Boom and Bust On Lake Mead

A detour off the racecourse on Lake Mead leads the team to the north side of the Hoover Dam.

A detour off the racecourse on Lake Mead leads the team to the north side of the Hoover Dam. (Michael Hanson/)

“Anyone got the time?” says Jim Rosaschi as we maneuver his Capri 30, Blue By You, toward the northern side of the Hoover Damn on Lake Mead. It’s only 9:56 a.m., but Jim’s boat partner, Glenn Frank, doesn’t hesitate with a reply.

“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” he says.

Out on the main lake, a grand total of three boats bob around waiting for wind on day two of Nevada YC’s season championship. The previous day saw no races completed due to lack of wind, and with an equally dismal forecast for today, we decided to forgo racing and take a tour of the Hoover Dam instead. As we sail down the channel toward the damn, a strange canyon-effect generates the only wind on the lake. We cruise along in 6 knots of breeze and marvel at the 1.7-billion-year-old rockfaces towering above our mainsail. About 120 feet up, the high-water mark for Lake Mead has washed the rockfaces clean of their sediments. The reservoir hasn’t been at full capacity since 1983, and like the lake itself, the racing scene here also has its highs and lows.

“Racing on Lake Mead has always been a tough deal,” says Rosaschi as he hands me a beer. A lifelong Vegas resident, Rosaschi is about as laidback as it comes. His snowy hair flutters in the breeze as he regales his days growing up sailing in the middle of the desert. “Back in the early 2000s, we’d have about 30 boats for this event” he tells me. “For the big travel events, we’d get people from Lake Havasu, Arizona YC, and some people from as far as Minnesota, along with sailors from Southern California.”

Founded in 1963, the Nevada YC began as a social outlet for the Las Vegas elite. The inaugural membership consisted primarily of doctors and lawyers, and back in the early days, the Lake Mead boating scene was accompanied by black-tie dinner events where the Vegas business class would mingle with resort and casino guests. Yet as years went by, the old guard aged out and a newer, younger membership flourished. The period between the 1980s and the early 2000s saw a sailing boom on Lake Mead, with one design fleets of Holder 20s, J/24s, and Hobie 33s taking centerstage.

Yet lately, big regattas on Lake Mead have become a thing of the past. Rosaschi has been forced to compete elsewhere, with the Helly Hansen San Diego NOOD becoming a fixture in his racing regiment. A longtime road warrior, Rosaschi earned his stripes sailing Hobie Catamarans and Holder 20s, where he captured multiple national championships. Twenty-one years ago, Nevada YC hosted a 14-boat Holder 20 National Championship, yet since then, the racing scene here has been in a perpetual state of bust.

Part of this comes down to the wind. “It’s pretty much all or nothing,” says Rosaschi. “You’re either bobbing around waiting for breeze, or its cranking 20-plus.”

Desert sailors don’t have the luxury of a reliable sea breeze like their Southern California neighbors, and after putting on several dud regattas, it became too much of a liability to run big regional championships on Lake Mead.

Jim Rosachi, owner of the Capri 30 Blue By You, provides a guided tour of Nevada's Lake Mead.

Jim Rosachi, owner of the Capri 30 Blue By You, provides a guided tour of Nevada’s Lake Mead. (Michael Hanson/)

Unlike other yacht clubs that rely on junior programs to replenish their memberships, the Nevada YC has failed to gain traction with youth sailing on Lake Mead. Though NYC offers an introduction to sailing class twice a year for new recruitment, they average about 60 students, and because the reservoir is part of a National Park, sailing on Lake Mead has its own set of unique restrictions. One must pay $25 just to get to the marina, and permitting is also an issue, with non-profits having to jump through various forms of federal red tape just to run events. The fact that the marina is about an hour outside the city also makes it difficult for parents to drop their kids off for the day and go to work or run errands like they do in many other areas of the country.

All of these factors amount to the current drought of racing activity on the lake, which is a shame, because of all the places I have sailed, it might be the most beautiful and strangest at the same time. The American Southwest is filled with things that shouldn’t really be there, and Lake Mead is a prime example. Yet, when you look up at the vast desert landscape from the bottom of the reservoir, it feels like sailing in a crater on Mars. As we drift back to the marina, I wonder whether or not the racing scene here will see another boom, or if the Nevada YC will take after the lake itself and continue to recede, having already reached its high-water mark.