Lake Sailing, Possible Dream In Your Own Back Yard

My favorite cruising ground is the Chesapeake Bay but  Puget Sound is what is available to me now. These are large expanses of water with varying characteristics of weather, topography and tidal conditions. They are not the kind of water I began sailing on. Like many people I began my sailing experiences on a lake.

Memorial Lake State Park in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania was a good place to start learning.  It’s 230 acres of water was uncrowded and peaceful.  There are the usual picnic tables and a launching ramp.  No gasoline engines are allowed which keeps the noise level down. Places like this have a lot to offer the recreational boater including a starting point for dreaming of bigger things.

As time went on I trailered my San Francisco Pelican to lakes all over Pennsylvania with excursions into, New York, Maryland, and several New England states. Trailering a boat is the road to variety. Conditions from lake to lake can vary almost as much as in coastal cruising. Of course there is no tide to deal with but wind conditions are strongly affected by local terrain and micro climates. Launching facilities can be anything from a paved incline between floating docks and designated set up spaces near to rest rooms to a dirt road that descends precipitously to the water. Be prepared for anything.

Memorial Lake is situated along the base of Blue Mountain at the northern end of Lebanon County. Mountains breed weather and direct wind patterns. The downdrafts on the leeward side of a mountain can translate to the sailor as sudden squalls. The mountain  blocked the long range view of the horizon.  Summer thunderstorms seem to appear suddenly and kind of leap over the mountain onto unsuspecting sailors.

Many lakes created by damns as reservoirs sit in a natural valley and have a bowl shape or are a broad pathway between high bluffs.  The effect of this can be a confused wind pattern as the breezes are deflected by the shoreline walls.  you have to be on your toes looking for wind shifts.  This is good training in reading the water surface for squalls and catspaws.

Lake sailing can be very social in it’s own way.  Every lake seems to have a group of regulars who show up on Sunday or Saturday to relax on the water or race around the  buoys for bragging rights. Always look for the retired gentleman lounging by a laser eating a sandwich.  He’s a good source of local knowledge.

The launch ramp is a natural venue for conversation.  If your boat is a bit unusual you will attract a lot of questions.  My Pelican was a rare bird indeed in Central Pennsylvania. Home built boats in particular stand out everywhere.  Sailors were always trying to guess the type and landlubbers would tell me it looked like a miniature pirate ship. Well, what did they know? The mast wasn’t aluminum and the yard on the standing lug rig was as good as square rig to some.  I used to eat up that kind of attention.

Many lakes have a supervised swimming area where the kids can hang out. And a good snack bar and rest rooms are real pluses.  Opportunity for dockage varies widely. Memorial Lake had no docks, only a series of shoreline rails which you pull the boat up to and throw a padlock around. There were also canoe racks. The fees for using these were pretty reasonable.

One of the local characteristics gave me an interesting experience. The lake is on land that was once part of the Fort Indiantown Gap Military Reservation that is adjacent to the park.  The park sees few visitors on weekday mornings.  I showed up about nine o’clock with a nice breeze building from the west. As I was setting up my rig on the ramp a Park ranger came to me and told me to stay off the lake between eleven and twelve because helicopters would be landing on the lake. It sounded like a good show for lunch time entertainment.  I launched and settled down to enjoy a pleasant sail around the 230 acres of peaceful water.

Apparently the United States Army’s timing was not good or communications broke down as the steady beat of helicopter blades grew very loud.  It was only ten o’clock and the invasion had begun.  Three Chinook helicopters landed on the water off my port bow seeming oblivious to my presence. I immediately jibed and headed for a slightly more distant part of the lake to enjoy the maneuvers. The lumbering choppers sat down in the water and lowered there  stern ramps. All that was missing was squad of commandos exiting in rubber rafts or scuba gear. They took off after about ten minutes. very cool! They came back at eleven, on schedule, and did it again.

Besides entertaining military displays the Army through it’s Corps of Engineers has provided American citizens with quite a few lakes. Blue Marsh Lake near Reading, PA  has 1,147 acres of water, there are several launch areas with good facilities. The lake was officially opened for business in 1979.  I used to drive through the Tulpehocken creek valley everyday.  The Engineers bulldozed the heck out of anything that was scheduled to be submerged. the historic gruber Wagon Works was relocated.  It became a favorite spot for sailing because it was still relatively close by and it was a much larger span of water. One feels less like they are going in small circles all day.

Many of us dream of sailing around the world. The way the world is going that dream is be coming a dangerous proposition. Coastal cruising in the good old USA can be very expensive if you need a marina to keep your boat parked in between boat visits. Some of the pirates in this modern world own marine repair shops. If you can’t travel far, travel well. There is probably a lake near you waiting to take you away from it all.

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