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.