Sailboats on Lake Okabena about a century ago.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve rarely spotted a sailboat on our lake. I have photos of “glory days “ on the lake, dotted with white triangular sails. Those days seem to have come and gone.
There’s something deep and soulful about commanding a vessel powered solely by nature. You may be at the helm, but nature is truly in control. The strongest winds show you the ferocity of life. There is no motor to kill. The gusts and gales can drive you to edge of terror and what it means to be human. Sailing is the essence of human transport. The boat isn’t a vessel, it’s an instrument. The wind is your rhythm and meter. You’re making classical music. And, above all, you feel like you’re really doing something.
The modern “E Scow” in action on Labor Day.
Little more than a century ago, sailing was the only mode of global transportation. If you didn’t sail or the winds didn’t blow, you didn’t go. I frequently read biographies of adventurers and recently started the journal of Captain James Cook who charted much of the Pacific. At the end of one of his multiyear journeys at sea, as the ship was ready to sail for home, Cook announced to his men that he had decided to extend their voyage another two years despite the harsh environment and solitude of the sea. The crew let out an enormous cheer that they could sail onward. There was something captivating about sailing.
Some of my earliest lake memories were near a sailboat. As a child, I remember watching with envy as my family members piloted the sailboats at our dock and, in their greatest moments, tipped the sailboats over for FUN.
I watch on with envy: My grandfather pilots the original C Scow as my mother climbs onto a sideboard for ballast (circa 1986).
Eventually, the sailboats gave way to motorized craft. For seasons at a time, the sailboats never entered the water until, sadly, the crown jewel of our small fleet—a wooden 20’ “C Scow”—finally rotted as it waited in a horse pasture.
Recently, sailing has made a renaissance at our home. Harkening back to my childhood memories, I searched high and low for a new 20’ foot C Scow—the modern version of our old wooden boat. A scow is a fast, flat boat made for racing. Unlike our old wooden one, the new ones are made of fiberglass and aluminum for a quick, responsive ride. We found a relatively new boat, dirt-cheap.
The E Scow on Labor Day Weekend.
Today, the motorboat and jet ski mostly sit on their stands. There are always crowds at the dock lined up to take out the sailboats. In high winds, we take fast little boats called Lasers. My father and I just drag raced each other around the lake all day yesterday. In lighter winds, it’s scows, like our 28’ foot Megles E Scow. With a crew of 5, sailing is a party.
I can see why sailing has lost its popularity. It takes some work—you have to rig the boat—and some understanding—you have to learn a few things about wind direction and technique. We’ve made watersports too easy today. Just gas up the jetski and go. Anyone can drive it; no instruction necessary. We love easy—especially my generation. It’s why we’d rather read the Sparknotes summary of a book or put the cheat codes into a video game to skip to the end.
Lisa and Jay accidently tipping over the Laser. Guess we still have to learn.
But, easy is a fling. It’s a hollow, fleeting indulgence, and varnish wears off quickly. It’s the long-term, lifetime-to-master that is fulfilling. Sailing is a long-term relationship.
I wish for a sailing renaissance. I’d love to once again see a lake full of sailboats. At our dock, it’s happened. The sail is the new norm, and the motor is so 2010.