Hoist a sail in Idaho’s lakes — or join someone who does

Sailing can be as exciting as participants want, especially in smaller boats and higher winds.
Sailing can be as exciting as participants want, especially in smaller boats and higher winds.

A 22-foot sailboat leans over in the wind and cuts across the emerald green waters of Lake Cascade with massive West Mountain in the background.

A cooling spray comes across the bow with each wave on the hot July day.

When the wind calls, Idaho sailors rig and launch at beautiful places like Lake Cascade, Redfish Lake or Payette Lake.

Idaho has plenty of wind and plenty of water, so it’s ironic that Idaho mariners are often asked by newcomers to the state and native Idahoans, too: “Where do you sail in Idaho?”

It’s as if sailing is reserved for coastal states and is an oddity in inland states. Yet, with Idaho’s large lakes and reservoirs, there’s plenty of variety and the typical sailing season is from March through October.

Idaho’s whispering winds lure sailboaters like Denise Murschel to waters such as Lake Cascade and Lucky Peak Lake. She has been sailing for more than 40 years and is a member of the Southern Idaho Sailing Association (SISA), an active group of local sailors.

One of her favorite places is leading a pack of sailboats down the canyon between Spring Shores Marina and the dam at Lucky Peak.

“I love the exhilaration of flying across the water with wind power alone pushing me along,” she said. “I love the breeze in my face, the sun at my back, and the feeling of freedom and adventure that my sailboat brings to me.”

Wannabe sailors can find out about that freedom and adventure during SISA’s Discover Sailing Day on May 7 at Lake Lowell. The organization puts on the event each spring. For a lot of people sitting on a dock and watching sailboats go silently by, sailing is an adventure they would like to take up but don’t know much about. Discover Sailing Day is a good start.

Even though sailboaters are a minority in the Idaho boating scene — of Idaho’s 87,074 registered boats, 1,379 are sailboats — sailing enthusiasts are passionate and SISA is busy each season with regattas, campouts, potlucks, educational programs and other activities going on all year.

Sailing is something that can get in the blood at an early age. Murschel got hooked at 11 years old when she first saw a 50-foot-long, double-masted schooner while fishing for walleye off Marblehead Point on Lake Erie. Now she loves following SISA’s circuit of regattas to a variety of reservoirs.

If the variety of waters in the state isn’t inviting enough, there’s also the variety in boats from 14-foot day sailors to 18-foot “hang on for dear life” Hobie Cats, and also cruisers over 20 feet long for mellow camping in some of the coves on lakes throughout the state.

Choosing a boat and learning to sail may seem daunting, but there are ways to do it.

“Idaho sailors and wannabes can find an option for getting into the sport even easier these days, thanks to the sporty and popular Olympic-class Laser sailboat,” said Steve Christiansen, who is captain of the fleet of Lasers for SISA.

“The Laser is one of the most popular small sailboats worldwide with over 200,000 boats,” he said. “The boat is just over 12 feet long, making it fun and exciting and easy and quick to rig. It is often used to teach youngsters to sail. We had a lot of interest in making a Laser fleet. Just two years ago we went from one Laser in the club to eight.”

Members of SISA offer advice on boats and how to get into the sport at their Discover Sailing Day. From there, potential sea dogs can help crew on boats locally, get some casual lessons from local sailors and then maybe take a more intensive sailing course at sailing schools located from Long Beach, Calif. to the San Juan Islands.


Here are descriptions from members of the Southern Idaho Sailing Association:

Lucky Peak Reservoir

Location: Reached minutes from the Treasure Valley off Idaho 21 east of Boise.

Size: 2,820 acres

Main boat ramps: Barclay Bay and Turner Gulch (located near the dam); Spring Shores (located in the middle part of the reservoir).

Notes: It’s a quick day of sailing from the Boise area, but the reservoir in a canyon is known for squirrelly winds and temperamental gusts. Sailboaters like to sail the reservoir between Spring Shores Marina and Lucky Peak Dam early in the morning. A group meets weekend mornings for drag racing. The canyon is narrow and requires a lot of boat handling. The topography of the land and thermals drive all the action. Cold air flows down the canyon early in the morning and reverses direction as the valley below heats up. But don’t count on that. It could be the opposite on any given day.

C.J. Strike Reservoir

Location: South of Mountain Home between Grand View and Bruneau.

Size: 7,500 acres

Popular boat ramps: North Park operated by Idaho Power at the dam and Cove Recreation Site.

Notes: This large, V-shaped reservoir is a favorite among sailboaters in spring and fall. In fact, it’s the latest area in the sailing season where the Southern Idaho Sailing Association conducts regattas. The reservoir is known for high winds and big waves so novice boaters should keep an eye on the weather. The reservoir’s level remains full throughout the season. There’s plenty of sailing opportunities and places to camp at North Beach or Cove Recreation Site.

Lake Lowell

Location: Nampa and Caldwell

Size: 9,800 acres

Main boat ramps: There are two boat ramps, one at the Upper Embankment (dam) and the other at the Lower Embankment (dam). The Lower Embankment, which is reached by taking Karcher Road (Idaho 55) west off I-84 to Riverside Road, is more popular among sailboaters.

Notes: Lake Lowell is one of the earliest places in spring that Treasure Valley sailors use because of its size, the water level and winds. It’s great in late April and May. The reservoir is preferred in the spring when it is full. It has an hour-glass shape and is wide open for long runs in one direction. Sailors move on to other areas when the reservoir gets more crowded in the summer and as the water levels lower.

Lake Cascade

Location: Near Cascade, 70 miles north of Boise on Idaho 55.

Size: 27,550 acres

Main boat ramps: Cabarton, Cascade and Sugar Loaf.

Notes: Sailors like the southern part of the reservoir south of Sugar Loaf Island. It’s a wide reservoir with good steady winds most of the day. Because the reservoir is so large, winds and waves can get a little rough and sailors should keep an eye on the weather. It is such a good sailing venue that the Catalina Nationals, with boaters from throughout the country, were held at the reservoir about a decade ago. The reservoir got great reviews from the visiting competitors. There are lots of camping opportunities in sections of Lake Cascade State Park that are scattered around the reservoir. It is scenic because of the beauty of West Mountain west of the reservoir.

Payette Lake

Location: At McCall, 102 miles north of Boise on Idaho 55.

Size: 5,000 acres

Main boat ramps: Public ramp near Mile High Marina in downtown; Ponderosa State Park and North Beach.

Notes: Scenic for boating with a forested shoreline, marinas in town for services and lots of interesting places to sail, such as around islands and in coves. Some of the coves are popular for sailboat camping. The lake on the edge of the Salmon River Mountains has good winds and is popular for sailing. The water is known for being very chilly, even in the middle of summer. Water levels are good throughout the summer.

Redfish, Alturas lakes

Location: Redfish is about 7 miles south of Stanley off Idaho 75. Alturas is about 21 miles south of Stanley off Idaho 75.

Size: Redfish Lake is 4.5 miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide. Alturas Lake is about 2 miles long and almost a mile wide.

Main boat ramps: Each lake has a boat ramp.

Notes: Both lakes are at the foot of the Sawtooths and get plenty of wind, especially in the afternoons. They are coveted as summer getaways with plenty of camping at Forest Service campgrounds and very scenic sailing on the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness. Winds coming off the Sawtooths can be strong at certain times of the day, and big waves can be whipped up in the afternoon.

Also: Lake Pend Oreille, Priest Lake and Lake Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho are some of Idaho’s biggest waters and offer plenty of sailing, camping and boat ramps. Plan an adventure up north on a week-long vacation.

Discover Sailing Day

  • When: 10 a.m. May 7
  • Where: The boat ramp at the Lower Dam Recreation Site at Lake Lowell. It is reached by taking Karcher Road (Idaho 55) west from I-84 and turning on Riverside Road.
  • Registration and boat assignments: 10 a.m. (come at 9 a.m. to see boat rigging and to help rigging if you want). After a welcoming talk and some educational pointers, boats should get on the water by 11:30 a.m.
  • Sailing and shore activities: From noon to 3 p.m. with happy hour and Q&A at 4 p.m. Potluck dinner starts at 6 p.m.
  • Reservations: Space is limited, so RSVP (walk-ups are not guaranteed space on a boat). Contact Tom or Krista Rambow at idahosailing @gmail.com or call 571-3347.
  • For more information on SISA, go to idahosailing.com

What to bring

  • Sailors can bring their own boats and ask for help with rigging and sailing. Those with no boat or those who just want to see what sailing is all about can ride on the boats of SISA members.
  • Dress in layers. It may be warm onshore, but the wind can get chilly out on the water (especially if it is a cloudy day). Idaho weather is always changing, so it’s good to be prepared.
  • Apply sunscreen whether it’s cloudy or sunny. Or, wear UPF-rated clothing and bring a hat and sunglasses.
  • Lifejackets should be available on each boat, but if you have your own, bring it, especially if you have a small child under the age of 8.
  • Wear shoes that are appropriate for boating: they should be non-marking soles and able to get wet (a very slight chance, but still possible).
  • Bring snacks and a beverage (non-glass container) to hold you over for a few hours on the water.
  • You can bring a camera and post photos to social media at #SISA2016 #SISADiscoverSailing2016 and #IdahoSailing.
  • Bring your own camping chairs if you would like to join the potluck dinner.

Be-prepared boating

Want to make sure your boat is ship-shape? The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has started a program, “My Boat,” a web-based app that can be used to help educate boaters about the safety equipment needed for their boat.

“The No. 1 question many boaters ask is, ‘What do I need to have on my boat for safety equipment?’ ” said David Dahms, Idaho boating program manager.

“My Boat” allows users to enter basic information about their boat and print the information, download a PDF, email the information directly to themselves or have a text message sent that will have a hotlink to the requested information.

“My Boat” can be launched from a desktop PC, laptop, mobile device or tablet. There is no app to download from the Apple Store or Google Play Store, but it can be accessed directly at idpr.idaho.gov/BoatSafetyFeatures/index.html, or from www.boatidaho.gov. The “My Boat” app is located in a prominent position in the center of the web page.