From the Summit to the Sea

The unexpected sport of sailing on Jackson Lake

A chill hangs suspended in thin mountain air, and the intermittent sunshine seems to cling to hopes of an Indian summer. Chacos, shorts, and tan lines are still donned by dock goers, but the shift into early autumn is inescapable. A cloud blocks the sun for a moment, and a feathery gust of wind blows the starched, sun worn sail of a streamlined 1978 J24 racing sailboat moored on Jackson Lake.  Sargent Schutt, whose deep tan suggests a summer spent outdoors, seems unaffected by the nip in the air as he climbs aboard his vessel. He takes the sailboat’s boom apart to put in a new reefing line, moving adeptly like a man who was born at sea.

Sarge holds the boom with one hand and gestures with the other, reminiscing about his childhood spent racing sailboats in Michigan. For Sarge, sailing is like breathing- it is simply a part of life, and a part he knew he couldn’t give up after moving from San Diego to Jackson Hole. Sailing may not be the first activity you think of thriving in the land locked Tetons, but our Valley is actually home to a tight-knit group of sailing enthusiasts. This band of transplants from California, the Northeast, and beyond followed the snow to Jackson but found they missed the sound of masts clanking in the evening breeze. Sarge joined their ranks, and when his son Nixen was born, he was determined to give him the experience of growing up in a sailing community.

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Enter in George Bailey, a sailing enthusiast since the age of sixteen years old, when he dreamed of circumnavigating the globe by boat. George finished high school a year early and flew to Venezuela to board a sailboat he had never actually seen, his only prerequisites being the unabashed confidence of youth and a bookshelf filled with adventure novels. Alongside a crew of “scallywag” shipmates including Rico and Jungle Howie, brazen young George set sail in the wake of his childhood heroes. George smiles as he tells us, “I had no experience sailing or navigating on the ocean. I read books, a lot of books, Moby Dick, but I was missing any real, practical experience. Hurricane Alma hit while we were at sea, completely dismantled our boat, and we almost sunk. Then I decided to go to college.”

His near death experience did little to turn George off sailing, in fact, he has spent his entire life gaining sailing experience around the world and racking up race accolades. Six years ago, George found himself landlocked after making the move from Tokyo to Jackson with his three sons and two daughters, who are all sailors. When sailing from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 2013 to watch the America’s Cup, George reflected on the impact sailing has had on his own life, and felt compelled to get the kids in his new community involved in sailboat racing.  

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Always a man of action, George started the Jackson Hole Ocean Sailing Team with the intent of recruiting kids in the Valley to compete in Trans-Pacific races. He then partnered with Sarge Shute to conceive the Jackson Hole Lake Sailing program, with the hopes of getting local kids out on the lake to prepare them for races on open water. The lake sailing program, a nonprofit that operates in conjunction with the parks and recreation department, keeps a Santa Cruz 52 in Marina Del Ray, California, and two boats on Jackson Lake.

More clouds gather faithfully like black sheep, blocking the sun completely. A rumble in the distance causes Sarge to look up from his work and scan the sky, hopeful that the storm will abate long enough for his group of young sailors to get out on the water. If the weather holds, the team will prepare to match race by practicing tacks and jibes, techniques that involve turning the bow of the boat through the wind, so that the direction of the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other.

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Sailing, likened to “chess on the water,” will teach these kids and teenagers teamwork, accountability, leadership, and risk management. Sarge tells us, “Not too many sports combine the competitive aspects of racing with the need to survive. Going faster means taking more risks, intelligent risks, because things can and will go wrong.” Many times, especially in ocean races, the young sailors will have a matter of seconds to make a quick decision, called a “mayday call,” and succeeding can be a very satisfying and emotional experience.

George laughs as he remembers a recent race, where half the crew was wearing camouflage jackets as their rain gear. This ragtag Wyoming crew may have stuck out like sore thumbs, but they held their own with kids who have grown up on the coast. “Jackson kids are tough,” George tells us. “It is part of our culture here in Jackson, we are outdoor people. Weather, cold, wind, doesn’t phase these kids the way it might other children- our kids don’t have any problems. Even if conditions are tough, they do their jobs.” As first time sailors, mountain bred Jackson kids don’t skip a beat when climbing up to the top of a 70 foot mast, having spent their time scaling rock walls and jumping cliffs on their skis.

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The wind, bringer of change and good fortune, suddenly scatters the sheepish dark clouds aside and sunshine pours down on the glistening lake, causing its surface to sparkle like uncut diamonds.  The air warms immediately, the blue sky waves to its watery reflection, and the Jackson Hole Indian summer lives on. Glacial lakes hidden in the folds of our snow-capped summits might not be so different from the open ocean after all.  Their landscapes are tied together in the spirit of adventure, exploration, and what is means to be human. Sailing could take mountain grown Jackson kids to far off places they might not have otherwise gone, and perhaps even change the course of their lives. As said in the maritime classic Moby Dick, these untouched places are “…not down on any map, true places never are.”

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Combo Trip

Photos courtesy of Sargent Schutt