Sailing on a small lake can be a challenge for any sailor, but especially so for the novice. Looking at these beautiful inland lakes, one would think this would be the best place to learn the art of sailing, but there are several things to consider.
First of all, sailboats are an anomally on many of these smaller lakes, so other boaters don’t know what to think of them, or how to navigate around them. These boaters that haven’t sailed don’t realize that sailboats are piloted different from power boats when they are under windpower. In certain situations, they don’t understand that your sailboat cannot just turn off course to avoid them, especially if that direction is into the wind. Of course, there are ways to take evasive action if need be, but it’s best if the power boat is aware of your boat’s dependence on wind direction and provides you a wide berth when passing. There are some boats that cannot do this, such as barges, and you just have to make sure when making a crossing of a busy waterway, that the path is clear. But power boats on these small lakes enjoy speed and manueverability and will be zipping around you in channels going to and from docks, making your peaceful sail quite exciting at times.
Setting sail can be quite the challenge in these small lakes. On my first sail in my new 16′ sailboat, my daughter and I decided we had to try it out on a windy April Saturday in our nearby backwater lake on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. It so happened that it was the opening of a Bass Tournament at the landing, and there were lots of spectators at the parking lot. Our sailboat was very much the anomally at this gathering. We went to the very end of the pier to try and launch our sailboat, and though we had read up on sailing, we soon learned we were not the experts we imagined outselves to be, as the wind that day was directly into us, and very blustery, causing us a great deal of problems. The bass fishermen were blasting out from the dock about that time, making the water very choppy along with the waves coming in from the wind. The crowd of spectators added to our concientiousness, and after being hit in the head a few times with the boom as it switched back and forth as I tried to figure how to attack the wind, I decided we were best to wait for calmer weather and a less populated lake. My daughter’s laughter at my confusion and head banging didn’t help matters any either. My first decision as captain of my ship was to forsake the sailing and struggle to paddle back to the safety of the dock. We were able to come back the next weekend and have a much better go at it in calmer weather and with less spectators.
If we had gotten launched that windy day, we would have had some even greater challenges to face on that small lake in heavy weather, as one of the things about small lakes is that you have little room to make a decision and take the correct action. Sailing is a good teacher of looking ahead and that your decision now will affect your performance later. Since these lakes are small, you have little room to manuever and a shorter time to contemplate the best course of action. And if you don’t watch it, you can get in situations that can quickly become dangerous. So, it’s best to take on a new lake in somewhat less windy conditions, and learn how to tack into and out of all areas of the lake in calmer winds first. A heavy wind can blow you onto rocks, into busy channels, or even capsize your new sailboat. Coming around an island into a heavy wind can overwhelm you quickly if you are not prepared for it. Learn to read how wind moves through these smaller lakes when blowing from certain directions, and amaze the onlookers as you make it look so easy to navigate these scenic bodies of water.
One of the benefits of sailing on smaller lakes is that you get a lot of practice turning the sailboat, and tacking back and forth to cross these lakes against the wind. You learn quickly to plan your route across the lake and to plan ahead the route you will take back to the dock. New crew on board your sailboat will wonder why you are taking such a circuitous route back to the landing site in certain wind conditions, but it’s a great chance to explain the concept of sailing when making these manuevers.
If you should encounter a thunderstorm on these “protected” waters, you learn real quickly how little time you can have for applying the correct action. These storms can move swifty across a lake, and a seemingly tranquil day can literally turn upside down in a heartbeat. When a thunderstorm does hit a small lake, the race for protected waters can be vicious! As the power boats make a mad dash for cover, they can zip by in a flurry of activity, right at a time that you are trying to make the necessary preparations for riding out the storm, making those chores much more dangerous.
Another major consideration of sailing inland lakes is water depth. Some sailboats are designed for shallower lakes and some are not. The sailor will have to keep a watch on water depth in any sailboat, constantly adjusting keel depth in swing keel boats, and making sure to avoid the shallows in fixed keel boats. Forgetting that your keel is up when you hit deeper open water and heavier wind conditions can result in another embarassing situation. Getting stuck on a sandbar can be an opportunity to get wet trying to “help” the boat back to deeper water.
All in all, sailing on small inland lakes result in a more aware sailor. You have to constantly be monitoring the weather, the shoreline distance, the water depth, and other boat traffic. The captain and crew of your sailboat get lots of practice in changing course direction, plotting courses in challenging wind conditions, and manuevering around obstructions and traffic. Of course, there are plenty of peaceful moments as you set course across one of these beautiful scenic lakes, and these are the moments you go sailing for. But, always keep in mind, there will be plenty of challenges that can pop up on these “sleepy” inland lakes.