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Sailing the great Lake Winnebago

By Sean P. Johnson

Andrea Gratton’s earliest recollections are of being splashed with water. Not surprising, since the 27-year-old Oshkosh native’s first sailing adventure on Lake Winnebago took place just three days after she was born, according to the family legend. They haven’t been able to get her off the water since.

“I’ve just always loved sailing,” says Gratton. “Whether it’s a sailboat, windsurfing or an ice boat, I love to sail the lake.”

She is not alone.

On any given summer evening, you can see multitudes of colored sails dotting the lake as they catch the breeze. As one of the country’s largest inland lakes, Winnebago offers sailors a playground of more than 137,000 square miles.

There is plenty of room to maneuver, and with an average depth of 15.5 feet, it can quickly add a little chop to keep your ride interesting.

A Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources study once dubbed the lake Wisconsin’s busiest waterway. Sailing plays a key part in that traffic.

“I just love the feeling of the wind and the water,” says Chris Volkman, who started sailing with his wife, Mary, on Lake Winnebago about 10 years ago. While Chris Volkman has lived around the lake for most of his life, he didn’t start sailing until his children went away to college.

“We saw an ad for the sailing school and thought we would try it out,” Volkman says. We had a great time. We joined the crew of another boat and by that fall, we had our own boat.”

That boat was a Precision 23, a daysailer with a keel and enclosed cabin. While he has owned many other types of boats, Volkman had never owned a sailboat before then, and quickly became enamored with the experience.

“My favorite place is in the bow of the boat,” Volkman says. “You get a much different sensation of speed than when you are at the helm.”

Perhaps, the desire for that sensation played a small role in the Volkmans’ decision to sell their boat. While they will no longer have their own vessel, the Volkmans plan to crew for another boat and continue to be on the water regularly.

The attraction to sail the lake is a powerful one with a long history. Accounts of the first yachting races date back to the late 1840s, and some of the organizations dedicated to the sport are among the oldest in the state.

“We like to say we were sailing the lake before Lincoln was president,” says Doug Hatch, a former commodore and current treasurer for the Neenah-Nodaway Yacht Club, and a historian of sailing on Lake Winnebago.

It’s a long and proud history.

The Neenah-Nodaway Yacht Club celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2014. The Oshkosh Yacht Club is right behind, celebrating 145 years. The two clubs were instrumental in early sailing activity on the lake, including the creation and support of the Inland Lake Yachting Association, a national body that will host its championship events on Lake Winnebago this summer.

Yachting clubs in Appleton, Fond du Lac and High Cliff also have long histories of supporting boating on the lake.

Many of the clubs stage weekly regattas on the lake. They also have sailing schools that offer new enthusiasts an introduction to and basics of the sport. Stand along the shoreline of Winnebago near Millers Bay in Oshkosh or Kimberly Point in Neenah almost any night of the week, and you will see the colored sails flitting about the lake as captains navigate their course.

Other boaters are about cruising the lake. At High Cliff Marina, you can watch the boats head out for leisurely jaunts.

For most of the clubs, the opportunities to socialize is important as well.

The Neenah-Nodaway club may be one of the oldest sailing clubs in the U.S., perhaps within the 10 oldest, says Kacee Des Jarlais, the club’s sail promotion director. Des Jarlais is helping to organize events for the 150th Anniversary.

“That’s pretty unusual for a club on an inland lake,” says Des Jarlais, who enjoys sailing Lasers and is committed to bringing younger people into the sport. She particularly wants to help folks get past the perception it is a sport only for the wealthy.

If you are looking to give the sport a try, many of the established boats on the lake are looking for crew members for weekly regattas, Des Jarlais says, noting she was hooked after just one ride. Many small, used boats can get you sailing around the lake for under $2,000.

“It can be very affordable,” Des Jarlais says. “Our idea is to show sailing is fun and accessible.”

Mostly, it’s just fun, says Geoff Catlin, who grew up on the water and has sailed all over the country.

“I don’t get out enough,” says Catlin. He sails in the summer, ice boats in the winter and belongs to at least three yacht clubs, as well as an ice boating club. “I’m pretty certifiable.”

Catlin also is involved with the Inland Lake Yachting Association and the Fox Valley Sailing School, which offers weekly lessons to new sailors of every age during the summer. For a few hundred dollars, he says, you can get “eight rides and a great experience.”

The sport’s expensive reputation is driven, at least in part, by the media coverage of the America’s Cup races and the millions spent to develop those boats. Most boats on Lake Winnebago are smaller, and much less expensive.

A good boat to enjoy the sport can be had for less than $4,500, says Catlin. There are many boat designs to choose from, some of which you can build in your garage if you have the skills.

“It can be as expensive or inexpensive as you want,” Catlin says. “if you have the budget, there’s always a bigger boat.”

A popular boat for the Neenah-Nodaway club is the J-24, which can be sailed single-handed or raced with a crew of three to four people, Hatch says. The Flying Scott, a smaller boat, also is popular for both cruising and racing, he says.

While the Neenah-Nodaway club is a founding member of the ILYA, it does not have boats in the categories raced by that organization. Many of the ILYA racers are based out of Oshkosh in the fleets of racing scows.

Both clubs will be involved with the ILYA 2014 Championships, Aug. 13–17, on Lake Winnebago.

For Gratton, she just loves the different sensations of being on the water, whether it’s a boat or a sailboard.

“It can be very relaxing, or it can be very intense depending on what is happening with the lake,” she says.

Given her early exposure to the sport, it should not come as a surprise that it’s been her passion for most of her life. In addition to earning her certification as a sailing instructor while still in high school, she also founded the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee sailing team while attending.

Now back home, Gratton spends at least an hour a week on the water and is doing what she can to share her passion with others. Her latest passion is sailboarding, which she says is easier to get into and notes the boards are a lot more portable than boats.

She also has a passion for recruiting more women into all aspects of the sport.

“Not a lot of women in the sport yet, so I tend to push myself harder to show them they can do it,” Gratton says. “We want to get more people involved. It’s such a great experience.”

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