27 February 2010

Winter Sailing on Great Salt Lake

(Click on photos to enlarge them)
It's late February, and the forecast predicts we'll have our first 50 degree weather of the year. My Father in Law, Ray, kindly invites my #2 son and me out for the first sail of the year aboard his Hunter 31. Of course we jump at the chance. Ray's Hunter 31 is a gorgeous, comfortable cruising boat, and Great Salt Lake remains largely unfrozen in the winter, the only place to do any sailing at all while waiting for the spring thaw.

We arrive at Great Salt Lake's south shore marina around noon to find beautiful weather and an excellent if slightly mild wind forecast. A storm will blow in later in the evening, but the afternoon should be serene.
Soon we're underway, and with my #2 at the helm we slip quietly out of the marina toward deeper water. Although the weather has been warm, snow still blankets the mountains, and it looks like we have the lake to ourselves for a while.

Once clear of the last channel marker, we raise sails under a northerly breeze of 5-6 knots sailing close hauled northwest towards Stansbury Island. Stansbury Island was named for Captain Howard Stansbury who first surveyed the lake in 1851. Stansbury Island is the second largest island on Great Salt Lake at about 12 miles long and 5 miles wide. At low water the island is accessible via a dirt road and is popular among mountain bikers. Stansbury Island is fairly dry, but in spring its covered with flowers and has some great hikes with terrific views of Great Salt Lake.

Soon we see the new Ranger boat, "Rescue One", speeding back from searching along Antelope Island. Rescue One is designed for the steep, heavy waves encountered during stormy conditions on Great Salt Lake. Great Salt Lake water is 4 times more dense than sea water, so when the waves pick up, they strike a boat with exceeding force. Rescue O ne's got both 350 v8 outboards opened up and closes the distance between the island and marina in seemingly short time.

The winds slowly build as we drift along, peaking at about 10 knots. Boat speed reached just over 6 knots as our fastest time of the day. It was a great chanc e to test my Kestrel 4000 pocket weather meter, which was along for its maiden voyage. As the day progressed, the brooding skies slowly crowded out the sun, dropping the temperature noticeably. Fortunately we'd anticipated this, and with a thermos of hot soup and extra layer of gear we sailed onward.

The danger of sailing Great Salt Lake in the winter is the water temperature. The salt prevents ice buildup on the lake, but the water temperature can still drop well below freezing. Survival time in those conditions would be 5-10 minutes at best. We finally see a half dozen other boats headed out onto the lake as the afternoon progresses. Somehow the lake feels safer when you see other boats out.

Eventually we make a final tack and start covering the 6 miles back to the harbor. The wind has shifted to the northeast, so we're on an easy beam reach. No one's in a hurry to get back, in fact, we wish we were headed off to one of Great Salt Lake's many islands to spend a night or two exploring.

Finally, but all too soon, we reach the channel markers heading into the marina so we reluctantly drop sails and ready the boat for docking. The entrance channel is long when the lake is as low as its been the last several years. The distance gives plenty of time to get sail covers in place, winch covers on, and tidy up down below.

It's hard to imagine that the rock jetties surrounding the marina were underwater back in the floods of 1983. Now the jetties tower out of the lake and make the marina appear as a bastion protecting the 300 sailboats inside from attacking pirates. Perhaps someone should mount a gun turret and cannons on top, just in case tensions mount with our sailing counterparts up at Antelope Island's marina...

So now we're back home on Utah Lake's north shore, looking south over 20 miles of frozen lake, and rushing to complete all the projects on the tarp-covered boat beside the house.

We're all very anxious for spring to come, and agree that this has been one of the finest sailing days we've had in a long time.