Gary Snyder received a phone call at 2 a.m. last Saturday morning. No phone call at this time would herald good news, and this one was no different: The police were on the other line. Fierce winds and heavy rain had swept several docks into the lake. In the 12 years Snyder has been the director of sailing at the John R. Turney Sailing Center, he has seen his fair share of storms. But two days before the season started was an inopportune time for the weather not to cooperate. When white caps rippled from the center of the lake toward the shore and crashed into the platforms — some of which broke from the weekend storms — it moved the entire dock 8 inches, a lot considering that 2,000 pounds worth of anchors held the docks in place. The staff recovered two motorboats after the vessels took on a dangerous amount of water, and a boat from a nearby dock ended up near the sailing center’s docks. Snyder slept a total of three hours over the weekend, putting in pre-dawn till post-dusk hours to make sure the center was operational Monday morning for the first day of sailing classes.
Fast-forward to Monday, and Mother Nature is in a better mood: Chautauqua Lake is flat as the sun creeps over the eastern hills. As clouds gather around the late morning, a slight breeze causes small swells in the lake. It is an idyllic day for gliding on the water.
“The sun’s out day one and no one knows the difference,” Snyder said. “I thank the religion department for the sun and the wind today.”
Snyder has been preparing for the onset of the season for several weeks alongside a staff that is mostly comprised of seasonal youth employees that grew up learning how to sail from Snyder. Now, that staff is teaching kids from Chautauqua Institution all the parts of a sailboat and how to sail on their own in classes that take place every weekday.
Andrew and Helen Margolis, ages 10 and 12, experienced their first day of sailing on Monday by taking part in the Beginner Optimist Class. The brother and sister, who are from Seattle, were visiting Chautauqua for the first time, but were more nervous about sailing into open waters by themselves.
Using his hand to illustrate a flapping sail, Andrew said: “I feel like I’m going to either do really well, or I’m going to capsize.” His hand falls flat.
Helen shrugged her shoulders and smiled.
Near a dozen Optimist dinghies take off from the western point of the sailing center and glide a few hundred yards out from shore. Along the way, first-time sailors push and prod off each other like bumper boats on a much slower scale.
Throughout the morning, youth from the Chautauqua Boys’ and Girls’ Club crammed into larger sailboats with an instructor. When the boats would pass buoys that bobbed on the surface, kids would reach out to touch them and scream things like, “Buoy!” and “The buoy is the most amazing thing in the world!”
Snyder, who steered a boat on the perimeter of all sailors, chuckled.
The teen class, joined by two adults, sets out on Sunfish sailboats, which are about 1½ times bigger than the Optimists. In the afternoon, advanced youth and adult classes are offered.
When the class ended, Snyder shouted out to the sailors to head back in and took an informal survey of kids in the boats. It was met with thumbs-up and shrieks of approval.
“This could be their only week here [and] their only time sailing,” Snyder said. “I want to make them have a great experience.”