It is a rare thing, as tourists crowd the Kenai Peninsula, to sail without another boat in sight. But that was the situation for most of the day as we cruised the turquoise waters of Kenai Lake, red sails gleaming in the summer sun.
Moose Pass resident Mike Kania may have the only sailboat on the lake -- a plywood boat roughly 24 feet long he built himself and trailered from his earlier grounds on the Columbia River. He said sailing the Columbia was more of an edge-of-the-seat affair, heeled into the chop and throwing spray.
Sailing on Kenai Lake was mellow.
In fact, the main excitement was reaching the boat. We paddled to its mooring in a rubber raft with stretchy floor that gave us a healthy feel for the waves rolling by underneath. The trick was standing on the wobbly floor to climb into the sailboat.
The breeze was fresh by the mooring near Lawing, about a quarter of the way up the lake from the end near Seward. Mike raised the sails and warmed up the tiny British Seagull outboard -- just insurance -- while I went to pump rainwater from the bilge. It's been a while since I've been on a rolling boat, and I felt a brief wave of vertigo as I crawled into the cabin.
I held the tiller as he slipped the mooring. The sails filled and the boat gained headway, angling slowly away from the beach. As soon as we were safely offshore, Mike killed the motor. We tacked northwest in sudden silence, trying to clear the bend in the lake to sail toward Porcupine Island, nearly 10 miles up the lake.
Luckily, we had no particular destination in mind.
The wind blew almost straight down the lake. Unlike power boats, sailboats cannot sail straight upwind. We had to tack back and forth. A tack to the northwest carried us diagonally across the lake -- and less than a mile closer to Porcupine Island. When we reached the northern shore, we tacked south, making no progress up the lake at all. Reaching the south shore, we tacked north again, clawing another three-quarters of a mile up the lake.
It was slow progress indeed, complicated by a decline in the breeze a few miles from the mooring.
But the scenery made up for the pace. Tufts of fog hung in the mountaintops against a bright blue sky. High patches of snow gleamed from swaths of green tundra.
Mike hauled out the Genoa, a bigger sail to replace the jib in light airs. He'd no sooner hauled it up than the wind came back heeling and pushing us close to the boat's maximum speed of about five knots. We passed slopes charred in the recent fire on the north shore of the lake. A lone speedboat ran down the south shore.
We spotted some campers near Ship Creek. As we approached, shots boomed from a high-powered rifle. Sailboats not welcome? We tacked offshore. A wind shift improved our sailing angle, and we ran more than a mile up the lake -- well past Ship Creek -- before we had to tack south.
The wind increased, and Mike considered switching to a smaller sail. But we stuck with the Genoa, and the wind calmed down as we neared Porcupine Island. We scanned the cliffs for goats and sheep. We saw some suspicious white specks, but neither of us had binoculars.
Finally, about 4:30 p.m., we reached the bend in the lake and glimpsed open water between Porcupine Island and shore. The wind dropped nearly to nothing. We realized that one tank of gas for the engine probably wouldn't bring us all the way back to Lawing.
Luckily, the breeze came back as we glided away from the bend in the lake. I watched the readings on my GPS -- 1.5 knots, 1.8 knots, 2 knots, 2.8 knots.
Mike hooked a pole from the mast to the bottom corner of the Genoa, spreading it wide to the starboard side. I let the main sail out to port, and we glided "wing-and-wing" downwind, straight down the lake for nearly two hours to Lawing. The wind increased and so did our speed -- 4 knots, 4.5 knots and finally 5 knots, the maximum for the hull design. We took turns, one watching the tiller, the other laid back watching the tip of the mast skim past a blue sky speckled with clouds.
It was the perfect end to a perfect cruise.
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