Paddle-Sailing Lake Champlain
The littlest boat in the fleet turns a sailing vacation into an adventure
I’d been invited to join the North East Trailer Sailor’s Association for its annual Lake Champlain Rendezvous in early July, but with only a week to go, I had no boat. That’s when the adventure began. Enter the NorseBoat, a 17.5-foot gaff-rigged trailersailer. Auxiliary power: two sets of wooden oars.
My father and I picked up our NorseBoat in Boston and spent the first night in a campground after leaving two states behind us. The boat is designed to be a camper/sailer and comes with a tent that fully encloses the cockpit. We’re not talking standing headroom here, but two adults can sleep comfortably inside. The tent opening, however, is right at the stern, and getting in and out can be tricky, on the trailer or in the water.
The next morning we were still 250 miles from the launch ramp in Colchester, Vermont, and two days behind the NETS fleet. We covered the miles quickly enough, but had less luck contacting the fleet. We rigged the NorseBoat for the first time in the parking lot adjacent to the boat ramp, following the simple directions—blue line through blue cleat, etc. Launching in Malletts Bay proved a bit trickier, as the wind and current—a bit much for a single pair of oars to overcome—pushed us against the ramp and dock. Nonetheless, we labored past the moored boats, my dad manning the tiller as I rowed slowly on.
Once we got away from the harbor and were able to raise the sails, the boat came alive. We tore across the inner bay, getting a feel for how it handled. It was too late to head out across the lake, so we anchored in a small cove for lunch. We were relaxing in the sun when a dark wall of clouds appeared on the horizon. The race was on: How fast could we zip the pieces of canvas together into a tent? We were still zipping and snapping as the first drops fell, and as the rain hit hard and fast, we were glad we’d previously practiced setting up the tent.
So much for a quiet lunch spot; it now looked like we’d be spending the night. The wind tested our anchor, spinning us 180 degrees and within 15 feet of a private dock, but we held tight. The sun shone through the clouds for a moment creating a glorious double rainbow, but soon we were huddling in our tent in the approaching darkness, listening to the thunder growling in the distance.
We were optimistic the next morning. The sun was shining, we had contacted the fleet, and we had charted a course for Valcour Island. We rowed out of the cove, caught the wind, hoisted sail, and began moving toward Outer Malletts Bay and the vastness of the open lake. Then the wind began to drop. “I’ll row,” I volunteered. “Only if you want to,” Dad answered. Malletts Bay didn’t look so big on the charts. A few minutes later, rowing was no longer optional. The sails were luffing and the current was pulling us back toward land. A few more strokes, and surely we’d get more wind on the open lake…
We alternated between sailing and paddle-sailing (as we’d dubbed it) all morning, slowly approaching a small opening in the old concrete breakwater, built for the railroad, that serves at the entrance to Malletts Bay. It was tricky managing this gap with little headway, but we emerged triumphantly into Lake Champlain—only to find no wind. Though rowing with both sets of oars would have been more efficient, if we wanted the sails up one of us had to man the tiller and be able to see around them. We figured that even with the light wind, we were better off paddle-sailing. Rowing at full speed, I was able to add about a knot of headway, but blisters were beginning to form on my hands. “Want to switch?” Dad offered. “No, just sing something to help mark the cadence,” I said. About two songs in, I relented. “Okay, your turn.” We still weren’t abeam of the southern point of Valcour Island, and we needed to get two-thirds of the way up its western side. Our adventure was losing some of its charm.
Lake Champlain (often called the sixth Great Lake) can be an imposing body of water. Stretching down 120 miles from Quebec in the north, it forms the border between Vermont and New York. Just our luck. We were crossing it just north of its widest point—10 miles—between Burlington, Vermont, and Port Douglas, New York. But you couldn’t ask for prettier scenery, bounded by the Green Mountains to the east and the Adirondack Mountains to the west. We gazed upon misty mountain peaks the whole way across.
Ages later we finally pulled around the south side of the island, a beautiful rocky cliff covered with pine trees. Some kayakers were camping on the shore; we later learned that a water trail for canoes and kayaks covers the entire lake. At last the wind filled in, giving my hands and back a rest and giving us a fine view of Valcour’s old lighthouse. Before we knew it we were sailing around the point into Butterfly Bay.
The North East Trailer Sailors are a friendly lot. As we drifted up toward the end of a long row of boats pulled up on the beach, several people waded out to help us ashore. Even for people used to spending weeks on compact trailersailers, the NorseBoat seemed small. “Do you really sleep on that thing?” they asked. “How do you cook? Where do you store your gear?” The grand tour took about five minutes: “These boards here span the cockpit to make a bed, there’s storage in the bow, and we have a camp stove,” we explained.
Once they learned that I was “the writer from SAIL Magazine,” the invitations flowed in: “You sure you don’t want to sleep on our boat? We have plenty of room. If you need water or anything, let us know. Would you like to come over for dinner?” It wasn’t because of who we were, but who they were—NETS members take pride in the fact that together they can overcome pretty much any obstacle. Earlier they’d pooled their materials, tools, and expertise and replaced one boat’s broken rudder. Later we ourselves were recipients of this same generosity when, as we were taking down the rig, we ran into Bruce and Penny, who had treated us to a gourmet dinner a few nights before. We were talking when Penny noticed something hanging off our truck. Someone had stolen the connector for the trailer lights. Bruce, who had worked as a boatbuilder for years, immediately came to our rescue. He followed us to the nearby ACE Hardware and helped us install the new connectors we bought. He just happened to have the necessary tools with him.
The atmosphere on the beach was reminiscent of summer camp. There were campfires and s’mores at night, communal munchies on rainy afternoons, and arts and crafts for the kids. The weather continued to be stormy, so instead of moving on each day as planned, we stayed put and made the most of Valcour Island. Barbara, my NETS contact, led a few of us on a hike around the island. We visited the lighthouse (closed for restoration), and we saw Valcour’s other alluring anchorages (which were not ideal for the easterly winds).
Another day we organized a party of boats to cross the lake for supplies. There was plenty of wind then. The NorseBoat flew across the lake under a reefed main. It was only then that we discovered—bobbing alongside the fuel dock in a heavy swell—that the boat, with no stanchion, lifelines, or cleats, had nowhere to attach the fenders we held in our hands. We did our best to lash them to the oars, and Dad held them in place as I ran ashore for provisions.
Finally we’d had enough of being dripped on all night. (Did I mention the vent hole on our tent? The one barely covered by a canvas flap right above our heads. Just as I was about to doze off, DRIP, right in the face.) The fleet was heading south, but our time was almost up, so we headed back to the ramp in Malletts Bay.
It was a glorious sail, and we quickly covered the distance south along the island. As we turned east toward the bay, the heavens opened and we were drenched. I wondered if I should panic—we were engineless, in a downpour, under menacing black skies—but the rain left as fast as it came and with it went the wind. We once again found ourselves drifting just south of Valcour Island, and we paddle-sailed back to the ramp.
Thanks to NorseBoat founder Kevin Jeffrey for lending us the NorseBoat 17.5.