Meet Lee Karns, commodore of the Cleveland Sailing Association, which encompasses six Lake Erie yacht clubs with active sail racing scenes: Cleveland Yachting Club, Edgewater, Lakeside, Forest City, Chagrin Lagoons, Mentor Harbor and Grand River.
The clubs formed the association in 1996 to recruit more participants for races, coordinate events and score boats against each other throughout the summer. About 30 boats compete each season for overall best boat, as well as in events for women, less experienced boats and two-member crews, called double-handed. There are also organized cruises, for an overnight or two weeks, around Lake Erie.
“It’s the core of the relatively big boat racing scene,” said Karns, who grew up sailing in at summer camp in Maine and moved to Cleveland from Boston in 1992.
The sailing scene in Cleveland has been holding steady, he said. But he wants to open up the sport, which has traditionally been limited to yacht clubs.
He applauds the learn-to-sail classes at Cleveland Metroparks and the efforts by the Foundry to get high school students into the sport. Both teach sailing at the old Coast Guard Station on Whiskey Island.
“Now with the Foundry and the Metroparks getting into teaching sailing, with adult and youth programs, I think sailing in Cleveland is as strong as it’s ever been,” he said.
Hear Karns’ take on getting more people on the water and why there weren’t more sailboats at the Mid-America Boat Show.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How do you get involved in sailing in Cleveland?
It’s not particularly easy. If you’re a young person and have a job here and think, I want to learn to sail, I want to get involved with those boats I see on the lake on a beautiful Wednesday night, there’s no easy path to get there, other than knowing somebody who sails. There’s been no community access to sailing.
Boston has a lot of community sailing programs. You don’t have to own a boat; you can join a club that has a fleet of boats. You don’t need anything special other than physical ability and willingness to learn. You can reserve a boat for the weekend and sail to Block Island. In Cleveland there was never that kind of access.
I was very proactive when I moved here. I went to yacht clubs and I put my name on the bulletin boards for people who were looking for crew. That was my way in. I didn’t have a boat until 2008.
I think the Foundry and the Cleveland Metroparks now are beginning to make openings easier for people who want to learn how to sail.
Does the Cleveland Sailing Association want to make it easier for more people to get into sailing?
What we would like to do is to create a path from learning to sail with the Foundry or Metroparks to being crews on the bigger boats and go to races or cruising events. Because I think a lot of the skippers have trouble getting crew.
Having enough crew is always a big thing. Throughout the summer, you race every weekend and you do club racing on Wednesday nights, you need 12-13 people to pick from because of vacations, etc.
And kind of far down the line, I would like to imagine if our club had a fleet of, let’s say six 26-foot keel boats. People could join as social members and have boats available that they could sign out. That would be another answer to the problem.
North Coast Women’s Sailing Association at Edgewater also gets new people out on the water.
Edgewater Yacht Club hosts the big Cleveland Race Week every summer. But it’s not that well known in the community. Can Clevelanders watch these sail races?
Within racing circles, anyone in a club from Toledo to Buffalo knows about Cleveland Race Week. Within that circle it’s not a foreign entity. But sailing isn’t really a spectator sport unless you have a boat to go out and do it. But this year I’d like to get a charter boat called the Holiday and take family members and friends out to watch the races, while someone explains the race course and what boats are doing. Then come back and be part of some really nice parties.
On Thursday night of Cleveland race week, we have a race the generally goes around the 5-mile crib over to the east harbor lighthouse and finishes at the stern of the Mather in NorthCoast Harbor. We might have 70 or 80 boats sailing behind the breakwall on one of the longest days of the year. The whole breakwall is just full of spinnakers and sails. It’s a beautiful sight.
What about kids? Is that a big pipeline to getting people interested in the sport?
There’s a whole circuit of yacht clubs with junior race teams and sail camps. They travel throughout the summer to different venues and race.
You should see these kids, 5 years old to 7 or 8. They go out in little boats. They know all the rules. All the parents are out there, watching from safety or photography boats. Within the circle it’s very popular. There is a lot of junior involvement in racing on the lake.
What’s great about sailing in Cleveland?
The Great Lakes are kind of like inland seas without some of the trickier parts of the ocean.
The greatest thing in Cleveland really is that breakwall. There are five miles of protected waters, in terms of waves. You can go and you’re just right in front of the city. It’s pretty awe inspiring. I think some people take that for granted. Every time I go out I just get very energized and awed by it: the sun setting and reflecting off the buildings. You really only get those beautiful views when you’re out on the lake.
There were not a lot of sailboats at the boat show. Why is that?
There used to be a lot more sailboats and a lot more sailboat brokers. I think certainly people buying power boats is a lot more common buying sailboats.
A sailboat can be somewhat intimidating especially if you’ve never sailed before. Sailboats are more work. They’re not as fast.
So why sail?
I think it’s just a matter of personal choice. For me it’s like why tennis instead of golf? I really don’t know. I find sailing rewarding on a lot of different levels.
It’s you against the elements. It’s you working with the machine. It’s you working with other people. And there’s something beautiful about the wind taking you.
I think sailing offers a lot of opportunities on a lot of different levels. For people who like to race and are very competitive, there’s that aspect. For people who like to go out on those beautiful evenings and pop a sail out and not worry if it’s trimmed, you can do that.
There’s cruising. There’s using a boat as a summer house and leave the dock just one or two times. There’s a lot of different levels from which to enter.