Beautiful Scenery, Diverse Conditions, and Sailor Camaraderie Make for a Memorable Group Cruise

From the December, 2020 issue of 48° North

“Tell me in all your travels have you ever found any place better than Lake Chelan?” Our friend, Russ queries my husband, Chuck, as several members of the Lake Chelan Sailing Association (LCSA) await his answer from our socially distanced appetizer hour on the dock at Graham Harbor.   

There are eight sailboats of various makes and models lined up along the dock, and we have even allowed a couple of powerboats to infiltrate the group. Because two sections of this dock are missing and currently under repair, a few boats are rafted together. It is the first week of August and the LCSA is enjoying its annual trip on Lake Chelan, a 15-plus year tradition.

Who participates and how long they can stay changes every year, and it is quite a dance to get sailors on- or off- board mid-week as they juggle responsibilities and availability. Emails are shared in late July with logistics of who is arriving and departing, where and when, and all the other details. For this group of friends, it all adds to the adventure of reconnecting in our own beautiful wilderness.

What brings this eclectic bunch together in this setting? We are a chemical engineer, a banker, a massage therapist, a retired fruit packing equipment engineer, a bookkeeper, a couple of landscapers, a few other free souls and us, retired orchardists. We come from Chelan, Wenatchee, Orondo, and even Seattle. What we have in common is the love of moving along the water using wind as our fuel and a deep appreciation for the wilderness of Lake Chelan.

Some of the LCSA group docked at Graham Harbor.

Running northwest to southeast, Lake Chelan is 52 miles long and very deep. With a depth of 1,486 feet, it is the third deepest in the U.S. and actually goes below sea level. Steep mountains make up most of the shoreline. As sailboat owners, we joke that our bow would hit shore before our keel touched bottom along 90-percent of it. Boaters on this lake want (and maybe need) to know where the various docks along the trip are located and plan on a timely arrival. And, as always when boating, it is essential to check the weather conditions.

With some of the world’s best loved saltwater cruising grounds just a few hours west, there are some who might scoff at sailing on a mountain lake. Why Chelan? The leading response is surely the unfathomable beauty of a freshwater cruising location elegantly nestled in ever-steepening mountains. Typical of most locations east of the Cascadian Crest, Chelan also tends to get quite a bit hotter during the prime cruising season, producing a summery (even tropical) vibe that is sometimes missing on the saltwater to the east.

For us, another easy answer is the fun of unpredictable conditions. One can start out with sails up and the boat heeling over just a bit — the epitome of a dream sail. However, around the next point in the lake the mountain winds can shift. If the wind is stronger in this section, your boat may suddenly take on an extra 20 degrees of heel and any loose items will fly across the galley as you hustle to reduce sails. Or, you may find yourself becalmed with powerboats running circles around you.

When heading towards Stehekin, at the far northern end of the lake, the prevailing wind is generally on your nose while tacking back and forth to make progress towards your destination. Those who are accustomed to open water coastal sailing may find the shifting breeze and more frequent maneuvers tiresome. Though it may sound like frustrating sailing, it is through quickly responding to these rapidly changing conditions that one becomes a more capable sailor. And in this group of Eastern Washington residents, there are some very skilled sailors.   

Our 42-foot Jeanneau, Wild Cider, is the largest boat in the fleet. Crewed this year by Chuck and me, plus our granddaughter, Eleanor, and pirate cat Earl. Chuck began sailing lessons at eight, Eleanor’s age, in Annapolis Harbor, Maryland. I grew up swimming in lakes in Vermont, but had never sailed until meeting Chuck. This is Eleanor’s second LCSA trip.   

Marc and Holly Vander Schalie and their family have participated in this outing for 13 years, starting when their sons were 5 and 2 years old. They often have three generations on their San Juan 21, named Kermit. Marc started sailing with his parents at a young age. He and Holly met as toddlers in a playpen while their fathers sailed together. Marc can recommend the most precise ways to tune your sail trim of anyone I have met sailing. Kermit is known in the San Juan 21 race fleet as the “boat to beat.” That isn’t something you’d necessarily expect from an inland lake sailor.

Jim Hoffman, a master sailor, spends most of his summers at The Cove, at the southern end of the lake, and tries to get in a daily sail. He has been joined by his granddaughter, Erin, the past few years. Erin has sailed with her grandfather on his Santa Cruz 27, Solstice, since she was a young girl. This year, her friend Adrian, a novice sailor, joined the trip and got several lessons along the way. We even sent Eleanor along for one of Jim’s lessons.

Sean and Christia Eppers brought their “new to them” McGregor 26 M motor-sailor. They fill ballast tanks with water when sailing to augment the weight of the shallow keel. When the wind no longer cooperates, they can choose to motor at high speeds by emptying the tanks and engaging the 70-horsepower motor. Christina is the sailor of this couple, Sean is a professional all-around “fix-it-man” and an excellent crew.

The group was excited to have Jackson and Amy join us this year. Even though they live in Chelan, it is the first time their schedules have allowed them to join the trip. Their Aquarius 23 is a great sailing and roomy boat. Jackson, who attended school with our daughter, worked with the Chelan Boat Company for many years and has amazing knowledge of the lake.

Over the course of time, some of our sailors have gone over to the “dark side” and now enjoy this week in a motorboat. But being the kind-hearted, magnanimous souls that we are, we welcome them — without too many jokes, even. Also, we have found an advantage or two to having a couple motorized vessels in the fleet. It makes the ferrying of individuals or making a trip for extra supplies much more convenient.   

Russ and Debbie Jones, and dog, Sammy, join us on one of these powerboats. All three rank as founders of the Lake Chelan Sailing Association. The Jones’ have a passion for boating safety on Lake Chelan and Russ has been instrumental in getting a rescue boat on the lake.

Indeed, all members of this group are sensitive to safety. Crew aboard all boats wear their life jackets while sailing. We understand that things can quickly go afoul, and the time required to fumble for a packed away life jacket is gone before you may be immersed in the cold, glacier-fed mountain lake.

Jay and Tina Nyce, planning to retire in Chelan soon, squeezed a few days out of their work week to catch up to us along the way in their motorboat. They traveled with their dog, Lola, and happily helped ferry other crews and their dogs back to Chelan.

This year we had out-of-town guests. Mike and Morgan — Boston residents enjoying an extended quarantine visit with Morgan’s parents in Chelan — sailed with us using the club’s Catalina 22. Additionally, with 6-year-old Sam aboard, the Wyatt family of Richland joined us on their Montgomery 23, a family-friendly boat with surprisingly impressive performance.

Capt. Chuck towing his “ducklings” behind Wild Cider.

With so many great people out enjoying the water and camaraderie with us, it’s hard not to love Lake Chelan. From Graham Harbor, about halfway up the lake, we sailed north until the wind ran out, and tied up at the Refrigerator Harbor dock. Some of us took off early the next morning to meet more crew at Stehekin, while others remained to hike up to Domke Lake for a swim in warmer waters. The three mile trail ascends approximately 1,000 vertical feet and was easily climbed by all ages in our group.

We took off later that afternoon and met the rest of our group at Weaver Point. There are many sunken tree trunks and even whole trees in this shallow end of the lake. We recommend coming in along the deeper south shore and checking out the petroglyphs on the rock wall. Keep a lookout on the bow as you head to the dock.

Here, we were well-protected from the strong winds associated with an incoming weather change. The wind blew the Stehekin River flow in waves over towards the dock and the boats bobbed like in an ocean tide change. Things were calmer in the morning and we kayaked up the river to a haul out spot and walked to the Stehekin Bakery for a famous cinnamon roll.  Some years, we hop on one of our group’s powerboats to ride over to Stehekin Landing and catch the bus to the Courtney Ranch for a wonderful cowboy-style meal that includes many pie options.

The following morning, the weather was calm for us to start our return trip south and we again squeezed into Graham Harbor for the night. Our final transit was quiet and offered gentle winds, so our group started pulling out after breakfast to get a jump on the day.

As serene as the day began, mountain lake weather threw us the wrench we always try to anticipate. As we sailed into the section known as the Straights, we got one. The wind was blowing in the 30-knot range here, but coming from behind, so we were speeding down the lake. Unfortunately for our large headsail, we left it up a little too long when we noticed calmer water ahead. A half-mile before the 25 Mile Creek Campground and Marina, our 31-year-old dacron sail took a gust and split apart. My latest heavy weather sailing lesson was cut short, and we started motoring.

The San Juan 21 Kermit enjoys a nice spinnaker run down the lake.

So how does my husband answer the question: “Why Chelan?” We have been to many beautiful places over the years, seen some exciting marine life, and experienced great sailing, but there is no denying that Lake Chelan ranks as one of our favorites. Its natural beauty is astounding, and it provides great training for coastal sailing, as the changing conditions keep our skills up, help us hone our teamwork, and make us better sailors. Would anything improve it? Maybe if it had dolphins!

The Lake Chelan Sailing Association is more than just a club that puts on a cruise each summer. It has hosted a regatta on Lake Chelan every September for the previous 20 years; which was, unfortunately,  canceled this year due to Covid-19. The LCSA offers beginning and advanced sailing courses at no charge every year starting in April. They also maintain a fleet of club boats for use by qualified members on Wednesday evening sails or for a trip up lake on your own time schedule. For us, it provides a wonderful community of friends who share a love of sailing and cruising on our extraordinary home waters.