Back in days gone by, before rumbling speedboats and thundering Spring Break coeds discovered Lake Havasu, this was a place for sailing. A wide spot on the Colorado River 448 feet above sea level (a product of the Parker Dam), Havasu was a desert haven with vistas of jagged peaks and winters infused with sunshine and warmth. And so it is today, for the lake has come full circle and is again a place for sailing.
This is the story of how things turned around, a story that begins with Sean Mulligan.
What a name. But however Irish his lineage, Sean Mulligan is the ultimate Arizona local and grew up sailing on Lake Havasu, where he watched sailing decline and did not think that was either good or necessary.
Eventually he found an opportunity to do something about it, little imagining that a simple notion would eventually become something much larger. But first came his own transformation, when he decided to divorce himself from a one-design racing fleet that had lost its way. “I got burned out by friction in the fleet,” he recalls, “and I just knew it was time. I bought a pocket cruiser in the form of a Montgomery 17, and my wife, Jo, and I made plans to go places.”
The new boat was named Dauntless, one of about 500 Montgomery 17s designed and built by Jerry Montgomery. (In the 1960s, Montgomery ran Jensen Marine’s Cal 40 production line—his latest design is the Sage 17.) Dauntless proved a solid platform for Sean, Jo and their redoubtable golden-doodle, Bosun, and together they started racking up the miles. A group of West Wight Potter owners in Southern California took them in and included them in their search for a new destination every month. Southern California was a commute, but isn’t that what trailer-sailing is all about, being where you want to be?
Eventually, the Mulligans shifted to a new destination. “We hooked up with Larry Yake,” Mulligan says. “Every year, Larry cruises British Columbia [aboard the Montgomery 17 Corndog]. Jo and I put in at Anacortes, Washington, and we had a great time. But their season is summer, and our season is winter. I threw it out there—maybe they should come down to see us at Lake Havasu. I had no inkling what would happen.”
Only about a dozen trailerable sailboats attended the inaugural Havasu Pocket Cruisers Convention in 2008, with the entire group occupying only a couple of restaurant tables. But what was lacking numerically was there in spirit. You know the phrase, going viral? That is exactly what happened with pocket cruisers and Lake Havasu—because the Mulligans’ hometown turns out to be one heck of a destination. One person would tell a few other people, who would each tell a few others and…
In 2012, the convention attracted 195 boats from 26 states and four Canadian provinces. Mulligan served as ringmaster for the seminars, barbecues, races and simple fellowship spilling out in all directions, mirroring the enthusiasm that brought so many people to Havasu for the first time or for a repeat visit.
The convention has tapped into something people were craving, even if they didn’t know it. Take Dave and Gwen Debney. Dave had wanted to sail for 35 years, finally set foot on a boat in 2005, and never looked back. The Debneys were first-timers in 2011 and were dead-set on coming back in 2012 to enjoy the company of like-minded people far from the snows of Dryden, Ontario—two thousand miles of winter driving be hanged.
But it was Friday the 13th in the middle of January and as Debney headed his four-wheel-drive tractor uphill in the snow—”we could never have got the truck up that hill!”—he ran into a little trouble. According to Debney, “The tractor slid, and the boat and the trailer slid, right into one of our buildings.”
Bang! Think ice, snow and one damaged stern rail. Not the ultimate catastrophe, and Debney set right to work to fix it. But it was too cold: “If I dipped a sponge into hot water, it was frozen by the time I got to the hull.”
Debney sent word: sorry, can’t make it.
A day later, though, the air warmed almost to freezing, just enough for two heaters to permit repairs. Soon the Debneys were off again with their 1973 CS22, Top Secret, trailing behind them, and the air temperature back down to -10F, with a fierce north wind spanking them toward the high plains. The upside? Not only were Dave and Gwen on their way to warmer climes, they were once again in the running for the coveted Axle Grease Award, for longest distance traveled.
I arrived at Havasu in time to learn that a devoted few come early and stay late, arriving maybe a month before and departing two months after the conference. As I sat in a seminar at the London Bridge Resort and contemplated the Southwestern culture beyond its walls, it occurred to me we were probably the only group this year for whom boat shoes were the norm. This is also where I first heard the expression “Rent a Scout” (which by and by would make sense) and met Gary Peaslee, a poster boy for the Havasu Pocket Cruisers Convention if ever there was one.
A couple of years ago, with the convention growing and expectations rising, Mulligan made a pitch to a sailing club in Phoenix that had a fleet of trailerable keelboats. “I knew they’d ask about launch ramps, so I stopped by a park farther down the lake and asked the ranger at the gate if I could just buzz down and take a few pictures. Somehow we got to talking, and he said he’d heard about the pocket cruiser convention, and music got into the conversation, and it turned out he is a heck of a musician, and I invited him to play.”
Peaslee, the ranger, returned in 2012 to show off his cruising Sparrow 16, to play music and to “practice random acts of joy.” There’s an official registration day. But that wouldn’t do for some of these people—they couldn’t wait that long—and the night before there was a sleepover in a cove far removed from the lights and traffic of Lake Havasu City.
The night deepened and the stars reflected off the unruffled water as Peaslee pulled out his guitar and touched the strings and with his voice gave form to the darkness. Soon the music and the stars and the peaceful water wrapped the fleet in a magical embrace: units of flesh and blood lost to each other in the dark, but close enough to share living and dreaming in the moment, holding it like the proverbial grain of sand that holds the whole world.
And people wonder why we sail.
A LITTLE RACING
Counting down to the start of the Pocket Cruiser Cup aboard a Sage 17 with Sage Marine’s Dave Scobie, I realized this was not like other racing starts. We were surrounded by people who do not do this racing thing regular-like, and their responses to close encounters were not exactly predictable. But we got through it, settled for a second-tier start and laughed our way up the weather leg. There are three official races in the Pocket Cruisers Convention, and you are welcome to take the competition as seriously as you please, as long as you don’t take yourself too seriously. I don’t think we won that race, but then again, the results aren’t posted, and maybe we did. Now that I think about it, I’m sure we did.
Along with the camaraderie, the 400-plus attendees in 2012 enjoyed news-you-can-use seminars and the vision and exploits of speaker Howard Rice, who once navigated a sailing canoe around Cape Horn. (Mostly paddling, and at the end of the short leg that actually took him round the Horn, he looked at the cliffs above him and thought: “You’re lucky to be alive.” No one has ever challenged that conclusion.) For years now, Rice has lived in Micronesia, teaching at a university and advising the government in its efforts to protect the region’s pelagic fish population. Fair to say, he wowed the convention. Fair to say, we wished him well.
I could describe the weather in detail, an off-season spate of rain followed by chamber-of-commerce stuff, but that didn’t seem important. As Mulligan told me, “I used to stress about the weather. Then Howie Goldbrandsen of the Southern California Potters told me, ‘Son, you don’t get it. You’re running a social event with sailing involved. They’re going to have a good time with their relationships no matter what.’”
So there we were. Baseball spring training was underway, the Spring Break hullabaloo was still weeks away—the timing of the convention is no accident—and up on McCulloch Boulevard, the chopped and channeled, tweaked, metal-flaked hot rods indigenous to the region gathered to celebrate rituals unique to America. Our own unique ritual took place on the fourth night of the seven-night convention, the North-South Grudge Match at the Mudshark Brewery.
Draw a line of latitude through Havasu, and you have sailors from south of the line and sailors from north of the line. Divvy them up, assign each a “boat” floating in a layer of water between long inflatable tubes, give ’em straws and say, “Blow.” It’s harder than it sounds, and when the older generation conked out, I discovered how the Rent a Scout concept works, because, yes, Sea Scouts were available (for a price) as “pinch hitters.” That was just one piece of the puzzle whereby this nonprofit convention procured $1,500 for the Scouts, along with an outboard, an inflatable, two Sunfish and a $1,600 sailing dinghy built on-site during the week.
This is for sure: there is no other way to trailer a boat from any point in North America to any other London Bridge for any other Saturday parade, and what could be more surreal or more memorable than sailing under the transplanted London Bridge with the Mojave Mountains in the background?
For most participants, the convention ended on day seven, the boats went back onto their trailers, and the online forum overflowed with thank you’s and stories of “white-knuckle towing” back north, or reports of how “we made it, but the driveway is too icy to park the boat.”
In all, more than 30 boats were towed 1,000-plus miles, and five had come from 2,000 miles away or more. Despite their heroics efforts, the Debneys didn’t quite capture the Axle Grease Award. (That honor went to Bud Meade, who towed his Seaward 26 all the way from Lake Huron). But Dave Debney didn’t seem too put out. “The gas set us back $1,632 for a four-day trip, but you know, the value is in the people. If we accepted every offer to stop by on the way, we’d have to leave a month early.”
Maybe next time.