The plummeting water levels at Lake Lanier have many sailors sitting on the shore biting their nails.
Home to five sailing clubs, Lake Lanier is the playground for hundreds of sailors in North Georgia, many of whom participate in seasonal Wednesday night races and typically compete in regattas year round. But as Lake Lanier shrinks inch by inch, some sailboat owners are pulling their boats from the water, fearful that if they wait too long, they won’t be able to get them out.
"It’s a Catch-22," said George Lipscomb of the University Yacht Club. "As the lake goes down, the issue is do you wait and risk your boat getting damaged, or do you pull it out now?"
Pamela Eastman of the Lake Lanier Sailing Club said that last week, a crane plucked seven boats out of the water at the club’s private dock. According to projections released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lake will drop to 1,051.9 feet by Nov. 9, breaking Lake Lanier’s December 1981 record low of 1,052.7 feet. As of Wednesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recorded the lake level at 1,058.03 feet.
Most sailboats require about six feet of water to float, and many lifts and boat ramps at the lake are largely useless for sailboats with non-retractable keels, said Tom Sawchuk of Atlanta Inland Sailing Club. Some private sailboat owners aiming to extract their boats from shallow waters have had to resort to renting a 100-ton crane to pull their boats from the water, he said.
And the low lake levels are affecting participation in the sailboat racing community.
Last weekend, the Barefoot Sailing Club hosted the Barefoot Open Regatta with about 25 fewer boats than usual, regatta co-chairman Scott Dixon said. He said that several people who typically take part in the race each year did not because they had to pull their boats out of the water.
"Lake Lanier is far and away the most active racing lake in the Southeast, there’s no question about it," Lipscomb said. "A lot of the top racing sailors on Lake Lanier have had their boats pulled, and unfortunately, it’s diminished some of the competition we normally enjoy."
Sawchuk said that the Atlanta Inland Sailing Club, which has a membership of 90 sailors, has lost 90 percent of its racers in the past two months. He said that many members are concerned that the lake will not be raceable in April when the club is scheduled to host its 32nd Annual Dogwood Regatta. Sawchuk said the regatta attracts 50 to 70 local sailboats, and about 20 boats travel to participate in the regatta, one of Lake Lanier’s biggest of the year.
"If we can’t hold the regatta and we can’t sail, the club will eventually end up bankrupt because the revenue is not there," he said.
But Aqualand Marina Dockmaster Jan Butze said that not all hope is lost.
Aqualand Marina on Lake Lanier is the largest inland marina in the United States and currently houses 1,800 boats at its docks. Butze said that 55 percent of those boats are sailboats.
"We’re on course to survive this with as few casualties as possible," she said. Butze said that the staff at the marina have shuffled sailboats around so that boats requiring greater depths have been relocated to slips at the ends of docks. She also said that if dock space for deep water boats becomes more scarce, there is still an alternative.
Sailboats can still be moored, which is a process of anchoring buoys into the bottom of the lake and allows boats to be docked further out into the basin. The mooring solution will allow boats to remain in the water, but will prevent owners from having access to their craft at all hours. Mooring necessitates a ferry service, which Aqualand staff can provide during 9 to 5 business hours only, Butze said.
While there is a solution to keeping boats on the lake, Butze said that getting sailboats in and out of the water remains a problem.
"I usually leave (my boat) in until November, but I had to pull it out this year early, because if the projections of the corps are right, I wouldn’t be able to get it out later," said Andrew Postell, who owns a 33-foot sailboat dubbed the "Speedster."
Postell, who resides in Atlanta, said he took his boat out of the water and put it on a cradle about a week ago. "I had to pull our boat though a little bit of mud at Aqualand," he said.
Postell had planned on participating in the upcoming Lake Lanier Sailing Club Halloween Regatta, but said that he thought the low levels were too dangerous. He said that the Miss Piggy Regatta scheduled for November 3, also hosted by the LLSC, was cancelled due to low water levels.
Sawchuk, whose 33-foot sailboat remains in Lake Lanier, said that getting boats in and out of the lake will dramatically affect sailboat racing on the lake.
"There are several regattas that we host here on the lake where people travel and bring their boats to the lake," he said. "And there’s also as many sailors who travel out of town to participate in regattas. I take mine all over the country."
Sawchuck said that he regularly takes his boat out of the lake to race in Toronto, Key West, Pensacola and Charleston. "But this year I can’t because I can’t get my boat up."
He said that he’s concerned about what drastic measures sailors might be driven to if lake levels continue to fall.
"The next step is to hire military-type helicopters to lift boats up," he said.
Lipscomb agreed that the helicopter solution is certainly a possibility. "Be ready to get your checkbook out," he said.
Sawchuk said that he encourages the Corps to take advantage of the low water to eliminate stumps and mark shallow waters for boaters. Butze said that she’d like to see concrete ramps extended before the water returns.
"Thus far, there’s enough water in the lake that we can continue to conduct racing, but our racing may be compromised or limited if the water drops significantly," Lipscomb said.
"For a lot of us, this is our social lives," Sawchuk said. "We’re sailors, that’s what we do."