An Ocean Sailor Tries Freshwater Racing

An upstate New York regatta provides one salty crew a fresh(water) perspective on racing.
Lake George Club
The Lake George Club proved to be a great host in a challenging place to sail. Herb McCormick

Come wintertime, the upper regions of New York state are susceptible to a phenomenon known as lake-effect snow. It happens when cold Canadian air courses over the relatively warm Great Lakes, and the atmospheric merger of the two can produce snowfalls ranging from dustings to blizzards.

Last spring, I experienced a different sort of lake effect, one that afflicts ocean sailors who test their skills on rarely visited inland waters. This happened when I joined my J/24 racing mates from Newport, Rhode Island, for a jaunt northward to New York’s serene and scenic Lake George for the one-design class’s US National Championship regatta.

While doing our homework for the racing, I came across an interview with the event chair, local sailor Alfie Merchant, on that was somewhat surprising. “Lake George is a special place,” he said. “I do not believe people come here for the great sailing. The wind will probably be from the west straight over the mountains about a quarter mile away and 1,000 vertical feet. It will be very fluky in terms of direction and strength. It is Lake George, so we will be lucky to get three races in over three days, but 10 races are max for the series. Visitors call Lake George Left George. Guess why. Because the local knowledge is to go left no matter where the wind comes from.”

Wait, the event chair says people don’t come for the great sailing? From a guy promoting the allure of his own regatta, that was unexpected.

With that, the racing commenced. And the first day was a shocker from the outset. On J/24s, the major “sails call” is whether to race with the full-size genoa or the smaller jib. It’s usually a no-brainer; the larger genoa is almost always the correct way to go. But with the north wind hovering around 20 knots, there was no clear-cut answer. We started with the genoa, but changed to the jib midway through the first race. And, once again, in the second. And the third. I’ve done ocean races, it seemed, with fewer sail changes.

But Lake George was in a feisty mood: On Day 1 alone, there was an unheard-of six man-overboard situations. While everyone was recovered safely, it was a wild day. And the race committee knocked off four races. So much for the event chair’s three-race prediction.

Aboard our entry, Crack of Noon, it was an uneven series. We started strong, faltered in the middle of the seven-race series and finished right in the middle of the 43-boat fleet. The winner, North Sails pro Mike Marshall, sails in our local Newport fleet, so there was mild vindication there. At least someone from Newport figured out the lake.

Otherwise, it was a tremendous regatta. The competition was tight, and the racing was clean and fun. The host, Lake George Club, was friendly and efficient, and did a great job on the water and with the shore-side parties. The venue was terrific; the lush, green Adirondack Mountains rimming the lake were a beautiful backdrop, so different from our usual racetrack on Narragansett Bay. And while we did indeed take the local knowledge to heart, favoring the left whenever possible, the beneficial wind shifts all seemed to fill in from the right. So much for Left George.

All in all, however, it was a fantastic experience and one we’d return to anytime. As it turned out, we did indeed come for the sailing, which was challenging and exciting. And while we never did effectively figure out Lake George, it was pretty darn good all the same.