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Bringing the joy of sailing to West Virginians

Rick Steelhammer
Members of the Sewell Mountain Sailing Association of West Virginia take part in their first outing of the year on a breezy day on Summersville Lake.
SUMMERSVILLE, W.Va. -- Surrounded by an armada of bass boat trailers in the parking area of the Battle Run boat launch area at Summersville Lake last Saturday morning, the owners of a small wind-powered fleet were busy raising masts and securing jibs and mainsails.The first sailing event of the year for the Sewell Mountain Sailing Association of West Virginia, an organization of 60 Mountain State sailboat enthusiasts, was about to get underway in the recently filled reservoir. Getting their boats ready to set sail while still in their trailers, where spare parts and tools were handy, was easier than rigging the craft while on the water."Summersville has never been thought of as a sailing lake, but that's starting to change," said Steve Morris of St. Albans, the association's commodore. "The people with the Corps of Engineers told us that more sailboats were on the water here last year than ever before.""It's the largest, clearest body of water in the state," said Bob Richards of Rainelle, the organization's founder. "But when I moved here in 2005, no one was sailing it."In fact, Richards couldn't help but notice that few people were sailing anywhere in West Virginia.To help remedy that situation, Richards took it upon himself to 'doze out a pond on his Rainelle area farm, equip it with a dock, buoys and sailboats, and open a free basics-of-sailing course."A lot of people thought it was a joke when I started," said Richards, "but so far 150 kids and adults have taken the course. You change peoples' lives when you get them into sailing. It's a lot of fun, but it also involves a lot of thinking. To my way of thinking, the more people we can get involved with the sport, the better."Although he had lived in both Hawaii and California, Richards didn't get involved with sailing until he was in his 30s."I was playing around with sailboards and windsurfing at a lake near Grass Valley, California, when a guy comes zooming by the beach leaning off the hull of a sailboat, perched on a cable, performing a maneuver that made it look like the boat was on the verge of flipping over," Richards recalled. "I later learned what he was doing was called 'flying the hull,' and I thought it was really something."A short time later, the sailboat skipper drifted by, asked Richards if he could bum a cigarette, and after talking a bit, offered him a ride. To say that Richards took to sailing immediately is something of an understatement."Next thing you know, I'm buying the boat from him, and by the end of the summer, I'm able to fly the hull myself," he said.Richards became acquainted with West Virginia from his wife, Sandy, a descendant of John Quincy Adams, whose family's home place is a farm near Rainelle."It didn't take me long to decide that I loved this place," he said. He and his wife bought the Sewell Mountain property, now the home base for the Sewell Mountain Sailing Association of West Virginia, an affiliate of U.S. Sailing.In addition to teaching people how to sail for free, SMSA maintains a small fleet of loaner sailboats available for use by members qualified to sail them, and hosts an annual Mountain Mama Hospice Regatta at Summersville Lake to raise money for the end-of-life care organization.
Membership in the Sewell Mountain Sailing Association runs the demographic gamut, from retired miners to young mothers, although "we don't have any rich guys in our group," according to Morris."I read a book about a girl who had a sailboat when I was 12 years old, and it's always stuck with me," said retired surface miner Donald Summers of Pond Gap. "I went out on a catamaran at Myrtle Beach and I loved it. Then back in 2006, when I was working on a strip job and talking about sailing on the CB, the boss told me he could put me in touch with a man who could teach me to sail. That's how I met Bob. I took his class, which was a lot of fun, and with his help, I ended up buying a used boat. "I'm retired now, so hopefully I can do a lot more sailing," he said.Kelli Marteney of Parkersburg said she first went sailing at the age of 9 with her family at western Maryland's Deep Creek Lake. Through Richards' learn-to-sail classes, her daughter, Bella, is able to take up -- and hopefully pass along -- the family sailing tradition, she said."It's really nice to be able to share sailing with Bella, especially now that she's the same age I was when I started to sail," she said.The nearby presence of a West Virginia sailing club with a learn-to-sail program and a large, scenic lake on which to sail helped Mary Jean Mayles pick Summersville as a place in which to live and work.
"I sailed as a kid and young adult in Virginia, then I moved away from the water to Staunton and began missing it," she said. "The first time I saw this lake, I thought 'this is it!''Now a teacher at Nicholas County High, Mayles plans to do what she can to get students at her school involved with sailing.For Riverside High School teacher Austin Knox of Pinch, sailing "is a nice, relaxing activity -- plus you can say, 'I've got a sailboat.' " Knox bought his Hobie Cat catamaran in 2010, and taught himself to sail on Summersville Lake after reading up on the sport."It's not that hard to learn the basics, but it is hard to be really good at sailing," he said.Being good at sailing on a lake is particularly challenging."All the points along the lake's shoreline cause drafts and eddies," Knox said. "Unlike the ocean, there's no current or steady wind to help you along.""Sailing on a lake makes you a better sailor," Richards said.For more information about the Sewell Mountain Sailing Association and its programs, visit or call 304-438-5035.Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169. 
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