PHOTOS BY MICHAEL BARRETT
Take a drive around the Ross Barnett Reservoir on any given weekend of the year, either up the Natchez Trace or across the spillway, and you are likely to see some white and brightly-colored sails skimming blithely across the water.
Most prevalent during the warm spring and summer months, they are all the more conspicuous during the unseasonably warm winter weekends we’ve enjoyed the last couple of years.
Sailboats of all different shapes, sizes and classifications can be seen on the Reservoir nearly every day, weather permitting, but most often on Saturdays, flitting like butterflies around the Jackson Yacht Club, which sits comfortably atop a hill overlooking the entire lake.
Organized in 1960, the JYC spent the first few years of its existence at Lake Hico in northwest Jackson, which was originally built for use as a cooling lake for Mississippi Power and Light’s generating plant.
“It was okay,” says long-time member and former JYC Commodore George Forkin, “but the lake was so small it was kind of like sailing on a nickel. I wasn’t a member yet, but I raced with Neg England and Joe Blythe. Neg was the second commodore, I believe, and Joe was the fourth or fifth.”
George, like many life-long sailors, came to the sport at a very young age.
“I started sailing at age 8, and by 10 I was racing,” he recalls. “We had a summer home on Lake Michigan, and that’s where I learned to sail. My father, E.W. Forkin, raced in the 333-mile Chicago to Mackinac Race twelve times.”
The prestigious Chicago Yacht Club to Mackinac Island Race, which hosts thousands of sailors in all classifications, is the oldest annual freshwater point-to-point sailing race in the world, first run in 1898.
“The old wooden piers at the Yacht Club were actually
constructed before there was enough water in the Reservoir to sail on,” says George, who joined about six months after the JYC opened on Ross Barnett in 1964.
“I was there for the very first Hospitality Regatta in 1966,” he says. “There were over 300 boats competing in that first one. It was a huge race, and a huge success.”
“My first boat was a Corinthian, but I also raced 19’ Flying Scots. You had to have 7 boats of one kind to make a fleet, so we’d all get together and talk each other into buying a certain kind of boat so we could race each other.”
“I’ve raced and sailed all over,” George says. “I used to own the 1/4 ton boat that won the North American 1/4 Ton Championships, and the Miami to Bimini Race. My wife used to say she would stay at the Yacht Club babysitting the kids while Lyle Cashion and I were off sailing somewhere out in the Gulf.”
“We’re definitely a unique bunch of folks,” says long-time sailor and Jackson Yacht Club member John McGowan. “The Yacht Club is home to all kinds of people, all with a common interest: sailing.”
“We’re all equal on the water,” echoes Mart Lamar, a petroleum engineer who is employed by John McGowan at McGowan Working Partners in Jackson. “At work he’s John the High King; but when we’re sailing all formalities go out the door. I’ll dog cuss him if he cuts me off, just like anybody else.”
“And he has!” laughs John.
“Then we all head to the bar and we’re all friends again,” laughs Lamar.
“Mr. McGowan taught us about wind puffs, and how to read the wind,” says Mart, who joined the Yacht Club when his dad, Albert Lamar, moved the family to Jackson from New Orleans in 1969. “We started out crewing for our dads on Snipes, then finally graduated to our own boats.”
“A sail is like an airplane wing,” says John. “You’re constantly redesigning and tuning your sail during a race. I think that’s one of the reasons a lot of engineers are attracted to the sport of sailing.”
“A good sailor has to know how to read the wind, the visual texture of how it looks when it strikes the water, and be able to anticipate how the sail will react when it hits a certain puff of wind. You’ve got to be on the right side of a wind shift, and the ones who learn to anticipate those shifts the best are the ones who win.”
“Of course, this is inland sailing here on the Reservoir,” he adds. “Ocean sailing is a whole different beast altogether. There you’ve got to deal with much bigger waves and swells, and currents you can’t even see.”
“You’ll think you’re heading right for a marker, and the current is actually pushing you farther away,” adds Mart, who traveled to Newport, Rhode Island, with several other JYC members and their families four years ago to race in the J-22 National Championships.
“We were racing against the best in the world, guys who ocean race for a living, so we had no illusions about winning. We just went up there for the experience and to have a good time, which we all did.”
With a nearly constant membership of about 400 members, it is a certainty that there are members who join the JYC for more than just sailing.
Some join for the social aspects of an organization of like-minded members, while others join simply because they recognize the benefits of family-oriented activities such as youth sailing or the up-and-coming youth swim team.
Still others join simply to enjoy high quality dining in a friendly, often festive atmosphere.
“It’s like having four clubs in one,” says 20-year member and former Commodore Chuck Buffington. “There’s sailing, social and youth activities, and the restaurant and fully- stocked bar create a dining experience unparalled anywhere else in the area.”
“We usually have 3 or 4 big regattas a year, plus races nearly every Saturday,” says Chuck, who has raced sailboats and powerboats on the Reservoir as well as on the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
“But make no mistake,” he says firmly, “even if there are only two sailboats on the Reservoir, they’re racing.”
Jackson architect and current Jackson Yacht Club Commodore John Weaver takes a more philosophical approach to racing.
“I literally grew up at the Yacht Club,” he says fondly. “I learned to sail on my father, Bob Weaver’s first sailboat, a 19’ Flying Scot, and between the two of us, we perfected the fine art of coming in dead last, just so others could experience the joy of winning. It was tough, but someone had to do it. And we worked hard to achieve a level of consistency that I believe was unmatched in the history of the sport.”
When asked why she and her husband Roy joined the Jackson Yacht Club, long-time member Molly Chaisson says, “We had rental property, and all we used to do was work. We decided to learn to sail, which we did, and then we started meeting a lot of nice people who were so friendly and who accepted us so readily, and they all belonged to the Yacht Club, so we joined too. It’s pretty simple, really.”
“We’ve sailed all over. The Dauphin Island Regatta is huge!
We’ve also joined a group of 40 and gone bare-boating down in the British Virgin Islands for a week, just pleasure sailing. It was wonderful!”
“I learned to sail from the other women on Wednesdays, which were Ladies Days, from friends like Jane England and Betty Witty. Then later on I passed on what I had learned to Debbie Jordan and others,” says Teresa Cashion.
“It’s funny,” says Teresa. “We joined the Yacht Club just to have a place for our kids to swim, and we found another family. It’s been a big, wonderful part of my life. I’ve had experiences I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. I even learned to sail on the ocean. I’ve sailed from Gulfport to the Bahamas on a 50’ sailboat twice, I’ve skippered a boat around the Bahamas and in the Gulf Stream. I’ve even gotten to sail around the tip of Long Island. And it’s all because we joined the Jackson Yacht Club.”
Her journey is not without bittersweet memories.
“One day in 1998 a friend called me and said the Yacht Club was on fire. I jumped in the car and ran out there, and all we could do was stand there and watch it burn. My husband and I had donated a piano to the club, and I can remember hearing it crash through the floor like it was yesterday.”
The rebuilt club, designed by Sambo Mockbee, reopened in 2002.
“And you know,” recalls Teresa, “somehow some of our best times were when all we had for a club was a couple of trailers.”
“Absolutely,” agrees John McGowan. “It brought us all closer together. And somehow it was kind of fitting that the Jackson Yacht Club was operating for a few years out of a couple of double-wide trailers.”
When asked about his best and worst experiences as a sailor, John said, “The worst part was at Lake Allatoona near Atlanta about 1980. My wife Dianne was with me, and I was leading between 70 and 80 boats after 3 legs of the first race, and I thought I was finished. So I rounded the next-to-last buoy and came in to go to the bathroom, and Peggy Davis asked me why I didn’t finish the race. I thought I had!”
One member of the Jackson Yacht Club said it best when he said that the JYC was “a place where you can just be yourself. I call it an island of different in a sea of northeast Jackson political correctness.”
It has grown over the decades from just being a place where someone could sail a boat, have a drink and find a second or third spouse, to being a special place where people like John McGowan, Mart Lamar, George Forkin, John Weaver, Chuck Buffington, Molly Chaisson, Teresa Cashion and others can teach and inspire second and third generations of young sailors to learn their craft and, in turn, pass it on to others.
“That’s the best part,” says John McGowan. “That’s when you really know you’ve won.”