Cruising

A Big Lake Upgrade

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Driving up to Lake Champlain with our 21ft San Juan sloop Puffin in tow, my wife Dawn and I felt our excitement mounting. We’d had plenty of sailing experience on our home lake in New Hampshire, but this would be our first time on the big body of water in the northwestern corner of Vermont. We were looking forward to a week-long sailing vacation in a beautiful locale.

A light rain was falling when we arrived on Saturday, but we rigged Puffin and motored over to Burton Island. A 253-acre state park off St. Albans point, the little island boasts a full-service marina and a couple of moorings, with anchorage space for plenty more. A private, wooded setting hosts several lean-tos, where we set up camp and hunkered down with our two dogs, Chewy and Sam, to wait out the downpour. When the rain lasted through the night and showed no sign of letting up the next day, Dawn and I looked at each other glumly.

“Just our luck—it’s going to rain all week!” I said, reaching for a book.

But the sun poked through on Monday afternoon, and we spent the rest of the day fitting out the boat. The next morning, we motored out of the marina, hoisted our sails and pointed Puffin toward Woods Island, about two miles away. We circumnavigated Woods Island and returned to Burton Island in a freshening breeze, Puffin responding eagerly to our touch the whole way.

The following morning, Dawn and I discovered the sanctity of lee shores when we raised our sails too close to Burton Island and got instantly blown onto its rocky beach. The sound of fiberglass on rock brought visions of a vacation spent in dry-dock to mind, but a quick inspection of the keel proved the scrapes were superficial; only our egos had been battered. Once free, 15-knot winds and clear sightlines led us into a wonderful day of sailing away from the drama of the morning.

Friday dawned bright and clear with 20-knot winds and small waves, so Dawn and I set sail for the village of North Hero, about seven miles away. An exhilarating sail with the wind behind us meant we were hungry for lunch by the time we tied up at the slip. The deli at Hero’s Welcome was just the ticket, with huge sandwiches named after Revolutionary War heroes like Ethan Allen and General Arnold. After eating lunch at the picnic tables overlooking the lake, we hopped back aboard Puffin and sailed until sunset. By the time we returned to Burton Island, the marina was filling up for the weekend. The secret of Champlain was out and Puffin was no longer one of just six boats.

With 20-knot winds and almost unlimited visibility to the mountains surrounding the lake, sailboats and powerboats were out en masse the next day. We sailed around the Inland Sea and south toward Grand Isle, marveling at our ability to go up to an hour without tacking. The Inland Sea is the widest part of the lake, and compared to our much narrower version at home, it was quite a novel expanse of small whitecaps. We brought a picnic lunch with us and ate on Puffin, which Sam and Chewy thoroughly approved of. We were the last boat into the marina that evening, and though it was tricky maneuvering into our slip past the many yachts now surrounding it, the neighboring captains were happy to lend a hand and a word of encouragement.

As the orange sun fell lower and lower in the sky that evening, a warm breeze carried the smell of steaks cooking on neighboring grills through our cockpit. Beers in hand, Dawn and I took in the twinkling cockpit lights and figures strolling along the docks. The sounds of a strumming guitar wafted across the water. We looked at each other and smiled: it was the perfect ending to the best week of sailing we’d ever experienced.

Cruising Notes: Lake Champlain stretches 130 miles south from the Canadian border and is surrounded by mountains: the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains to the east. With access to Montreal via the Richelieu and St. Lawrence Rivers, and to New York City along the Champlain Canal, it was a major transportation route during the Revolutionary War. Fort Ticonderoga at the southern end of the lake and the ruins at Fort Crown Point are both interesting historical stops. Plenty of islands and bays mean sailors are never too far from land. For more on Burton Island click here and for Hero’s Welcome, click here.

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