Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Updates via NPR: Biden orders a security review after the assassination attempt on Trump
This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake — and what can be done to make a difference before it is too late.

Sailors delight in return of Great Salt Lake race, despite worries about the future

After a five year hiatus due to low water levels, sailors returned to Great Salt Lake June 15 for Sailfest 2024. Organizers dubbed the regatta a "race to save Great Salt Lake."
Elaine Clark
/
KUER
After a five year hiatus due to low water levels, sailors returned to Great Salt Lake June 15 for Sailfest 2024. Organizers dubbed the regatta a "race to save Great Salt Lake."

Pure jubilee filled Great Salt Lake State Park as dozens gathered June 14 for the first Sailfest in five years. The annual regatta on Great Salt Lake had been put on hold due to the pandemic and shrinking water levels.

But Saturday was a reunion for people who hadn’t seen each other in a while. They embraced and laughed — enjoying the sunny day with wind just right for the perfect sail.

“It’s rejuvenating out here,” said sailor Pete Webb. “You have no jet skis, no big boats with big loudspeakers trying to drown out their big boat motors. It's a no destination sail. There's no place to sail to. You sail where the wind takes you.”

In 2022, Great Salt Lake hit a record low. Ecosystems were struggling to survive. The miles of dried lakebed became a cry for help.

Webb, like a lot of sailors, has witnessed the local sailing community change as the lake has. He’s been sailing there for more than 30 years and remembers packed races every Wednesday and colorful Sunday conversations on the water for sailing socials. If someone’s boat had a problem, Webb said there was a good chance someone else already had that issue.

“They'll come down and help you fix it. And probably bring refreshments also,” Webb said. “That's the kind of community it was. And then the pandemic and then no water.”

But the sailboats that once filled the marina left due to that the lack of water. In August 2022, the remaining boats were pulled as lake levels continued to drop. The sailing community mourned.

“[It was] terrible because we'd been out here for years and years,” said Great Salt Lake Yacht Club member Corinna Weir. “And it was such a wonderful community. And that's what we lost because of the low lake levels.”

Weir has been sailing for about 40 years and has been heavily involved with the yacht club. She and her mother even started a club to teach women how to sail. Weir was giddy, smiling from ear to ear for the chance to take her friend’s boat Peace out on the water.

Since 2022, lake levels have risen six and a half feet thanks mostly to two back to back wet winters. Levels have likely peaked for this year as summer approaches, though.

The boat dock isn’t as crowded as it once was. Around 50 stalls were filled with boats on Saturday, compared to Weir’s memories when “every single one” of the stalls were full, and “there was a waiting list” to dock boats in the marina.

Corinna Weir raced aboard her friend's sailboat Peace during Sailfest 2024.
Elaine Clark
/
KUER
Corinna Weir and friends return to the marina after racing the sailboat Peace during Sailfest 2024.

While Weir is “cautiously optimistic” about the future of Great Salt Lake, she doesn’t believe it’s out of the woods just yet.

“We're still in a crisis, it’s [the water’s] still low. We're taking our boat out. But going through the mouth of the marina, we scrape the keel. You can't get out of the marina without damaging your boat because it's so low,” she said. “But that is something that a lot of these folks are choosing to do. I'll damage my boat for the joy of going out and sailing.”

The lake still has a ways to go before it reaches the low end of the healthy range at 4,198 feet. The opinion that Great Salt Lake is still in crisis was shared amongst other sailors.

Kate Jarman Gates and Brendan Gates were out on the water. They’re grateful for how much the lake has improved, but they’re still uneasy about its future and the potential impacts on the area.

“I really, really want to be hopeful. But I also have an escape plan,” said Jarman Gates. “We are homeowners. I don't want to lose my house and not have it have any value. So there's certainly a temptation to leave potentially if we don't see enough action to protect the lake, or enough miracle rainfall. So, I am hopeful. I know that we can do it. Will it happen, though? I don’t know.”

Kate Jarman Gates and Brendan Gates enjoyed a day of sailing on Great Salt Lake with their boat Green Eyes, June 15, 2024
Elaine Clark
/
KUER
Kate Jarman Gates and Brendan Gates enjoyed a day of sailing on Great Salt Lake with their boat Green Eyes, June 15, 2024

Jake Dreyfous, director for the advocacy organization Grow the Flow and Sailfest organizer, said “it’s really exciting to see water back at the lake,” and to witness brine flies and other bugs making a grand return. Even though the state has had two great winters, he doesn’t want the public to lose interest in preserving the salty body of water. Dreyfous called the snowy winters a “buffer.”

“My grandmother used to tell me stories about … jumping off of Black Rock into deep water,” he said. “And I think imagining that sort of radical future where a lake is full, the lake is healthy and people don't have to worry about it. They just have to enjoy it. That's what a future Great Salt Lake means to me.”

And others, like Donald “Hutch” Hutchinson, are just thankful to be back. He sat staring out into the water from a repurposed tree throne. Hutch said he’s hopeful for solutions, especially considering the challenges brought by continued growth. But he’s been sailing the lake for 52 years and said he’s seen the highs and lows.

“It's a blessing to be this full. Everybody said it wouldn't come back. It's like, come on, everybody, let's have a positive attitude,” he said. “It's always up to Mother Nature. The lake's been here for 15,000 years. Or so they say. So she has a mind of her own.”

Donald "Hutch" Hutchinson has been sailing the lake for 52 years, seeing the water at its highest and its lowest. June 15, 2024
Elaine Clark
/
KUER
Donald "Hutch" Hutchinson has been sailing the lake for 52 years, seeing the water at its highest and its lowest. June 15, 2024

Saige is a politics reporter and co-host of KUER's State Street politics podcast
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.