A brisk autumn breeze blows in from Guelph Lake as a group of young sailors from the Guelph Community Boating Club pack up for the season and prepare for their long journey south to Biscayne Bay in Miami.
It’s a race against time for the four young GCBC sailors who range in age from 16 to 19.
“Coming up in January is the Snipe Junior World Championship,” said GCBC sailing instructor Ryan Perry. “They are held every two years in locations throughout the world. The last two were in Italy then Spain, and this is the first time it is in North America in a very long time.
“In the snipe class you qualify as a junior up to 22 years of age,” said Perry. “The chances of it being in North America again before they age out is very slim.”
That is a motivating factor for 19-year-old Lucas Conrad who is eager to compete on the world stage and demonstrate the skills he has acquired sailing on Guelph Lake during the past 10 years.
“We have a really good racing community here,” said Conrad. “It is definitely, a good lake to practice on because it is very shifty, wind wise. There are a lot of very sudden gusts and rolls and stuff like that so, it keeps you on your toes.”
Conditions on Guelph Lake can even be challenging for veteran sailors such as Harri Palm who has decades of experience sailing and snipe racing around the world.
"It’s a tricky place to sail,” said Palm. “It teaches you how to deal with wind shifts and it is very good for a tactical game too. The courses are short, so you get a lot of practice rounding markers. You get a lot of practice starting. We usually do multiple races and that helps because starting is really important in sailboat racing.”
The design of the boats is standardized to ensure the sailor’s skill is the overriding factor and no one has an unfair advantage.
“A snipe is a two-handed boat that was designed in 1931 as a trailer sailor that you can take to regattas and have some fun,” said Perry, who started racing snipes 14 years ago at the age of 10. “They are exactly 15-and-a-half feet in length and 380 lbs with a very strict sail size so, they are identical.”
Palm started racing snipes in 1967 when he was 10 years old and competed in the very first Snipe Class Junior World Championship in 1973.
“That’s what happened to me,” he said. “I went to a junior world’s and I got hooked.”
Palm started snipe sailing at Guelph Lake in 1980 shortly after GCBC started in 1978.
“One of the first things I saw when I came here was that the youth program was non-existent,” he said. “My late wife Molly and I really got it going. We worked hard over the years because it takes a long time.”
Palm’s wife, Molly Kurvink, died in an ice-sailing accident on the lake in 2018, but her influence and passion for the sport continues to inspire sailors old and young.
“Molly taught me how to sail and I taught these guys how to sail,” said Perry.
Kurvink is a powerful role model for young female GCBC sailors and coaches, including 16-year-old, Simone Maksym, as she prepares to compete in January.
“You benefit from being in an environment where the coaches are all very supportive,” said Maksym. “You feel a connection as we grow with it because we are all working together. It makes it more personal than just going out and sailing on your own.”
Maksym will be skippering with 16-year-old Henry Noel who has been a GCBC member since he was eight years old.
“Most of us find out through a friend or something about the Learn to Sail Camp that goes on here and that’s how I fell in love with it,” said Noel. “The Learn to Sail Camp definitely helped show me what sailing is compared to what I assumed it was. It also showed me the great community that is here and I’m grateful to be a part of it.”
Maksym and Noel will be competing in a snipe loaned to them by long-time GCBC member Chris Hains. Conrad and his 19-year-old sailing partner Oliver Inglis will be using a snipe provided by Inglis’s father.
They have launched a GoFundMe campaign to help cover their expenses.
The sailors will be racing twice a day for five days starting Jan 2.
The teams will be competing against each other, and 29 other teams from around the world in waters none of them have sailed before.
“Like the guys said earlier, Guelph Lake is very shifty, which actually trains you to be a really good sailor, but the challenge these guys are going to have in Miami is they are going to have to deal with some chops that we don’t get on Guelph Lake,” said Perry. “In Biscayne Bay, where they will be sailing, it is known to get a four to six-foot chop so, that is going to be an interesting experience for them – a challenge that they haven’t sailed in yet.”
Palm has no illusions about the Guelph teams winning the championship, but he is proud of this new generation of sailors and confident they will continue to grow the legacy they have built on Guelph Lake with the GCBC.
“It is a bit of an anomaly this club,” he said. “It is quite remarkable, for the size of the lake, the level at which we sail here. The club is aging out and if you don’t have young sailors to come in and take the place then it just doesn’t survive. So, you have to create the interest and hopefully one day they start beating us old guys and then they can takeover. That’s the way it’s supposed to go.”