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Dozens of sailors flock to Central California as its best-known lake regatta has returned after a COVID induced hiatus

By Marissa Neely

Tucked away in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range lies Huntington Lake, a freshwater lake that covers 1,435 acres and is approximately 7 miles long and 1 mile wide, offering year-round activities. At an elevation of 7000 ft, the lake offers an escape from the valley heat in the summer with reliable winds creating a sailor’s paradise. This legendary lake is home to the annual High Sierra Regatta, attracting sailors from far and wide to come together and display their skills on the water. The 68th annual two-weekend event that kicked off July 10th for daggerboard boats, then the keel-boats the following weekend.

Amongst the various boats dominating the lake, the Fresno Yacht Club’s Victory 21 fleet was in good showing with 9 participants including my partner Chris and myself. It was our seventh year competing together in the regatta aboard our cherry red boat named “Geronimo.”Returning to Huntington is not only a highly anticipated summer tradition but also a homecoming since Chris was born and raised there.

Chris taught me how to sail the Victory 21’ when we were just 16 years old, laying the foundation for our relationship which stemmed into a beautiful partnership then marriage later on. Now 24 years old, we have been living aboard our Cheoy Lee 41’ sailing yacht for three years in preparation to sail the world. Returning to our roots and sailing the boat that sparked it all is always an empowering and gratifying experience, especially when surrounded by our fellow Victory sailors that have supported us on and off the water since day one.

High Sierra Regatta, Huntington Lake. Photo: Michael Hushaw

The first three races were held on Saturday July 17th with unusually inconsistent winds that resulted in strange lifts and headers as we attempted to charge up the lake towards our first mark, before rounding and setting our jib with a whisker pole for the downwind jaunt towards finish. Gusts up to 20 knots were seen, causing the classic lines of our 21’boats to heal over drastically, their crew members moving their weight (almost in unison) to the high sides in an attempt to level the waterline. It is not common to “hike out” on these boats as you would a Thistle or Lazer, so it takes a lot of strength to “hold on” and “hold fast!” After a long six-hour day on the water Chris and I consistently placed fifth with extremely close calls at the finish, marking a great first day of tactful sailboat racing.

On day two the notorious summer thunderheads topped the surrounding peaks, a foreshadowing of rain in the near future. Fortunately, the weather held out during the first race, giving the competitors sustainable winds leading into the last and final race. Unlike the prior race there was less than 5kts of wind at the start line causing the Victory fleet to slowly advance up the lake, relying on small gusts and water flow to push us towards the first mark. Rain began to splatter on our deck while we kept a close eye on the horizon for a change in wind patterns, hoping to increase our momentum.

Geronimo holding first place, sailing downwind up the lake. Photo: Marissa Neely

For the first time in decades competitors were greeted on the course by an unexpected Mono Wind, a wind event that can easily reach speeds in excess of 50 knots and in extreme cases as high as over 60 knots. The broad area affected by Mono Winds is along the western slopes of the central Sierra Nevada, however, due to the localized effects of terrain channeling these winds, they can often affect one area tremendously and barely impact another area just a few hundred feet away. This wind event causes the sustained wind direction to flip from west to east, provoking sailors to adjust course and sail up the lake downwind and down the lake upwind.

The final race was completed with a downwind (usually upwind) finish, Geronimo coming in second and placing fifth overall. Friends and fellow competitors Matt and Laura took home first place and the perpetual Victory 21 fleet trophy, celebrating a personal milestone placing higher than Matt’s father, Don, who was also competing with his wife and crew, Wendy.

Geronimo 2. Photo: Mitchel Andrus

It was a pleasure to be surrounded by longtime friends and sailors on our home waters after the yearlong lockdown and restrictions. We look forward to returning to Huntington Lake next year for the 69th annual regatta, in hopes of earning a spot on the podium and inspiring more eager sailors to join our friendly fleet.

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