The Vagabonds of Watauga Lake

In small boats on an Appalachia­n lake, friends find sailing and healing go hand in hand.


They call themselves the Vagabonds. A psychologi­st, a healing arts practition­er, a traveling millwright, a widowed restaurate­ur—this is only a fraction of the colorful characters that make up Watauga Lake Sailing Club.

Just west of the North Carolina border in Tennessee, nestled in the heart of the Appalachia­n Mountains and surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest, Watauga Lake is a man-made reservoir turned recreation­al paradise.

The clubhouse is an open-air pavilion surrounded by old growth taller than any mast and host to sailing-related talks and workshops. But the real magic happens out there, on the 16-mile-long, half-milewide, 50- to 250-foot-deep Watauga Lake. Here, a series of short tacks thread the needle through a glaciated water valley to the world’s edge—300-foot-tall defunct Watauga Dam—before it’s time to turn around and do it all over again. In between are overnighte­rs, raft ups, and lots of racing.

“You might get run over sailing up there,” says Chuck Greene, retired millwright. “It’s like NASCAR with the gusts.” Chuck is a bluegrass musician and purebred Appalachia­n. His boat is a Chrysler 26 he fixed and named The Waffle House.

The closest landmark to Watauga Lake is the town of Butler, which is underwater. You can see it on any GPS. It says, “former buildings.” Cemeteries, churches, warehouses, and railroad all lie beneath the lake.

The Tennessee Valley (Power) Authority flooded the town in the 1940s after building the Watauga Dam and relocating residents to higher ground. Today, winding mountain roads, steeply sloped waterfront properties, and the famous Appalachia­n Trail make for a remote vacationla­nd. When sailors arrive to their boats, they have everything they need for the weekend or longer.

Lake boats are lightweigh­t day sailing and weekender vessels. Sailing into the slip, no matter the hour, is the norm. Winds change every 20 minutes, from light air to katabatic downdrafts, high pressure or low, all four seasons—even the annual Frost Bite race every January. A ripped jib or knockdown is all in a day’s sail.

“Someone is always willing to sacrifice their boat,” says Jamie Wrestler. A 10-year veteran club member and former owner of the famed Johnson City, Tennessee, brickoven pizzeria called Scratch, Jamie has a Balboa 20 named Sharkie.

“They say if you can sail Watauga Lake you can sail anywhere,” says Krista Wright, an author and journalist turned yoga instructor and reiki practition­er. Krista joined the sailing club two years ago and co-owns a Balboa 26 named My Love with her love, John Thurman. The pair bought the boat from Watauga Lake Sailing Club’s founder, Clarke Lucas.

“Clarke has taught over 1,000 people to sail on that boat,” Krista says.

John, who is a practicing psychologi­st, and Krista shared a lifelong desire to learn to sail. They got their American Sailing Associatio­n certs and joined the sailing club around the same time as Chuck. They met Jamie. A crew was born—the Vagabonds, to differenti­ate from the sailing club as a whole.

While most club mates were content sailing to the dam and back, the Vagabonds dreamed of sailing away. They also shared something deeper, the experience of sailing as a mechanism for mental health and healing.

“Sailing is a lifelong growth activity,” John says. “I feel like this is the next chapter of my life.”

Tactile skills. Natural splendor. Social

ties. e art of sailing and all it encompasse­s have been instrument­al for the crew in navigating the depths of their personal trauma. Bereaved by the loss of her son who tragically took his own life, Krista marked a milestone becoming a sailor. Jamie is in the same boat and has been on a long grieving journey.

“My husband died on that lake,” she said. “He died on that boat.”

e late John Wrestler went out sailing alone one night. e next morning the boat washed ashore without him. His body was later recovered from the lake.

“We all have our vices,” Jamie remarked on his cause of death.

She couldn’t bring herself to sail a er that, but she couldn’t bring herself to sell the boat either. rough learning how to make repairs onboard and singlehand­ing, Jamie slowly rebuilt the relationsh­ip with herself and her boat. Sharkie sailed again.

“I was a sailor,” Jamie says. “I didn’t know that about myself before.”

Jamie, John, Krista, and a few others chartered a 2019 Jeanneau Sun Odyssey in the Caribbean to broaden their horizons. Chuck couldn’t make the charter, but the Vagabonds would get their time at sea.

“It was these guys who helped me embrace the idea of community, crew, and the whole experience of others,” Jamie says.

Forced into early retirement, Chuck was facing a life-threatenin­g illness and the death of his father. A er 20 years of compulsive­ly studying sailboat listings, it was now or never.

“I needed a project,” he says. “I bought the worst, cheapest boat I could nd.”

e Wa e House was a steppingst­one. A year and a half later Chuck found a turnkey, heavy displaceme­nt, 31-foot Cape Dory ketch on the North Carolina coast named La Vie en Rose, or, “life through rose-colored glasses.”

“I needed healing,” Chuck says. “ e club and the boat really gave me that.”

La Vie en Rose also gave all of the Vagabonds their maiden saltwater voyage in January, when they sailed over 100 nautical miles of Pamlico Sound to Ocracoke Island, part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“ e sailing club and community has the potential to be a healthy, healing environmen­t,” John says through the lens of his PHD in psychology. “But there’s always the other side.”

e human condition is on full display at Lake Watauga, as in any paradise. It’s up to the individual to plot their own course and hope to nd others of like mind along the way.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse or thoughts of self-harm please call the national hotline at 1-800662-HELP, or call/text 988.

Emily Greenberg is a freelance writer on the East Coast. She is an award-winning community journalist, blogger, and has been a regular contributo­r to SAIL since 2020. She was featured on NPR’S Marketplac­e where she spoke about her experience working in the marine industry.

 ?? ?? The Vagabonds on La Vie en Rose (L to R) John Thurman, Krista Wright, Jamie Wrestler, and Chuck Greene.
The Vagabonds on La Vie en Rose (L to R) John Thurman, Krista Wright, Jamie Wrestler, and Chuck Greene.

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