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.
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