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Rural Missouri Magazine

Sailing Stockton
Southwest Missouri lake is the state's
best-kept boating secret

by Bob McEowen
A trio of sailboats tack south away from Stockton Dam during the opening event of the Lake Stockton Yacht Club’s racing season. The lake is host to a full schedule of racing and cruising events for sailboat enthusiasts.

Sailcloth glistens in the sun as a flotilla of boats glides silently toward Stockton Dam. A strong northerly wind heels the boats sharply to the right while crew members reach out to brace themselves against the tilting deck.

It’s the beginning of racing season at Stockton Lake and 19 sailboats compete in a casual 10-mile race. On the water are sleek racing boats and large cabin cruisers. All race together in a staggered-start event that begins with steady gusts and ends with a lazy breeze.

At the end of the day, the Stockton Lake sailing community gathers for a barbeque to relive the race, renew friendships and catch up on wintertime sailing excursions. Organized by the Lake Stockton Yacht Club, the activities are the first of many scheduled throughout the year at the Corps of Engineers reservoir that sailors say is the best-kept secret in Missouri.

“It’s just an incredible lake for sailing,” says Eric Peterson, an investment advisor from Springfield and commodore of the yacht club, an organization that, despite its pretentious-sounding name, exists to promote sailing at any level on Stockton Lake.

The crew of Charmed, Ron and Judy Barrow’s 40-foot sailboat, scamper about the deck during racing action on Stockton Lake.

Unlike Missouri’s other major lakes, few billboards lure travelers to Stockton Lake, located about 50 miles northwest of Springfield. Here there are no vacation homes, dockside bars or party coves. While the 25,000-acre lake boasts good fishing for walleye, bass and crappie, strong winds from Oklahoma and Kansas keep many powerboaters away.

“The wind can come up with no warning. If you’re not in a sailboat it can be really dangerous,” Peterson says. “If you know what you’re doing in a sailboat, it’s not a problem. When the wind is up, it’s great, great sailing.”

Shaped like a large, inverted checkmark, Lake Stockton boasts nearly 300 miles of unspoiled shoreline. About a third of the lake, the area located north of the Highways 215 and 245 bridges, is accessible to sailboats. Tall masts prevent larger boats from sailing beyond these obstacles.

“We have 11 miles from the dam to the 245 bridge,” says Ron Barrow of Kansas City who has sailed Stockton Lake with his wife, Judy, since 1989. “You clear the marina and you’ve got 11 miles on one tack and you come back on another tack. It’s a 25-mile loop on a sailable area — probably three and half, four hours. It’s a great afternoon sail.

Eric Peterson, commodore of the Lake Stockton Yacht Club, pilots his 29-foot sailboat Debonair. The 150-member yacht club charges $50 a year for membership and exists to promote sailing on Stockton Lake.

“If you want, you can drop a hook in a cove, stop and have lunch and swim a little bit, raise the hook and sail on back. It makes a great day sail,” he says.

While casual sailing is the rule, Stockton Lake, built in 1972, also hosts a full schedule of organized racing and cruising events, including the annual Governor’s Cup Regatta. The event began in 1974 when then-Gov. Kit Bond’s communications director, an avid sailor, visited the new lake and recognized its potential.

The first Governor’s Cup Regatta attracted more than 150 boats, many of them smaller craft that could be trailered to the lake for the event. Unusually fierce winds turned what was to be a celebration into a near disaster as 100 boats capsized. No one drowned that day, but rescue boats were overwhelmed picking sailors and their crews from the water.

A racing sailboat glides on the wind at Stockton Lake.

Subsequent Governor’s Cups have been far less dramatic but the regatta has earned recognition as the state sailing championship. Typically about 30 boats are entered, though few travel from distant waters. Besides the fact that sailboats are difficult to move, most of the state’s top sailors already berth their boats at Stockton Lake.

“I’ve sailed all over the country and I can’t think of a better place that I like to sail,” says Paul Nahon, vice commodore of the Lake Stockton Yacht Club and co-coordinator of the club’s racing schedule. “I’ve spent a lot of time in California and on the East Coast but, to me, there’s no place like sailing here.”

At least 300 sailboats are moored on a semi-permanent basis at two marinas located north of the bridges. Many of these crafts are equally well-suited for sailing oceans as plying a Missouri lake.

The Barrows’ 40-foot sailboat, Charmed, for example, features a roomy cabin and teak wood appointments. The craft would be at home in any yacht club in the world but does not look out of place in its slip at Stockton Lake.

“A few years ago the norm was maybe 30 feet,” says Barrow. “Now if you walk down that dock there’s maybe a dozen 36-footers and probably a dozen more in this marina that are bigger than that. There’s several 40s.”

Surprisingly, few locals sail at Stockton Lake. Almost everyone on the water lives in Kansas City or Springfield. But former schoolteacher Reed Shaw says the relative unpopularity of sailing among rural residents can be explained by two common misperceptions. “One, people think it’s incredibly difficult to do and, two, I think people think it’s a really expensive sport to partake in. And it’s neither one of those,” he says.

Stockton Lake is home to about 300 sailboats, many of which serve double duty as a lake home for sailing enthusiasts.

Contrary to the popular image of sailing as a sport only for the wealthy, Reed says sailboats are affordable, especially when compared to powerboats and lake homes.

“You take a 36-foot boat. Most people consider that a big boat but that’s still a small lake cabin. And that’s what people use these for,” says Shaw, whose Grand Mariner Yacht Service has been repairing and selling boats at Lake Stockton since 1979.

“The average guy out there today is buying a bass boat that runs 25, 30,000 dollars. If you have a fishing boat, you’re going to rent a motel room every weekend when you’re down here. You’re going to buy all your meals,” Shaw says.

“We’ve got a 26-foot used boat that’s got a galley and sleeps four people for $11,000. You can live in it on the weekend and cook and sleep and be totally comfortable.”

Larry Strait, an instructor employed by Stockton State Park Marina, holds a sailing class during a windless day on the lake. Enrolled in the two-day course are (from center to right) Steedman residents Scott Hollabaugh, John Brandt and his daughter Mariah.

Onboard accommodations are especially important at Stockton Lake because, like all Corps of Engineers projects, shore development is not allowed. As a result, social life takes place on or near the boats. It’s common to see a bustle of activity up and down the docks at Orleans Trail and Stockton State Park marinas as boat owners cook steaks on tiny grills hanging off the stern or gather in lounge chairs on the docks.

“Sailing is a lifestyle,” says Ron Plymate, who operates Orleans Trail Marina. “You form friendships. These dock mates, they go on vacations together. The kids, they all grow up together.”

Far from being exclusive, the sailing community at Stockton Lake welcomes new members. “The motto of the yacht club is to promote the art of sailing, period. It doesn’t matter what you’re on,” says Peterson. “Even people who don’t own sailboats can be part of the yacht club.”

To help educate people about sailing, Grand Mariner Yacht Service and Stockton State Park Marina both offer classes sanctioned by the American Sailing Association. Students spend two days — much of it on the water — learning basic operation of a sailboat, safety guidelines and rescue procedures.

Sailing, the faithful say, offers something hard to find at any price — a chance to escape the workaday world and enjoy life carried about by the wind.

Sailboats fill the slips at Stockton State Park Marina.

“There is nothing like sailing,” says Peterson, who pilots a 29-foot sailboat on Stockton Lake. “The serenity, the quietness, the fact that you’re one with the wind. It’s just a whole experience.”

Plymate, whose Orleans Trail Marina includes a hotel, restaurant, conference center, boat dealership, repair facility and campground, in addition to the marina store and fuel docks, agrees.

“In our lives we go as fast as we can go trying to get everything done. When you get on a sailboat it will only go so fast. It forces you to sit back, put your feet up and watch the shore go by,” he says. “It’s not the destination. It’s the journey.”

For information about sailing lessons or other services call the Stockton State Park Marina at 1-800-334-6946, Grand Mariner Yacht Service at (417) 276-4840 or Orleans Trail Marina at (417) 276-5161.

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