The Birth of Small Boat Racing at Cascade Locks

From the August 2020 issue of 48° North

After a day of sailing or weekend of racing at the Columbia River Gorge, more than a few enthusiastic sailors have come off the water with smitten smiles and exuberant quotes along the lines of: “That was so much fun! Best place to sail ever!”

With consistently strong breezes, warm water (by PNW standards, anyway), breathtaking views, and a fun atmosphere, it’s no wonder that Cascade Locks and the surrounding area has become a hotspot for wind-seeking sailors over the past few decades. It’s a world-renowned sailing venue now, playing host to National and World Championship regattas in various classes, as well as “must do” events like Double Damned. But it wasn’t always this way — so, how did it all begin? 

When I was in high school, a kid that lived down the street from me on Vashon Island sailed a little bit like me. His parents became dealers for Connelly Sailboards just after the windsurf brand started taking off. Connelly boards were 12 feet long and heavy; but for a sail-powered craft, they were fast. We both bought one and raced them in fleets around the Seattle area a couple times a year.

That summer, I went commercial fishing in Alaska. On the day I returned, he called me, “There is this place on the Columbia River called The Gorge. It’s windy and has great beaches. Super fun to sail boards there.”

The Columbia River slices a gorge in the topography from the eastern Washington desert to the cold Pacific Ocean. When the desert warms up, the hot air rises and the cool air from western Washington and Oregon and the Pacific blows in below it to fill in the pressure. Funneled through the hills and mountains on either side of the Columbia Gorge, the wind consistently blows hard throughout the summer months. On particularly windy days, locals say it is “Nuking”—perhaps connected to the nuclear reactors up wind on the Columbia River that made people feel that the radiation was blowing through the Gorge. There’s an added bonus that the current runs against the wind, which makes the beats faster and runs longer.

Back in the days before electronic communication via websites, social media, and email became the norm, the International 14 (I-14) fleet in North America had a protocol to announce the venue of the year’s US National Championship during the Southern California Yachting Association (SCYA) Midwinter Regatta that typically takes place over Presidents Day.  Hosting duties alternated between Southern California, Northern California, and the Pacific Northwest (PNW).

In 1991, Nationals was to be held in the PNW, but the specific venue was to be the choice of the PNW International 14 fleet. Sailors Kris Bundy, Joe Bersch, and I were concerned about attendance, since we had hosted the West Coast Championships a few years earlier at Shilshole on Labor Day and did not get a single race off in three windless days.

Many of our friends were regular windsurfers and frequently made the trek down from Seattle to The Gorge. They talked about a place that was usually not quite as windy as upriver areas like “Swell City” and Hood River. I asked them if they thought we could sail International 14s there, and most thought it was possible. The place they suggested was Home Valley, about 15 miles west of Hood River on the Washington side. There was a state park right on the water and the river was wide at that point. We learned that the Hobie fleet had put on a few regattas there in the past.

In the winter of 1990 while our I-14 fleet had not yet made a decision, we made plans to head to the SCYA Midwinters in Alamitos Bay. I stopped in for a burger and beer at the 74th Street Ale House on Phinney Ridge to find Kris Bundy, Ken Monaghan, and Joe Bersch sitting at the bar. After being significantly overserved and telling each other how great we were at sailing in heavy wind, we discussed holding the 1991 International 14 Nationals at Home Valley in The Gorge. I believe I even wrote down the plan on a bar napkin.

The next morning, I remembered most of the conversation and decided to call the guys to see if we were just boasting or we should really try to make it happen. We agreed it would be a great event, and announced it to the local fleet. Ken Monaghan and I would be the event organizers and put all the logistics together.

We made the announcement at Midwinters and the entire fleet was excited. Then, reality set in that we had better figure out how our location would work out.

Ken called the Washington State Parks Department and got all the permit applications. The Parks Department required large insurance policies, would not let us serve alcohol, and had restrictions about how and where to store the boats when they were not sailing. Ken also contacted Cascade Locks—across the river and a few miles down from Home Valley—which was the closest location where we could keep a committee boat for the event.

In March of 1991 durning a nice weekend stretch of weather, I grabbed some friends and decided to go to the area and see how the place could work first-hand. We packed up tents and camping gear and three-and-a-half hours later were at Home Valley. It was beautiful. Then I went to the water to check out the launching.

It was a decently-protected shoreline, but was very shallow out about 100 yards to where it was not as protected. While walking up and down the beach trying to find a better spot in the freezing river, I started to panic. In a few months, we were going to have 25 International 14s with extremely delicate hulls, daggerboards, and rudders trying to launch and retrieve in 18 to 25 knots of wind with a rocky shallow beach. I could not find a solution!

After a few hours of freaking out, I decided to go over to Cascade Locks where we had made arrangements to moor the committee boat. It was across the Bridge of the Gods, whose resemblance seemed closer to an erector set than a deific bridge. Pulling into Cascade Locks, I immediately found good news. The marina was well protected. And when I walked to the far side, there was a beach protected from the wind with a grassy slope. It was also fairly deep water and it only took me a few seconds to realize that this was a far superior spot and would actually work!

I went into the nearby office that sold tickets to the sternwheeler and did camping reservations. I asked the person at the desk if she thought it would be ok if we had 25 sailboats on the beach for a few days. She said, “I don’t see why not, but let me call the mayor.”

She dialed, explained what I was asking about, and handed the phone to me. The mayor and I chatted about the potential event and he loved the idea. When I asked if having beer in the campground would be an issue, he simply said, “Not if you don’t make it an issue.”

After I got home from the trip and had notified everyone about the change of location, I got a call from the mayor at home. He told me that they would like to provide a dinner for our group as a welcome and thank you for bringing sailboat racing to Cascade Locks. They paid for a catered salmon dinner for the entire fleet at the campground.

The event went off very well. It was a classic Gorge regatta with winds from 18-25 knots, air temperatures in the 80s, water temperature close to the same, and lots of tight racing. It was such a fantastic experience that California sailors began saying a now-common refrain: “It is hard to drive by the Gorge to head to anywhere else for a regatta.” In the end, fleet stalwarts Kris Bundy and Jamie Hanseler showed their skill and came out on top to win the 1991 National Championships.

The one memorable hiccup was that we could not find blank shells for the shotgun PRO Werner Holmes used on the committee boat. So, he used live ammo. Reportedly, a few bird pellets rained down on one group of hikers, but fortunately no one was hurt.

The International 14 Fleet has a rule that requires one “Long Distance” race for a separate trophy at the National events. The one we did at Cascade Locks was a downwind start to Home Valley and back, twice around. To this day, that is one of the best races I ever sailed.

A few years after that original event, the Columbia Gorge Racing Association was formed by Portland’s Kerry Poe. Since then, The Gorge has become a world-renowned small boat racing venue and has been the site of many National and even World Championships—including Tasars, Melges 24s, 505s, Moths, 49ers, and many more. The Gorge is now home to other races, including the infamous Double Damned race from Cascade Locks to The Dalles—a route that was initially famous with windsurfers but now draws every type of small boat from around the West Coast.

The Columbia River Gorge never disappoints. There’s plenty to do for the non-racer and some of the most scenic surroundings anywhere (with, among other things, the world’s largest concentration of waterfalls). It is family-friendly, welcoming, and a must-do for any sailor. And, it has a special place in the hearts of the International 14 racers who first helped connect sailors with the racing venue in Cascade Locks.

Chuck Skewes is a Vashon Island native who owns West Coast Ullman Sails Lofts in Anacortes, San Diego, and Puerto Vallarta. He’s a highly sought-after public speaker and professional sailor.