Setting sail in Skyland

Tom Cannon Sailboat.
Shootin’ the breeze: Tom Cannon gets a sail full of mountain air on Lake Julian. photo courtesy Lee Sokol

We’re heading upwind, making a break for the first marker, a buoy near the dam at the southern end of Lake Julian. Barney has his Flying Scot, a 19-foot open day sailer, heeled over, taking as much advantage of the wind as he can. Up ahead of us, Tom and a crewman have his 17-foot Thistle on its edge as well, both men leaning back off the boat’s railing. It is a dramatic enough sight that, for a moment, I gawk instead of sail.

Barney, manning the Scot’s tiller, suggests that I sit up on the boat’s rail with him. This lets him dig harder into the wind and pick up more speed.

Both of these boats are suited for open water, and compared to, say, the ocean, Lake Julian’s 320 acres make for a small course. But sailors’ wisdom, conventional or otherwise, indicates that you make do with whatever water you can get. Besides, when our sails fill with the mountain wind that runs down the valley and across the lake, there are small moments of sheer velocity that match memories of open-water voyages.

Close on our tail are a Sunfish and a Laser, both 14-foot one-man boats that, unlike the Scot and the Thistle, have only one sail. Bringing up the rear is Joe, who takes a few dunks in the lake while navigating his homemade wooden craft that seems to be a sailboard/sailboat hybrid and is prone to capsizing in strong wind.

Barney and I take occasional cursory glances back, but our attention is fixed primarily on the upcoming marker and the Thistle. In the day’s previous races, this fast boat has crossed the finish line first every time.

We are trying to milk this route for all the speed we can. Though we’ll be on an easy downwind run heading back toward the final mark, near the lake’s marina, the wind has been cruelly weak at the end of the races, often leaving boats dawdling and creeping across the line. If we’re going to catch the Thistle, we need to make up some time soon.

Lake Julian — wedged between Long Shoals Road and Interstate 26 at the foot of Progress Energy’s Skyland power plant — is an unlikely but highly popular venue for water sports. Created in 1964 as a cooling source for the plant, the lake and park have since become a popular place for fishing, paddle boating, canoeing and yes, sailing.

The twin-hulled catamarans visible on the lake’s banks are the first indication that old salts, perhaps relocated from coastal climes, have found a new place to run with the wind. But tucked into a corner of the lake not readily visible from land is the marina, an on-the-water berth that hosts a flotilla of sailboats. Many exceed 20 feet, have cabins suitable for sleeping, and frankly are much too large for Lake Julian. But in the mountains you sail whatever you can get your hands on, and the captains of these craft seem undaunted by the limitations of this particular horizon.

The lake is also home to the Asheville Sailing Club, which hosts regular races like this one throughout the warmer months, as well as “fun days” where only the joy of sailing, and not victory, is on the line.

Not that the races evoke too much tension. Though there is some healthy competition, the captains of these boats seem content to josh and joke and not take things too seriously. Even a right-of-way dispute in which our boat and another almost bumped during a race was discussed onshore with a measure of jest and ribbing. After all, it’s a nice day, and we’re sailing.

With some 20-30 members, the club is one of a handful of regional groups of landlocked sailors that includes the Keowee Sailing Club in Seneca, S.C., and the Highland Yacht Club on the Woods Reservoir in Tennessee. In recent races, only five or so boats have been on the water at the same time, and newcomers are welcomed and put to work as crew on the larger boats.

These races are like any other sailing competitions but on a smaller scale: Boats jockey and dawdle at the start line, tacking back and forth in short reaches. At the blast of an air horn, all boats head for the first of a series of marker buoys strewn across the lake. A boat completes the course when it crosses the starting line again. There’s a catch, however: Victory does not necessarily go to the first across the line. Boats are rated based on their design, and individual times are plugged into a distressingly algebraic formula called the Portsmouth Tables to determine who actually won.

This little twist gives Barney and me a boost. The Thistle is rated the fastest of the boats, so if we can finish near her, we could coast to victory on our handicap. Heading downwind, we have our sails wing on wing, spread out in both directions to wrangle as much of the now-calmer breeze as we can. Up ahead, the shoreline protrudes into a point that marks some notoriously shallow water. Barney and I suspect that it may also be blocking some much-needed wind, so we steer a wide path around it.

Up ahead, the Thistle is practically right on top of the finish line but almost dead in the water, no wind in her sails. We, too, lose our speed as we come up on the lead boat and the finish line. Still, we creep across the line right on the Thistle’s tail, which should put us in good position for a win — or it would have, if the Laser hadn’t sneaked up on us at the last minute, beating us with a little help from its handicap. And as I help tie up boats, Tom, the Thistle’s captain, comes by and invites me to crew with him the next time — an offer I intend to hold him to.

Editor’s note: The owner and captain of the Thistle should have been identified as Bruce Sampson — not Tom Cannon. Cannon piloted the Laser, also mentioned in the story.


The Asheville Sailing Club holds regattas on the second Saturday and fourth Sunday of the month at Lake Julian. Would-be sailors and nonboat-owners are welcome. For more information about the club, call 254-6877 or check out the Web site: asheville-sailing-club.org. For Lake Julian marina information, call 684-0376.

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