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Local Knowledge: Lake Chautauqua


Chautauqua Lake hosted C Scow Nationals in 2010.
With the Thistle National Championship coming to Chautauqua Lake for the first time this July, I suspect I’m not the only sailor in the fleet looking for some local knowledge on this western New York venue. The most active one-design class on the lake is Chautauqua YC’s C Scow fleet. A dozen of the flat-bottomed 20-footers race on Saturday and Sunday afternoons throughout the summer. Steve Viehe and Jim Neville have been two of the fleet’s top dogs for years. Viehe, from Pittsburgh, describes himself as a “seat of the pants” racer; he calls Neville, from Cleveland, “more of a guru.”

 

A Typical Summer Day

The primary local factor affecting conditions on Chautauqua Lake is its impossible-to-ignore neighbor, Lake Erie, located 10 miles to the north and 800 feet downhill.

 

“Chautauqua Lake runs perpendicular to the Lake Erie shoreline,” says Viehe. “On a nice, hot summer day, in a high pressure system, we get a sea effect from Lake Erie. In the morning, the wind is typically light, out of the south, as the cool land air goes toward Lake Erie. That breeze dies around 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m. In the afternoon, as the land heats up, we get a nice, steady breeze out of the northwest, right along the axis of the lake. That comes in around 2 p.m. and lasts until maybe 6:00 p.m.”

 

Just a Few Quirks

Neville considers Chautauqua Lake to be a very fair playing field—with just a few quirks. “It’s a very sailable lake for newcomers,” says Neville, who has also raced Lasers, Lightnings, and Snipes, and 505s. “You can read the water, and there isn’t anything super quirky about the area where [Thistles] will be sailing.

 

“In addition to the sea breeze,” he continues, “I think we get a little valley wind, where the hills down lake heat up and pull the wind to them. Whether that's true or not, who knows. Also, if you're sailing in the northern basin, people say the afternoon wind will tend to migrate west, because it has the tendency to follow the valleys. Any direction the wind comes from, you have to be aware of where the hills are and where valleys come into the lake. It's a typical inland lake, in that the wind will parallel the hills and come in directly out of the valleys. South of [Mayville], Dewittville Bay has a tendency to feed wind out of it. When the wind comes from the direction of Mayville, which is on a hill, it typically doesn’t come straight down the hill; it will try to go either side of it.”

 

As you might expect, the wind gets less predictable when it blows across (rather than along) the lake. “When it comes off the western shore, coming off the [Chautauqua] Institution, a lot of times you’ll start over in Dewittville Bay,” says Neville. “As you cross the lake, headed toward the belltower, that’s when things can get strange, depending on how tight the buoy is tucked in to shore.”

 

Powerboat chop can be a an issue on the weekends, but not during the week. Another thing to watch for, says Viehe: weeds. “We do get some weeds later in the summer, especially after they’ve been out with the weed cutters.”

 

Watching the Weather

As far as forecasting, Neville suggests keeping an eye on what’s happening in Erie (Pennsylvania) and Buffalo. “Erie and Buffalo will give you an indication about what might happen to the wind over the course of the day,” he says. “Erie provides a touch of an early warning. If Erie has wind and we don’t, you know it’s going to arrive in a half hour, as soon as it gets up the hill.”

 

By and large, both Neville and Viehe describe Chautauqua’s sailing conditions as dependable and predictable. “Like Steve [Viehe] says, it’s ‘seat of the pants’ racing,” says Neville. “You can see the wind on the water, and you can create your plan based on what you observe. There isn’t that formula that some lakes have, where it’s like, ‘You gotta go this way.’”


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