Sailors take to the water at the Lakefront.
New Orleans Sailing Social Scene
Since I grew up near Lake Pontchartrain, I often took my evening jogs along Lakeshore Drive and watched fleets of sailboats gracefully float along the water. After years of wondering what it was like to be on one of those majestic boats, I finally found out on a hot Sunday back in July.
My introduction to the wonderful world of sailing began at the Southern Yacht Club. And although we planned to set sail in the early evening, the summer sun still beat down on us in full force. Wearing an outfit of all linen—which I'd deemed perfect for sailing—I hopped into the Flying Scot, which is basically a dinghy. Despite my summer wear, I was quickly covered in sweat. I prayed to the high heavens for wind. Then we waited for that precious wind. And waited.
After steering out into the lake, we discovered the lovely breeze, enjoyed laid back conversation and laughing, along with the gold, glistening sunset over Lake Pontchartrain. We were sailing! How exciting. I then realized why so many people absolutely relish this activity.
Yet, a typical New Orleans' summer day, ominous storm clouds soon swallowed the sun. Cool raindrops trickled from the sky as we made our way back to the Club. Blasts of wind and choppy waves began to rock our petit boat from left to right. I was honestly frantic at first, thinking I would tumble overboard at any minute, wishing I'd left my phone and recorder in my car.
Fortunately my friend, William Gammell, a competitive sailor and local law student, took charge. As I—the obvious amateur—deftly ducked low and leaned forward to avoid falling into the lake, Gammell balanced the boat and steered us into the right direction. It was hilarious, invigorating, and incredibly fun.
We made it back to the Southern Yacht Club—without bruises, scrapes, or tattered sails, but refreshingly wet from a summer drizzle—and with a lighthearted anecdote of a July jaunt out on the lake. It was time to take down the sails and dock the boat.
The Southern Yacht Club hosts Wednesday night beer races for sailors to make connections.
During my first sailing trip, I experienced sitting in a boat with a slight breeze and the sun above me, along with somewhat stormy weather. We capped off our evening with a couple of drinks at the club, with Gammell serving the scoop on the social aspect of sailing, and me swearing that I'd be back on the water in no time.
Besides offering a way to enjoy the cool breezes from Lake Pontchartrain during regatta weeks throughout the year, my quick expedition proved that the sport of sailing allows people of all ages and backgrounds a chance to relax on any given day of the week. Even if you are not on a sailboat.
"There is a reason that sailors are referenced to as heavy drinkers," says William.
"After every race, there are sure to be a few people enjoying a couple of rummies or beers. Hell, depending on the race, they'll enjoy them during the event."
One great aspect of the sport is that sailors can assist each other while preparing for a race, whether it's a crew of one boat helping another, or two cruisers meeting in the middle of the ocean to share some diesel and a drink.
"It's an incredibly social sport," agrees Troy Gilbert, a local writer and former board member of the New Orleans Yacht Club, who has been sailing for nearly fifteen years.
And the lively scene on Lake Pontchartrain proves this point. Music blares, the aroma of barbeque fills the air, and people hop from boat to boat. For such events as the Fourth of July, people can watch dazzling firework displays from around the city. And sometimes, friends will just meet at the pier for drinks and a bite to eat.
This jovial camaraderie shared between sailors creates a fun atmosphere at the regattas as well. Many of the competitors began sailing at an early age, so they have been racing against each other for years. It's a community of familiar faces, doing what they love.
"All of these rumors about sailors partying hard are absolutely true," Gilbert says with a laugh.
Though the competitors do enjoy a good time, they still put their hard hours and years of practice to work. Gammell, for example, began sailing at the age of six in Rhode Island.
"My parents had a sailboat that we would go cruising on during the weekends," he recalls. In addition to participating in sailing summer camps, he continued practicing the sport throughout high school and college.
New Orleanians also have an opportunity to set sail at an early age. The Southern Yacht Club boasts one of the best sailing programs in the country. Some junior sailors begin training at about eight years old by sailing on small six foot boats. Many grow up to become world class athletes.
Part of the reason New Orleans has produced renowned sailors is because the city offers an ideal place for sailors to learn their craft—Lake Pontchartrain.
"New Orleans is one of most fun, heralded training grounds in the United States," says Gilbert. Sailboats on the east coast and west coast generally experience two types of breezes—onshore and offshore. But Lake Pontchartrain presents unpredictable winds, and since the water here is shallower than the Gulf of Mexico, the currents quickly become rough. In New Orleans "you get to learn how to sail under all kinds of varying circumstances," says Gilbert.
Gammell, however, ended up in New Orleans because of Katrina. When the storm destroyed most the racing boats in New Orleans, including his friend's boat, "Decision," his friends traveled up to Newport to purchase a new one. This is allowed William to sail with a group of New Orleanians and discover this city's nautical scene. Now that he has moved here for law school, he's been enjoying both the competitive and social aspects of sailing.
With his membership at the Southern Yacht Club, Gammell enjoys borrowing club sailboats, gym access, and dinner at the club's restaurant, along with other amenities.
"Since then, I have sailed thousands of miles, racing with them in the Northeast, the Caribbean, Florida, Chesapeake, and many other places. If it weren't for that connection, I do not know what different path my life would have taken." He adds that, "I would not have made friends with some of the best people I know."
But not all sailors begin at such an early age. Gilbert, for example, recalls the afternoons he spent eating po'boys with his family on the Lakefront. As men cheerfully mingled and milled around their sailboats, he watched in confusion, wondering why they were just sitting there, rather than sailing. Then suddenly, they hopped into their boats and sped off towards the airport. This single event piqued his curiosity in the sport.
Soon afterwards, Gilbert received an invitation from a buddy to participate in a Wednesday night beer race at the New Orleans Yacht Club. "It absolutely changed my life," he recalls. At these beer races, where Troy basically learned how to sail, both amateurs and professionals—many in their 20s and 30s— meet around 6 p.m. to sail a six mile course. And while some boats may poke along at a couple of knots, others zip back to the dock in a flurry of speed. Once the boats return to the dock, people grill hamburgers, drink and socialize, while listening to live music.
"Wednesday nights are not only a blast, but they are a great way to introduce people to the sport," Gilbert notes. For those who have never been sailing, but would like to give it a try, these laid back races provide the perfect opportunity. And since New Orleans is not exactly known for its summer wind, fall is the perfect time for prospective sailors to step on board.
Signing up is quite simple. The New Orleans Yacht Club receives several queries throughout the week from prospective sailors who do not have any connections. After a quick chat, the club invites them to visit on a Wednesday so that they can sit on a sailboat with a crew member during a beer race.
"New Orleans is one of the most fun and heralded training grounds in the u.s. lake ponchartrain has unpredictable winds...you learn to sail under varrying circumstances."
—Troy Gilbert, Sailor, former N.O. Yacht Club board member
When starting out on Wednesdays, Gilbertrecommends trying a few boats to find the best fit. Some crews may be competitive while some just want to sit back and enjoy the sunset. Other boats may have an overbearing skipper. "Each boat has a personality," he explains.
Gammell agrees that Wednesday night visits are perfect for prospective sailors. "While this may seem a bit formidable to some, it is actually the best way to get involved. If you just strike up a conversation with someone on the docks, you are very likely to go for a ride that night, enjoy a few beers and make some new friends in the process," he says. Then it begins. "Very soon, you will wonder how you lived without it."
"You won't get to do it by searching the Internet or being timid," William adds.
Gilbert now considers that invitation from a friend one of the best phone calls he's ever received. "There's a perception to sailing that it's for the rich, but the reality of the situation is that it isn't like that. You don't need to own a boat to sail," says Troy. It's truly a sport for anyone who enjoys socializing and a simple way of life.
But besides traveling from coast to coast and sipping beers on the dock with friends, Gilbert savors those quiet nights in the Gulf of Mexico where he witnesses a billion stars light up the dark sky.
"It's humbling and beautiful."