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Enjoy smooth sailing close to home

Sunday, July 14, 2002

By Bette McDevitt

Sailing -- skimming silently across the water, powered only by the wind -- can make the most inhibited person squeal with delight. This region's many lakes, carved by glaciers thousands of years ago, are now dappled with sailboats.

At most of these lakes, people are willing to show you the ropes, or line, as you will learn to call it.

Lake Arthur

Two years ago, Keith Otto of Evans City wandered over to the sailing area at Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park to take a break from fishing. He chatted with some sailors who invited him to go out for a sail. One thing led to another, and before the summer was over, Otto and his three children were on the water, sailing like old salts. "When [many people] think of sailing, they think of fancy yacht clubs, Martha's Vineyard and John Kennedy out there in his fancy boat, but here at Moraine, sailing really is for anybody," Otto said.

Lake Arthur, an hour north of Pittsburgh, is the closest sailing area for most people, especially those who live to the north of the city.

There are two major sailing areas at Moraine: Watts Bay, where boats are docked on shore, and Davis Hollow, farther along the North Shore, where large boats are docked in the water.

A word of caution: People tell tales of driving on Route 422, seeing boats with bright sails billowing in the wind, then spending hours trying to find the sailing area. Directional signs in the park are minimal, in keeping with the environmental standards. It's a good idea to stop at the park office on the South Shore and get a map. (Or take along the "If You Go" box on Page F-6 for directions.)

It is worth the search.

Members of the Moraine Sailing Club, which has its headquarters at Watts Bay, will welcome newcomers and often take them for a sail. Saturdays are racing days for club members, but there are other sailors on the lake as well. Sundays are a big day for recreational sailing. During the week, you sometimes may have the lake to yourself.

Several years ago, club members started a Community Sailing Program to attract individuals and families who want to learn to sail and don't have a boat of their own. Program members share the use of club-owned boats with others, a less costly plan rather than renting or owning and maintaining your own boat.

    If you go...



Members help to maintain the boats and acquaint new community sailors with the program and equipment. Club members will teach you to sail, and when you are certified, you can reserve for use any of the boats that have been purchased or donated to the program. The fleet consists of eight Sunfish boats stored on a boat rack at Watts Bay, four Flying Scots and one 15-foot Coronado.

On race days, club members are always scouting for newcomers to serve as crew. Those duties may be as simple as serving as ballast, shifting your weight from one side of the boat to the other, and possibly loosening and tightening the lines, to adjust the sail, when the wind changes. There can be moments of great excitement. Winds shift constantly on a lake, unlike the ocean, and learning to sail on a lake prepares you for anything.

To sail at Lake Arthur, or any other state park lake, you don't need sailing certification, but you do need a launch permit ($10 one year; $18 for two years) and personal flotation devices for each person onboard.

There are committed sailors at Lake Arthur.

Hugh Baxter of Harmony sails almost every day at Moraine. He says that sailing entails hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. He is, though, the same person who believes that sunlight sparkling on the water is better than Christmas.

Joe Shields of McCandless was the person Keith Otto encountered that day at Watts Bay. Shields uses a week of his vacation time to operate a sailing camp, along with other club members, for youngsters. John Bridges of Gibsonia, who grew up sailing on the Isle of Wight, is always ready to help children and their parents or grandparents build a small wood sailboat called an Optimist. Sean Marshall of Crafton runs the community Sailing Program as a volunteer. Jean Bongiovanni of Allison Park owns a wooden sloop, which means it has a "fixed keel," anchored at Davis Hollow, but she likes to bring her boat to Watts Bay and be with the friends she has made. "I'm a product of the system here," she said. "I began with the Red Cross sailing lessons, then joined the Community Sailing Program, and now I have my own boat."

This summer, 22 people, most of whom have never sailed before, are building 16-foot sailing skiffs, with the help of Bridges and members of the Western Pennsylvania Wood Workers and George Miller from the Cleveland Amateur Boat Builders Society. On Aug. 24, the first day of a two-day Moraine State Park Regatta, their boats will be on display on the South Shore, and there will be a mass launching at 2 p.m. This is a good day for anyone interested in sailing to come to the park, because Moraine Sailing Club members will be available to take people out in their boats.

Sailors and anglers co-exist on Lake Arthur, with occasional grumbling from both, when sailors tangle with fishing lines. Although properly schooled sailors are taught to right the boat without help when it capsizes, it is comforting to see the fisherman's motorboat within shouting distance. This year, in some parks, including Moraine, the powerboat limit has been raised from 10 to 18 horsepower. Most sailors are simply grateful that they do not have to deal with boats traveling at higher speeds, as on some lakes.

Lake Erie

Allan Murphy, a Moraine sailor who lives in Zelienople, sailed often on Lake Erie with his wife, Mia, and sons Paul and Allen. "Day sails, night sails, and trips across Lake Erie to Canada -- we did it all."

Murphy described seeing "waterspouts," small tornadoes on the water, while sailing to Canada. "Since the funnel is sucking up water, it is surrounded by spray and is the color of the water, which was gray when we saw them. The spouts we saw lasted less than 15 minutes each, although we did see as many as three at once."

Murphy says waterspouts are not something most day sailors out of Erie will see. "Winds near the shore are less likely to create waterspouts. There are still the occasional summer storms, but you can see them coming and they are pretty well-predicted nowadays."

As the children grew older and had more activities at home, the Murphys sold their Catalina and bought a smaller boat, which they keep at Lake Arthur. "We enjoyed many orange sunsets on board as well as golden sunrises on Lake Erie. The bay enabled us to sail on very windy days when the lake was too boisterous, and the lake allowed us to find wind on days when the bay was too still."

On a recent day, at Erie's Bayfront Center for Maritime Studies, Capt. Tiffany Krihwan and Anne Danielski, director of Sea Grant, a hands-on environmental program, were preparing to take a class from Erie's Strong Vincent High School aboard the sloop Momentum. It was hard to tell the crew and the teacher from the students.

"I can't wait to get out on the water," Krihwan said. "That's where these kids see that the world is a whole lot bigger than what they thought."

Debbie Beard, the teacher, also makes frequent use of the program, Environmental Rediscoveries, which involves elements of physics, chemistry and navigation.

"These kids live right up over the hill here, and most of them have never been on the water," Danielski said, adding that the program is available to young people from Pennsylvania from May to October. "Our busiest months are May and September and October. Through the summer, we have more time for other groups, such as scout troops."

Jim Stewart, the director of the center, is a former Pittsburgher who learned to sail on a Sunfish at Moraine, then went to Erie, and fell in love with the lake. The center is committed to making sailing accessible to all and offers a variety of programs.

For example, under the supervision of skilled craftsmen, disadvantaged youth from the inner city are now building the "Erie Boat," a replica of a 19th-century fishing vessel. "This was the boat that helped Erie claim the title of 'freshwater fishing capital' of the world," said Stewart.

The center offers an adaptive sailing program for the handicapped. Through a partnership with the Junior League of Erie, the center provides a specially designed 10-foot dinghy, which will not capsize, a dockside lift, and sailing instruction for individuals with disabilities who would like the freedom to sail independently. There's also a U.S. Sailing Keelboat Certified sailing school and an archaeological program designed to preserve and protect the countless shipwrecks, which lie beneath the waters of Lake Erie.

Stewart suggests visitors make a combo of the city of Erie and Presque Isle. "Come here and spend a weekend, take a ride on our sloop, the Momentum, owned by Pittsburgh businessman Ron Esser, then Rollerblade or bike on the Peninsula, and go to the beach or Presque Isle. There are some nice restaurants and the Maritime Museum."


Chris Harlan of Mt. Lebanon keeps his San Juan sailboat at Moraine, but he is sweet on another body of water.

"For my money, Pymatuning is the best sailing lake anywhere in these parts. Though farther from Pittsburgh [two hours] than Lake Arthur, its terrain and climate make for ideal sailing conditions from April through November. The flat, rugged and simple countryside allow for a breeze with respectable momentum coming from Lake Erie. Pymatuning is the quintessential dinghy-sailing lake -- a small sailboat paradise." A dinghy is a small boat with a removable centerboard.

Glendale Lake

Two other Moraine sailors, Bill Tingle of Upper Burrell and Tom Uehling of Allison Park, both sailed for many years at Glendale Lake in Prince Gallitzin State Park, north of Altoona. Both recommend it for camping, cabin rental and sailing. According to Uehling, many of the sailors who camp and use the cabins there are from the Pittsburgh area. In fact, the club and sailing program at Moraine are modeled after a Glendale Lake program.

No matter where you learn to sail, you can have an endless summer vacation on the water, with picnics on shore, usually with a gentle breeze over your shoulder, and never have to pack a suitcase.

Bette McDevitt is a free-lance writer who lives on the North Side.

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