Call it a Day

Not all sail­ing va­ca­tions take place in ex­otic trop­i­cal lo­cales over the course of a week or more. An af­ter­noon spent ply­ing LAKE TA­HOE’S EMER­ALD BAY leaves a sea­soned char­terer with mem­o­ries aplenty.

Cruising World - - Forgotten Fiji -

ASa South­ern Cal­i­for­nia ocean sailor I had never been to Big Blue, the sec­ond-deep­est lake in Amer­ica and con­sid­ered by many to be the most beau­ti­ful. But when I saw the end­less pine-cov­ered slopes and the ma­jes­tic moun­tains that sur­round Lake Ta­hoe like a crown, I thought, What took me so long?

The lake has many sin­gu­lar traits. Three hours north­east of San Fran­cisco, it is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, and it is di­vided roughly in half by the state line that sep­a­rates Cal­i­for­nia and Ne­vada. Ta­hoe sits at the en­trance to the Sierra Ne­vada, with a sur­face el­e­va­tion of 6,200 feet. It is drained by only one river, the Truc­kee, and it is al­most 100 per­cent pure, like bot­tled wa­ter. It has only one keel­boat ma­rina, one is­land and one true bay, named Emer­ald. How­ever, the bay is so stun­ningly beau­ti­ful that there is prob­a­bly no need for any oth­ers.

I never as­so­ci­ated this lake with sail­ing, pos­si­bly be­cause it’s fa­mous for so many other ac­tiv­i­ties. The 1960 Win­ter Olympics were held in nearby Squaw Val­ley. The small towns that line parts of its shores boast more bike, kayak, pad­dle­board, ca­noe, raft

and per­sonal wa­ter­craft rentals than one can count. Wa­ter skiers love its usu­ally calm sur­face. Hik­ers get lost in places that border it, lo­ca­tions such as Des­o­la­tion Wilder­ness. Vis­i­tors even at­tend Shake­speare plays per­formed on the beach, or­ches­tra con­certs played un­der a tent and pop-rock nights at casi­nos in State­line, Ne­vada. But tack­ing and reach­ing un­der sail? That’s pos­si­ble too.

With that in mind, my wife, Donna, and our two cousins de­cided to charter a Catalina 27 on this myth­i­cal lake and ex­plore its equally mythic Emer­ald Bay.

Ta­hoe Keys Ma­rina, in the small city of South Lake Ta­hoe, Cal­i­for­nia, is home to dozens of power­boats and per­haps 30 or 40 sail­boats, and in­cludes hoists and a pop­u­lar launch ramp that can ac­com­mo­date ves­sels of var­i­ous sizes. It is also home to Sail­ing Ven­tures, a charter com­pany and Amer­i­can Sail­ing As­so­ci­a­tion-ac­cred­ited sail­ing school.

On an Au­gust day in 75-de­gree sun­shine, we cast off and headed for the ma­rina’s nar­row out­let. A num­ber of fac­tors forced us to pay close at­ten­tion. The exit pas­sage is about 100 yards long but barely wide enough for two boats, and as it en­ters the lake, its depth can shrink to less than a foot un­der the keel of an av­er­age sail­boat. The ma­rina’s op­er­a­tors told us that nearby idle dredgers were “wait­ing for per­mits,” adding that a drought in the West­ern states was also a rea­son for the ex­treme shal­low­ness. (I am still skep­ti­cal about the lat­ter since it rained at least briefly al­most ev­ery af­ter­noon of our 10-day visit to the lake, and hill­sides do not stay a glo­ri­ous jade color with­out some pre­cip­i­ta­tion.)

As we left the ma­rina’s en­trance, a long buoyed chan­nel guided us to deeper wa­ter, but even here we had been ad­vised to keep to the mid­dle, and the depth sounder con­sis­tently gave us read­ings of less than 5 feet.

And then the won­der hap­pened:

Ringed by moun­tains, Emer­ald Bay sits on the south­ern shore of Lake Ta­hoe and is only ac­ces­si­ble by boat (above). Ta­hoe Keys ma­rina is packed with all man­ner of craft, mostly power. The depth dropped to 20 feet, 40 feet, 100 feet, 300 feet in less than a minute. We had sailed off a cliff, and soon the thought of even look­ing at the depth sounder be­came su­per­flu­ous. The breeze fresh­ened to about 8 knots out of the north­east, and we glided with ea­gles through crys­tal-clear wa­ter.

Ta­hoe’s sum­mer pre­vail­ing winds are about equally di­vided be­tween a morn­ing and mid­day northerly, fol­lowed by a rather con­sis­tent af­ter­noon south­west­erly com­ing up from the Pa­cific. Nei­ther stirs up the lake very much, so they pro­duce ideal sail­ing: steady breeze with no sig­nif­i­cant swell. Of course, there are some sum­mer days when the winds never ex­ceed about 5 knots, but af­ter all, this is an alpine lake lo­cated 200 miles from the near­est seashore. Gales are rare in sum­mer.

Af­ter lunch in the cock­pit, cousin Carl de­clared, “I feel like a Kennedy.” Then we turned the bow north­west and, af­ter about an hour, looked for the down­ward slope of a moun­tain­side that marks the en­trance to Emer­ald Bay. On this sum­mer af­ter­noon we could have found the en­trance just by fol­low­ing a cou­ple of power craft. Be­fore go­ing in, we furled our sails be­cause we were told that winds in the bay ei­ther gust and spiral around or be­come fluky and di­rec­tion­less.

The bay’s en­trance was ex­tremely well-marked with red and green buoys, but it proved to be al­most as shal­low as the en­trance to the ma­rina. We watched with fas­ci­na­tion — and then with con­ster­na­tion — as the un­der­wa­ter cliff rose to meet us: 250 feet, 100 feet, 35 feet, 10 feet, 7 feet. As though be­ing hurled from the open sea, we cas­caded through the lit­tle pas­sage, but then once again watched the depth read­ings in­crease rapidly. Emer­ald Bay alone, 2 miles long and a half-mile wide, is deeper than at least one of the Great Lakes.

We cruised un­der power in a clock­wise

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