One morning last July I was awakened by a most terrifying noise, which sounded like something from the Jurassic Park movies. I opened the hatch over my head to peer out, and much to my surprise, it was very misty. I looked at the ship’s clock and read 5:30, but there was just enough daylight to let me see a huge blue heron standing on the dock. This bird does indeed sound and look prehistoric.
The air was fresh and cool, and there was sufficient light to see a sailboat across the river that looked like a ghost ship in the mist. It was quiet and peaceful except for the chattering swallows as they swooped and dove over the marina.
Believe it or not, an hour had passed since I awoke, and the sun was starting to flicker through the mist. The marina was beginning to come alive with the large lift engines starting up, someone pounding on metal and another starting a sander. Fishermen heading out for the day’s catch slowly slipped by, and you could hear voices in the distance – so much for serenity. These are the sounds of a working marina in a busy harbor. But it is still a joy to be near the water, hearing the gulls screeching and the ducks quacking. If you shut your eyes and just listen, you could be in any small harbor in the world. They all sound the same. Then you open your eyes and realize you’re home at Seneca Lake State Park Marina in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region.
I often try to remember what events brought me to Seneca Lake and how I started boating. My wife, Bobbie, and I have been sailing for 25 years, 21 of which have been on Seneca Lake. Our current boat “Good News” is a 3l ft. Newport that we have had since l987. Of course, this was not our first boat. We started out with a l0 ft. Snark which we called “Snark” (very original), and a l4 ft. Porpoise which was called “Porpoise.” But we kept dreaming about a boat on which we could spend the day and take picnics. We bought ever-larger boats, among them a 22 ft. Catalina which took us on our first real boating adventure, and what an adventure it was. One early summer morning we headed for Cayuga Lake for a sail to Ithaca, New York, passing through the three locks between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes with no problem. We saw minks, blue herons, deer and all types of wildlife along the canal. We really enjoyed our visits to Taughannock Falls State Park, Long Point State Park and Allen Treman State Park and Marina in Ithaca.
Later boats have taken us through the canal system to Oswego and out to Lake Ontario, where we have sailed extensively from Toronto, Canada to Sacketts Harbor, New York. We have even sailed on Lake Erie and traveled the Welland Canal.
Returning to our homeport of Seneca Lake is always a joy. We enjoy cruising, but sailing Seneca Lake is a true pleasure. Each of the Finger Lakes has its own characteristics, and Seneca Lake is no exception. It housed a large Naval Base during World War II called Sampson, which was turned into an Air Force Base during the Korean conflict. It is now the site of Sampson State Park and Marina, with many campsites and a Naval Museum. There is also a mysterious-looking barge in the middle of Seneca Lake that can be seen from the park.
At approximately 667 ft. deep, Seneca Lake is noted as the deepest of the Finger Lakes. The water is crystal clear and changes from emerald greens to deep blues. Many people consider the lake dangerous and treacherous. I am not sure that is a fair judgment.We love its beauty and would sail in just about any type of weather. Of course, there are days when we wisely elect to stay ashore!
We do most of our sailing at the North end of the lake because of the wide variety of breezes you will encounter throughout the day. One year we had mostly westerly breezes during the summer, which allowed us to sail straight down the lake and right back up. Most of the time our winds are southwestern or northwestern, with a northeastern thrown in just for good measure. You may encounter huge waves when it is rolling up from the south. It is really exciting and invigorating to sail in a l5 to 20 knot wind with 3 to 4 ft. waves spraying over the bow. It can be sunny or cloudy and it still feels the same. Sailing on Seneca Lake is a gratifying experience.
Anchoring out is a pleasure on Boaters Beach, which is at the north end of the lake. It is a very popular spot for boaters to anchor and swim. It offers a sandy bottom that extends 200 to 300 ft. off shore. This area is also very popular for an early evening dinner on your boat while watching the sun go down with all its brilliant colors, and the lights of Geneva give you a warm evening glow in the distance.
There are several destinations available for boaters on Seneca Lake, all within a day’s travel: Sampson State Park; Dresden, New York; Lodi Point State Park; The Gold Coast with its fine restaurants. Watkins Glen at the south end of the lake offers fun activities and fine restaurants. The walk from the downtown marina is not too bad, and there is an Olympic-size swimming pool at the park for cooling off.
Bobbie and I have a great little anchoring spot we like to go to when we want to be alone. We call it “Reed’s Bay” because there is no name on the chart for this spot, although the locals may have a name for it. It is located between Reed’s Point and Kashong Point about six miles down from the north end of the lake on the West Side. This area is pretty sheltered from the north, south and west winds. It has a good, sandy bottom and is great for snorkeling. The water is crystal clear up to l5 ft. But beware. During mid- to late-August the bay tends to be a little weedy and you have to pick your way through it. We usually tuck right in close to shore. It is a wonderful overnight spot.
Late summer and early fall can be some of the best sailing of the season. We all know that it ushers in the last few weeks of summer fun. Sailing when the air is crisp, the sun is warm and there is a little spray in your face makes a person feel good and brings you in tune with your environment. The hills surrounding the lake come alive with color, and little pillars of smoke rise from the shore where people are burning leaves.
October is the month we all dread. It is the time for all boats to be pulled from the water. During the first two weeks of October we try to find a perfect day for the final sail of the season, ending another great year. We scurry around making preparations for “Good News” to take her long winter nap. She is snug in the blue shrink-wrap with a little door cut in the back so we can visit during the winter months. We usually sit a few minutes and reminisce about sailing days gone by and talk about adventures yet to come.
During the winter break we do keep boating on our minds. We love to visit other lakes and marinas, looking at boats and ship stores. We also spend some of our winter days varnishing teak, sewing screens and canvas, or painting the dinghy. This keeps us ready for the coming of spring and a new boating season.
By April we are watching the weather reports and waiting anxiously for the day we can unwrap this “Sleeping Beauty” and, with a kiss from her captain, bring her to life once again. She is pretty, quiet, and dances like a dream across the water. Bobbie and I come about and bring her into the wind once again. And so begins another season of sailing in the Finger Lakes.
by Ov and Bobbie Randall, photographs by Linda Bombard
Bobbie and Ov live in Clifton Springs, New York. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.