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The connotations that cling to the sport of sailing don't quite jibe with the tones of the typical South. It can call to mind images of olive-tanned swells off Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard, enjoying a sun-specked ocean and mauling olden nautical terminology like “spinnaker” and “dagger board” with that grating nor' eastern accent.
Do sailboats have a place in the Deep South? After all, this is a state that loves our sports physical and fast-paced. We're in the SEC, the roughest and mightiest of all college conferences. We provide NASCAR with a sizable chunk of its fan base. What could an unhurried, gentle pastime like sailing have to offer?
Quite a lot. Sure, these sailboats coursing across the water seem serene enough from a distance, but when you're one of the hands on board, tacking upwind at 15 knots over a bumpy, unforgiving liquid terrain, constantly rearranging your footing on a slicked, never-steady deck, grasping at sail lines, trying to remember the right way to tie a correct jack knot, all the while dodging a 300-pound steel mast that would knock you unconscious and send you off into the water if given the chance…well, it can make squaring up across from Tony Bua or being bumped by Mark Martin seem like a dawdling round of bocce ball.
It's hardly uncommon to see sailboats pluming between bass boats and pontoons through the drafts and gusts of Arkansas. From small, two-hulled catamarans to massive, 40-foot multi-sail keelboats, sailing is alive and well on our lakes thanks to the thrills and, if one chooses, relaxation it offers.
With four major sailing (or “yacht”) clubs within our borders, all offering an array of weekend regattas (boat races), cruises, poker runs and, yes, margarita-fueled dock parties, there's ample opportunity to indulge your inner Viking (or Jimmy Buffett), all the while admiring all the nautical grandeur Arkansas has to offer.
The Iron Mountain Yacht Club on the rolling, 14,000-acre DeGray Lake – where I caught the sailing bug as a 14-year-old on a well-rounded Hunter 25'– presents a particularly challenging lake layout, with a number of islands dotted in the water which, in places, require constant maneuvering of jib and regular modification of strategy. For the more relaxed, the lake offers plenty of peaceful lagoons in which to anchor down and a number of great cliffs that beg for the gutsy diver.
For the especially competitive, the Greers Ferry Lake Yacht Club offers the Cleon Challenge, an all-year, standing race open to those willing to test themselves. Rounding the lake's three major islands, the Cleon is a route mapped out especially for time trials, rife with technical zigs and zags designed to challenge the dexterity not only of a boat, but the nerves of the skipper. The club's website reports over 100 logged times from both crews and solo attempts.
The Ozarks' premiere club, the Beaver Lake Sail Club, lies outside of Eureka Springs on Beaver Lake. It sports weekly sum-mer events on the water including the annual Arkansas Cup tournament, the three-part Fall Series, the Summer Sailstice to cele-brate the longest day of the year and – this is great – a “dive-in” movie.
For the Central Arkansas resident not looking to hit the road to hit the water, the 50-year old Grande Maumelle Sailing Club is arguably the elite group for those with healthy sea legs. They offer sailing classes for kids aged 7 to 16, not to mention weekend classes for adults in early June. So there's an option for the curious short of an investment in a boat. Sporting a huge array of boat styles and offering frequent boat races and regattas, this group caters to the experienced sailor as well while accepting those with neither boat nor equipment.
While these four groups are clubs that require membership fees, Arkansas lakes invite people and their sailboats to chart off into their waters. In fact, for those interested but short a few thousand bones to buy their own, Jolly Roger's Marina on Lake Maumelle, to name one, offers sailboat charters and rentals.
So don't hesitate. As an old skipper once told me, the secret to great sailing is in simply keeping your sail towards the sky, the tan on your back and the rum in your cup.
Ready To Ride The Wind?
Here's some contact information:
Beaver Lake Sailing Club beaverlakesailclub.com
Grande Maumelle Sailing Club gmsc.org
Greers Ferry Lake Yacht Club gflyc.com
Iron Mountain Yacht Club ironmountainyachtclub.org
Jolly Roger's Marina jollyrogersmarina.com