The sky was overcast and rain drops fell intermittently on the windshield as we headed south on Route 14 toward Watkins Glen. My first experience sailing on one of the Finger Lakes awaited me and while it was October, late in the season, a few more sailing days were anticipated. I just hoped this would be one of them. Finding the way to the Village Marina on Seneca Lake was easy. Terry Stewart, a U.S. Coast Guard licensed captain, greeted my sister and me warmly and led the way along the docks to the Lee Sea Anne I. While we all eyed the sky with apprehension, as if prompted by a theatrical director, the threatening clouds disappeared and fair skies arrived on cue for the three-hour afternoon sail.
“Captain Terry” was joined on-board by Lisa Oldroyd, his first mate and partner. Together, they began severing our links with the land. Lines were untied and sails unfurled. We were accompanied by Anchor, a long-haired Chihuahua, who settled in below deck, clearly accustomed to the seafaring life. The Lee Sea Anne I is a 38-foot full-keel, 12-ton sailboat that was custom-built in Costa Rica in 1999. Sailing magazine describes this model online as a “winsome cutter, draped in teak (that) inspires dreams of quitting your job and sailing to faraway places.”
“The good thing about modern-day sailing,” pointed out Stewart as he navigated the boat out of the harbor, “is you have motors.” The wind picked up later on and at one point during our cruise we were heeling, or tilting, at a 25-degree angle. Every sail is unique depending on the wind conditions. Seneca Sailing Adventures, the name of Stewart and Oldroyd’s charter sailing business, averages about 120 charters per year. The name of their boat is a composite of their middle names. “Loosely translated,” said Stewart, “it’s Lisa and I.” This year, Seneca Sailing Adventures celebrate 10 years in business.
“Seneca Lake is a large body of water, and it seems quiet to some,” said Stewart, referring to vacationers accustomed to busier inland waterways. The second largest of the Finger Lakes, Seneca boasts a maximum depth of over 600 feet and spans 38 miles in length. Its volume is larger than any of the other lakes.
Stewart grew up in Rochester, but has strong ties to the Finger Lakes. After his dad bought land on the bluff of Keuka Lake, the family spent time there for 49 years. This experience prompted him to move to Yates County, become a trooper with the New York State Police and then a member of its elite Scuba Team. This group participated in rescue and recovery efforts throughout New York, such as the Schoharie Creek Bridge collapse, the Flight 800 TWA air crash in Long Island, and other water-related police events.
Scenery and landmarks
“Life on a boat is kinda cool,” summed up Stewart. “Anything back there (on land) can’t bother you.” Once Watkins Glen – renowned for auto racing – receded into the distance, our attention quickly focused on new surroundings, the wind direction, birds that swooped across the water’s surface, homes along the shoreline, and of course, other boats.
Our guides were personable, eager to discuss everything from landmarks to wineries. While Stewart does not teach people how to sail, he seemed to savor the opportunity to field questions on the physics of sailing. He drew my attention to the arrow at the top of the mast measuring the force of the wind. “Wind is like fuel; the bigger the wind, the smaller the sails,” explained the captain.
“A lot of people just want to be on the water,” said Oldroyd, a native of Rhode Island and lover of all things nautical. The steep banks of Seneca Lake were alive with fall foliage at the time of our cruise. The sailing season extends from May to mid-October, and the daily schedule is largely dependent on the weather. Boat traffic on Seneca Lake is heaviest during July and August. Winter months are “down time,” when maintenance and upkeep is carried out. The sails come off and go to sail-makers, and the boat is shrink-wrapped. “It is hard to find time during the season to get jobs done,” said Oldroyd.
Painted Rocks, located on the lake’s eastern cliffs, was perhaps the most curious landmark we saw. White paint outlines an American flag, Native American figures and a tepee. Originally, a portion was painted by Native Americans to commemorate their escape from General John Sullivan’s campaign of 1779. As the story goes, a Seneca warrior sacrificed himself to Sullivan’s troops so others in his war party could escape down the sheer cliffs to waiting canoes. Oddly, the flag flies backwards and the tepee, typical housing for Plains Indians, is depicted rather than a longhouse. These features were added at the time of the campaign’s sesquicentennial in 1929. Whatever the origin of the imagery, it sparks discussion.
Hector Falls, seen from the vantage point of the lake, was a scenic highlight of my Seneca Lake sail. The third tallest waterfalls in the state, it is two miles up the east side of the lake from Watkins Glen, situated both above and below Route 414 in Hector. “It is not as tall as Taughannock,” observed Stewart, “and it doesn’t have the volume of Niagara Falls.” Nonetheless, these falls are an impressive sight when you are on the water.
Excursions and passengers
There appeared to be a warm camaraderie among the vessel operators docked at the Watkins Glen Marina. About halfway through our sail, we spotted a sleek Schooner, christened True Love, that carries up to 22 passengers. The boat was featured in the Hollywood movie, “High Society,” in which Bing Crosby serenaded Grace Kelly with the song “True Love.”
Another lake fixture, the Stroller IV, owned and operated by Captain Bill’s Boat Tours, is a 50-foot mahogany vessel that can accommodate large groups for an hour-long excursion. Captain Bill’s Seneca Legacy offers a banquet cruise for up to 200 passengers. “We’re more one-on-one,” says Oldroyd. “There’s something for everyone.”
The sailing duo meet a variety of people aboard the Lee Sea Anne I, like the marine operator from Latvia who was referred by the local Rotary Club, as well as couples approaching retirement who want to embrace the sailing life. The boat can comfortably accommodate six people, plus the captain and first mate. Sailing does not require full mobility to enjoy the experience. Stewart helps people on board who use walkers or canes. Wine and beer may be brought onto the sailboat, although the captain discourages sunset cruises, especially if folks have been touring wineries all day. Additionally, the wind is not very strong at sunset.
“We have had wedding proposals on-board,” affirmed Oldroyd. “It’s always gone very well. We had two proposals this spring.” The pre-engagement preparations may include having a favorite song ready to play at the right moment. “We want it to be perfect for them.”
As our cruise ended, we were invited to write in a guest book. I could not resist reading what some others had penned. Comments affirmed that the sailings often celebrated personal milestones. “The perfect way to spend a beautiful fall day and celebrate a birthday,” read one.
Others expressed appreciation for the tranquility found aboard the Lee Sea Anne I: “I have found my place of Zen.” That certainly sums it up.
Seneca Sailing Adventures offers private charter cruises by appointment for up to six guests departing from:
Watkins Glen Village Marina
2 Seneca Harbor Watkins Glen, NY 14891
Other sailing businesses based there:
Schooner Excursions, Inc.
Seneca Legacy Dining Vessel
Stroller IV Sightseeing Vessel
by Laurel C. Wemett