A sail on Lake Tahoe has been on my bucket list since the day I first laid eyes on it, and come hell or high water, I decided I was going to someday charter a boat there. North America’s largest and deepest alpine lake, Tahoe sits at 6,225ft above sea level and straddles the state boundaries of California and Nevada. It’s big, beautiful and cold, trailing only Lake Superior in depth and volume.
It’s also one of the clearest, purest and sunniest lakes you’ll ever see, with clarity that rivals bottled water, being 99.9 percent pure. Indeed, many communities around Tahoe are exempt from having to provide filtration before pumping it into homes as drinking water, and many residents eschew bottled water, preferring instead to fill up straight from the tap. In the high, dry climate the sun shines an incredible 75 percent of the time.
Alas, stifling my plans in the summer of 2020 was a one-two punch of the pandemic and apocalyptic wildfires. California instituted strict Covid-19 stay-at-home orders. Few businesses were open, and by the end of wildfire season—the most severe in modern history—over 10,000 fires had ripped through the Golden State burning 10 million acres. The smoke and smelly haze lingered for months—most every event was canceled for the year.
Finally, in 2021, after 15 long months, California reopened its economy in mid-June, at the same time lifting its travel advisories provided visitors were vaccinated, which we were. Together with my brother Dan who lives near Tahoe, I reserved a sailboat for July and began planning again for a sail on Big Blue. Next thing I knew, I was on my way!
After an uneventful flight to Reno, Nevada, we drove slowly through Tahoe City, where we saw that California was, indeed, open for business, as the summer crowds (and traffic jams) were also back. Watching the packed sidewalks and restaurants filled me with extra satisfaction, knowing we would be out on the lake far from the madding crowd and their SUVs. This is also where a visitor catches a first glance at the magnificence of Tahoe and the snow-capped mountains that cradle it—topped by Mount Freel at 10,800ft.
I’ve chartered before and have learned to ask questions before sending the check. Don’t go by what you see on the website. Follow up at third-party review sites like Tripadvisor or Yelp. Then pepper the charter company with questions about maintenance, general condition of the boats and good places to anchor. Ask to see the maintenance checklist or the log sheets from previous charterers. If they’re hesitant or unable to answer, find another charter company.
I arrived at Sailing Ventures (sailingventures.com), an American Sailing Association-accredited school, a day early to tour the boat and conduct the checkout. As expected given that it was a holiday, Tahoe Keys Marina was jumping, with a long line of boats on trailers waiting for the launch ramp, and many boaters walking up and down the floating docks. Out on Rubicon dock, Sailing Ventures’ Michelle Dawn was already onboard Lakeland Dreams, a 2006 Catalina 270 that looked like it just came out of a showroom. Michelle confidently answered all my questions; it was obvious she knew the vessel very well and gave it excellent maintenance. Together we went through the entire boat with flashlights, testing every system. And when she produced a neatly written maintenance log I knew we had a winner. “This is my baby,” she quipped. “I didn’t have kids, I have boats.”
We then took a quick ride out on the lake through the narrow channel. It felt great to be at the helm of a Catalina again. After filling up with water, diesel and a pumpout, we were good to go.
Early the next morning we cast off the lines and headed out onto what Mark Twain called, “the fairest picture the whole world affords.” At times he was known to bend the truth in the name of humor, but here he was spot on. It’s difficult to express in words the expansive sights that confront you on Tahoe. Imagine yourself in the Bahamas but with forest-covered 8,000ft peaks all around. How can this place be real?
Fortunately, it is, and Big Blue delights a sailor in ways you will never imagine. In the words of Lynn Mullen, port captain of the venerable Tahoe Yacht Club “It’s beautiful here, with fresh clear water that mimics the Caribbean, surrounded by mountains and beaches with interesting rock formations for climbing and jumping.” Truer words have never been spoken.
The wind was light as we set out, and the bottom quickly dropped off to vertigo-inducing depths. The air was so clear, we could see moored boats five miles off. The prevailing southwesterlies can be fluky, usually not picking up until well after noon. But it’s worth the wait as the zephyrs often blow steadily for the balance of the afternoon.
Emerald Bay and iconic Fannette Island are both must-sees on Tahoe, drawing hundreds of boats on any summer weekend—which is why we made a beeline to the bay’s slender entrance on a Friday morning, hoping to beat the crowds that would surely come later that day. Approaching from the east, we saw nothing but an enormous wall of Jeffrey pines stretching from the water on up. With the aid of binoculars, Dan spotted the tiny red and green buoys that marked the shallow entrance.
Once inside we searched for a shelf that would provide good holding, at the same doing our best to avoid the snags indicated on our Navionics chart. For eons giant trees have fallen into the bay, ready to seize the anchors of the unsuspecting. For insurance we tied a trip line on ours. Michelle had warned me of a customer whose anchor had become so hopelessly snagged and they been forced to slip the rode.
Jaw-dropping cathedrals of granite and pines towered overhead as ducks and geese approached for a handout. The bay is all a part of a California state park now, but at one time it was owned by Laura Knight, a wealthy philanthropist who also built the magnificent Vikingsholm, a 38-room stone mansion on the bay’s south shore. Upon completion of the house, which is now considered one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture in all of America, she used some of the mansion’s leftover stone to create “the Tea House” a small building at the pinnacle of Fannette Island, with a commanding view of the bay.
After a visit to Vikingsholm we settled in for the evening. A paddling brochure I found warned us to, “be prepared for strong down blasts coming off the steep mountain peaks and canyons at Emerald Bay.” Sure enough, the katabatic winds hit us from several directions, sliding down several of the surrounding peaks, so that for a few hours we did some serious swinging. NOAA radio put out a special weather alert as ominous storm clouds approached. But they never reached Emerald. The setting sun crawled up the mountains. The winds faded. Save for a scattering of other boats the bay was ours.
We rose early the next morning and weighed anchor knowing that if we wanted to pay Fannette Island a visit we needed to get there before the crowds arrived. Emerald is very deep, and the only appropriate anchorage for Fannette Island is a small rock shelf on the southwest side. Even then the holding is terrible, and the anchorage is only tenable in the lightest winds. We were without a dinghy so our crew of four dove into the chilly water and breaststroked our way in. After the obligatory ascent to the diminutive Tea House, we took a few jumps off the cliff into the chilly water before making our way back to Lakeland Dreams. A word of warning for all you other non-mountain residents: at 6,200ft, the air on Lake Tahoe is much thinner than what we’re used to. Swimming, diving and climbing all left me gasping for air.
Back aboard, we had a long sail ahead of us, and I was anxious to get under way—at least until Dan wisely stopped me by saying, “Okay if we linger a bit longer?” Of course, it was. We were sitting in one of the most beautiful anchorages in America. What was the rush?
After a blissful hour in the cockpit with coffee and bagels, the boat rental opened at the state park and the bay soon became choked with every vessel imaginable. Kayaks, canoes, and SUPs from the south; wake boats, old wooden Chris Crafts with unmuffled engines, a paddle wheeler, tour boats and a girl on an electric boogie board from the north: all converging on our location. Clearly, it was time to go.
Out on the open lake again, we made the best of the available wind, and I asked my daughter Rona to take a shift at the wheel. She replied she was a passenger, not crew. How can that kid be my own flesh own blood! Skirting the long peninsula of Sugar Pine Point in the late afternoon we aimed for a 15ft shelf near Tahoma and dropped anchor for the day near a mooring field of power boats. Hmmm…maybe we should have thought some more about that before we stopped. For the rest of the afternoon, dozens of boats roared past, kicking up big wakes and making for a tempestuous anchorage. “Hey Dad,” Rona said, “let’s go over to where those powerboats are and see if they’ll take me out wakeboarding.” Ouch! It appears my daughter has officially gone to the dark side, a reminder we parents get kids, not clones.
Fortunately, fuel is expensive in California, and by 1830 the racers were done for the day, and the lake reverted to its normal state as we enjoyed dinner and cards under a blazing pink and orange sunset in the cockpit, following a chilly swim.
Of course, if you’re ever going to charter a boat be warned you almost inevitably forget something. For us it was extra drinking water. That was on me as I had failed to buy more when we added my daughter to the cruise. Because there are so few marinas or public docks on the west shore of Tahoe, we were forced to improvise. I don’t recommend doing this, but Dan finally solved the problem by pulling out his camping water filter and pumped a gallon or so of water straight out of the lake. It tasted great and gave us no “problems.”
It was strange, watching the darkened shore just before Independence Day with no fireworks whatsoever. In this part of the country, though, the threat of wildfires is omnipresent, with the region pretty much on perpetual high alert. Not even sparklers are permitted. Paradise, the city that burned to the ground in 2018 was only three hours to the northwest and is still in ruins. I’m happy to watch my fireworks on TV if it prevents this kind of destruction and keeps the air clean.
The evening light lingers at 39 degrees north latitude in the summer, and it didn’t become totally dark until 2200. Like fireflies, pinpricks of twinkling light danced among the wooded slopes on the surrounding shore as a scattering of cars and trucks, headlights blazing, wended their way up and down the switchbacks there. It had been a while since I actually saw the Milky Way in anything but a magazine, but there it was, sparkling above from peak to peak. The native Washoe called Lake Tahoe, “The Lake in the Sky” for good reason.
A steady wind blew out of the west, making it tempting to weigh anchor and head south. However, the charter agreement strictly forbade sailing after dark. Besides that, I was beat, and it was getting cold. Rona and I finished the day in our saloon bunks, talking about whether mermaids were real or a figment of lonely sailors’ imaginations. She said, “This boat is comfy, Dad,” as we drifted off to sleep.
The final day of our charter dawned sunny and a chilly 49 degrees F. In July? Before anyone could object to the temperature, though, I set the mainsail, hauled up the anchor and had us ghosting along with the slightest wisp of wind, not enough to stir the flags onshore. A few hours later we approached Tahoe Keys under power, regretting the fact of our having had to end our time onboard this way.
The bottom came up abruptly as I lined Lakeland Dreams up with the channel buoys carefully making our way in as a constant stream of holiday revelers headed out to the open water. Smiles adorned every face, and I envied them. That’s the problem with chartering: you have to give the boats back! But then again, Big Blue will always be here, ready to provide us with yet another ride of a lifetime. I’m already looking for ways to get back.
Photos by Robert Beringer