Red River, Interrupted

Off the bow I could see Oklahoma. I looked over the stern, and yonder was Texas. Around me whitecaps were building on a special lake that splits the difference between two be-all, end-all rivals, and the name of that body of water says it all. Texoma. Mythology meets mixology.

Surely you know the scripture: “Don’t mess with Texas.”

Surely you know the Oklahoma retort: “Right on top of Texas.”

What we have here is a hotspot for regional sailing and much more. Beneath the lazy turns of Lake Texoma lie the lazy turns of the ancient Red River channel. Check it out on a map and you see the lazy turns of the state border. Did I mention rivalry? In these parts you don’t schedule anything against the Texas-OU game, but when they’re not worshiping at the 50-yard line, the locals have plenty going on. The oldest rodeo in Oklahoma, up the road in Madill, turns 58 this year. And whatever your passion, it’s always in line to spend a heap of time on Lake Texoma. The record striped bass went 35 pounds, and the lake has produced five consecutive Texas smallmouth records.

Texoma is also:

  • Home to more keelboats than any other lake in the region.
  • A PHRF hotbed.
  • Cradle to the whole notion of sailboat racing in the name of charity.
  • Formed by an Army Corps of Engineers dam so you can fairly call it Red River, interrupted.
  • Rumors of a Texoma Wine Trail sounded intriguing, but somehow that eluded me. Deep in the heart of Texas? Nope. This is the edge, but you could say a leading edge. I was here to sail the annual Lakefest Regatta on a local entry, Mike Naugher’s One Design 35, Coyote. Who should I run across a few months later in Chicago for the Mackinac Race? These people get around.

    And no, that size boat is nothing unusual on Texoma. While trailerables set the tone for most lake sailing in Texas, 40-footers are common here. Only a month before I had sailed parts of Mexico on a former Texoma boat, a Beneteau 47 named Sooner Magic, and you might be surprised to learn that Valiants are built on the Texas side of Texoma, right outside Gordonville. That operation hightailed out of the more-expensive, more-complicated Pacific Northwest many years ago. One sight ’em: The Valiant named Savage Son, with a home port of Paris, Texas.

    So let’s do a little orienting: The Red originates in two forks some 300 miles upstream, in the Texas panhandle, and it empties into the Atchafalaya and Mississippi nearly 400 miles downstream of the Denison Dam, the stopper that maintains this, the sixth-largest manmade lake in the U.S., and its 1,000 miles of shoreline. Here the buffalo roamed, but times have changed. In its 23rd year, Texoma Lakefest is a signature event drawing sailors primarily from Dallas and Fort Worth to the south—about 75 miles—and Oklahoma City to the north—about 120 miles—and, of course, from Texoma Sailing Club, which makes Lakefest happen.

    A year ago I became a Lakefest veteran. It was all new to me, but for the crew of Coyote this was recreational business as usual. Texoma is their home port, but Lake Michigan in July and Houston in the fall are their regular fare. Naugher’s boat is home now for Lakefest 2009, April 16–19, along with probably 60-some other boats. That’s no record compared to 100+ in past years, but this regatta continues to reinvent itself, which makes Lakefest an interesting case.

    My time on the water was fine, just fine, but not the stuff of a gripping tale. Over three days of racing, conditions would go from brisk to mild to challenging-light and back. That’s springtime in America. Variable. For at least a few people the most memorable moments were having their tents blown down on Thursday night. Then on Friday came the question of whether to reef or not. It’s a story of good people, good racing, good times, and if you went home with a trophy, good on ya. If I’m not mistaken, that’s a successful event. My takeaway, however, was the energy and capacity behind the scenes of a regatta that, over the years, has generated more than $1.5 million for children’s charities.

    Change happens

    When it kicked off in 1987, Texoma Lakefest was almost alone as a sailboat race for charity. The rest of the world caught up, while Lakefest made a journey of its own, says regatta chairman Chuck Flanagan. First there was a long honeymoon with the Chamber of Commerce of nearby Denison—photo opp, birthplace of Dwight Eisenhower—that made Lake-fest a community-wide event with a couple of thousand people turning out for Saturday night hijinks. I’d best provide anonymity for my friend, who recalls “local debutantes showing up with their hair fluffed two feet high, just to strut; it was quite a party, but not a sailing party.”

    Sorry I missed it. But that heyday came and went.

    A new Chamber of Commerce lurched off in a new direction, and a few years back, Lakefest was orphaned. “We wanted to continue as a charity event,” Flanagan says. “In 2008 we scrambled and aligned ourselves with the Leukemia Cup. Okay, but the dates didn’t work well with their other events—three lakes in three weeks—and we don’t want Lakefest to be anybody’s stepchild. For 2009 we’ve formed our own foundation, we’ve hired a promoter to fill the pavilion again on Saturday night, and the goals are to have a great regatta and drag down some money for Make-A-Wish. I like our number, $1.5 million, but only if we can make it grow. It’s a great feeling to hand over a check that matters.” Add new, popular (supportive) management at Grandpappy Point Marina, and you have a winning combination.

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