a little rain when you've stood watch for days in 60 mph winds and 25 ft. seas ? No problem! The Captains' brain was down and locked. It Will be a Mellow Sail, NO MATTER WHAT.

"It's starting to rain" I observed with all the accumulated knowledge of thousands of miles of ocean voyaging. "Get your foul weather gear on while I steer then we'll switch and I'll put on mine. You can take the pole in - sometimes the wind can be a little fluky around a shower - even a little one." The pole came in without incident, and the winds started shifting unpredictably as ordered. The weather vane on top of the mast spun around, trying to follow the shifting patterns. It steadied in the direction completely opposite to what it had been. Great! If it held we could sail straight back and not have to do the zig zag course that going upwind required. To get into the best position, we headed towards shore, planning to turn away at the last minute on to a line straight home. "Hey look, it's getting foggy up that way" Alice said. And so it was. The bright strobes on the stacks of the power plant had all but disappeared. "Huh" I mused. " I wouldn't have expected fog tonight - not humid enough. Well, it's not foggy where we're headed anyway. No need to worry. Conditions must be different at that end of the lake." Like an answer from a computer technical support desk, this statement was completely correct - and utterly useless.

"It's about time we tacked, get ready " I told Alice. She moved towards the winches to prepare them, but we were hit with a gust which rolled the boat almost to the rail. "Hang on! We'll tack after the gust." As I had done so many times previously, I waited for the boat to right itself. It didn't. A second gust, much stronger than the first, rolled us again. The 150% genny was still doing a great job gathering wind - but I wished it would stop just now. On its heels came a drenching downpour and gale force winds. The lake, which had been glassy and calm seconds ago, had been transformed to a series of whitecaps. I could see these clearly between my knees as they rolled by. "Port" and "Starboard" had instantly become "down" and "up". I was correct about conditions not being right for fog. What we had seen was a wall of wind and water bearing down on us. I had completely misjudged.

"Hang on" I yelled, needlessly, above the roaring wind. Alice was busily showing her skills at self preservation by doing just that. "Let the sails loose! Uncleat the genny! " As I steered with one hand, hung on with another, I tried to get the smaller main sail uncleated so it wouldn't gather wind. This involved letting go and working a cleat which was now at my feet, on a rope under enormous tension. Alice had the harder job. She was working her way to the downhill (port) rail, which was mostly underwater at this point, and trying to unwrap the lines from the winches there, and mostly, to hang on. Another gust slammed us. At this point, the weather vane at the top of the mast was torn away - because the tip of the mast hit the water. "Wow!" I shouted. "I've never seen so much water come into the boat before". In fact, the water level was beginning to creep up to the level of the open hatch. If it got that high, we were lost.

Exactly how she did it, I don't know, but Alice had got the Genny uncleated. Then, she had managed to pull it partway in, but something had jammed. Then she managed to set up a winch to get it in further. Having uncleated the main and genny, the boat rolled less and the chance of sinking diminished, but the boat was still uncontrollable. Even with all the sails madly flogging themselves in the gale, the boat was still being driven towards shore at an amazing pace. "Well", I thought, "If we're driven aground, at least the swim will be short." The only thing left to do was hope for lessening winds. Feeling more like Ishmael than Slocum, we clung to the boat through another series of gusts. But these were not as strong as the last. I could steer away from shore. Another series of gusts, and the wind dropped as fast as it had speeded up. It looked like we wouldn't be swimming tonight after all.

Water sloshed around below decks. We pumped it out with the bilge pump. The yard had been skeptical when I had them put it in, and I hadn't used it for five years, but I was glad to have it now. One of the automatic life preservers had inflated - there had been enough water flying around to make it think it was underwater and to deploy. Clothing, papers, trash and other various and sundry lay on the cabin sole in an amorphous mass. As soon as we could, we pulled the sails in. We were both paranoid about sudden gusts now, but we had to go forward to get the sails in. Needless to say, all this was done with one hand, the other with a firm grip on a sturdy part of the boat. The motor started reassuringly and we huddled in the cockpit waiting for our hearts to slow and color to return to our faces. By the time we got back, the wind had stopped, the clouds were breaking up and Orion was rising.

Observers at the marina reported that when the squall line passed there, the water level rose a full foot, and then dropped enough to cause some boats to become temporarily grounded. Morbid curiosity drove me to see how deep the boat would have sank. The chart said about 350 Ft. - deeper than much of the continental shelf which extends over 100 mi. off the Atlantic coast, in places

"Still going to the Bahamas?" Alice asked me. "Sure" I answered. "well, I still want to come along. You don't think you can scare me off that easy do you ?"


"The closest I've ever come to sinking a boat was in a small inland lake."