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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Two boats sail side by side to the finish line in a Great Salt Lake Yachting Club race. The club, founded in 1879, is one of the oldest yachting clubs in the U.S. It holds a variety of weekly and monthly races.

Great Salt Lake — Sea gulls. Saltwater. Brine shrimp.

There are many things out there that call the Great Salt Lake home. Out of all the things the state's most famous landmark has become well known for, however, sailboat racing is not one of them.

But the sport of sailboat racing, or yachting as it is commonly called, has enjoyed a lengthy and storied history on its waters.

Founded on May 10, 1877 — just a few months before the death of Brigham Young — the Great Salt Lake Yachting Club is one of the oldest operating yacht clubs in the United States. Since holding its first regattas in 1879, sailing enthusiasts in the club frequent the Great Salt Lake Marina to hold a variety of weekly and monthly races.

In a time when motorboats are popular and plentiful on other Utah lakes, the Great Salt Lake holds a distinct appeal as a destination strictly for sailboats.

"Motorboats have really taken over all the reservoirs," said Dave Shearer, a longtime member of the yachting club and its current harbormaster. "This is really the last sanctuary that sailors have."

Shearer has participated in sailboat racing or yachting around the world over the past 30 years. One of the things that keeps him coming back to the Great Salt Lake is the challenging nature of the races.

And the races staged by the GSL Yachting Club indeed present a wide spectrum of challenges that require different strategies.

Regattas feature as many as 15 to 20 boats broken down into different classes based on PHRF ratings. PHRF ratings measure the maximum speed a boat potentially can reach in prime condition.

That means a regatta will typically feature different starting times for each class, even though all the boats follow the same course marked off by buoys. A sailboat crew in such a race not only must worry about navigating around boats from its own class, but it also must account for other boats it isn't even technically racing against.

"Sailboat racing is not really a good sport for linear thinkers," Shearer said. "You have to be a peripheral thinker."

Offshore races, which the GSL Yachting Club also puts together, require more long-term thinking. These races can be as short as the Partners Cup, a 12-mile race held in early July, or as long as the Reynolds Cup — an 80-mile race in May that takes sailors to the northern shore of the lake — near Promontory Point — and back.

Finishing such races can take several hours and sometimes even days. And with shoreline virtually inaccessible to sailboats except at a few scattered marinas, sailors have to tough it out through complications like stormy weather.

"It's bit like sailing in the ocean, I think," said Darin Christensen, race chair and vice commodore for the club. "You have to treat it somewhat like the ocean."

While racing is a primary objective for the GSL Yachting Club, it also serves other functions for its members. The club hosts socials and dinners. It also offers a cruising program that gives participants a chance to tour various parts of the Great Salt Lake.

One of the club's biggest events is its annual Sailfest — an outreach program that each summer features boat racing, sail painting, a dinner and live bands.

All of these things help to make it into a tight-knit community for local sailing enthusiasts.

"When we're out on the race course, we're absolute competitors," Shearer said. "When we come back off the race course, for the most part, yeah, we're all good friends."

Still, the biggest challenge facing the GSL Yachting Club is retaining and expanding its membership. In the past decade, the surface level of the lake has dropped 8 1/2 feet from 4204 feet above sea level to 4195 1/2 feet. In the same span, the club has lost about 25 percent of its active members once some of the larger boats could no longer get in and out of a shallower marina.

"The shallowness has caused a drop in membership," Christensen said. "There's not as many people out here as there has been in the past."

The GSL Yachting Club has taken some steps to combat dropping lake levels. It recently spent $40,000 to dredge the mouth of the marina to give better clearance for keels on various boats. It took 2 1/2 days, and it required the use of power shovels and a shrimping barge to remove enough silt to give the marina better depth.


E-mail: jcoon@desnews.com