Great Salt Lake had a Sailfest regatta again, but there’s still ‘a lot of work to do’

Sailfest returned on Saturday for the first time in five years. The event was canceled in previous years because of low lake levels and the pandemic.

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. Read all of our stories at greatsaltlakenews.org.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sailboat catches the wind on the Great Salt Lake as Sailfest returns for the first time in fiver years on Saturday, June 15, 2024. The event was canceled in previous years because of low lake levels and the pandemic.

Steve Harty started sailing two decades ago during a Sailfest. On Saturday, he had goosebumps as Sailfest returned to the Great Salt Lake for the first time in five years.

The decades-old event was canceled in previous years because of low lake levels and the pandemic.

”Like our shirts say, it’s a celebration,” Harty said — a celebration of the shrinking lake’s beauty and value.

Harty is the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club’s liaison for the event that seeks to get people out to the lake and raise awareness of and engagement with efforts to save it.

Good winters have given it a reprieve, but the lake is still in crisis.

“The point of this event is to get people out here and see there’s still a lot of work to do,” said Jake Dreyfous, the managing director for Grow the Flow, which partners with the yacht club to put on Sailfest.

Though the lake is higher than it’s been in years and hovering around a water level that’s better for the watershed’s ecosystem, it still isn’t at the state-defined healthy level of 4,198 to 4,205 feet.

As of Saturday afternoon, it was at 4,194.9 feet above sea level in the south arm and 4,192 feet in the north arm.

There was enough water for boats to leave the harbor for a regatta, but The Great Saltair about two miles down the shoreline is still surrounded by a dry playa. And some boats can’t make it out of the harbor because the their draft (the distance between the surface of the water and the deepest point the boat’s hull breaches to underwater) is more than the depth of the water at the opening in the breakwater.

Though many Utahns are engaged in efforts to save the lake, so much of the community around the lake has never been to its shores, Antelope Island or otherwise experienced the lake, Dreyfous said.

Harty agreed that “more often the people who show up here have never been here.”

People who come and experience the lake for the first time have the chance to learn from yacht club members — the “world’s saltiest sailors” — and others who love the Great Salt Lake.

Amelia Brickey is still new to sailing the lake but is already a big fan.

She moved from Chicago in September and joined the yacht club about a month and a half ago. She’s no stranger to sailing, having raced sailboats at Northern Michigan University, but didn’t know she’d be able to in Utah.

“Little did I know that I’d buy a sailboat in a desert,” Brickey said.

Brickey and her partner were racing Trident in the regatta after giving it a maiden voyage on the lake about a week before Sailfest, and she also took a plunge into the lake to race in a large, plastic storage tub against a cardboard boat.

Brickey and the other racer did more swimming than paddling in the morning race. But after a shower, she was ready to get out and sail in the regatta.

Like other yacht club members, she loves sailing the lake. “It’s beautiful,” Brickey said. “It’s gorgeous wind most of the time.”

It’s beautiful and peaceful, she said, offering a chance to connect with nature ― especially because there are so few motorized boats that “sailboats rule this lake.”

For that to continue to be true, water levels need to stay high enough to keep the boats in marinas.

And just because the lake has risen enough to make that possible again doesn’t negate the fact that we’re overusing water, Brickey said.

She and several others encouraged people to visit the Great Salt Lake, to pay attention to what lawmakers are doing and to advocate for the lake.

There’s optimism that working together can save the saline lake that provides critical habitat for wildlife, supports a global brine shrimp industry and has several other benefits for Utah and its residents.

Harty, for one, is hopeful for the future of the lake.

“With everybody’s help we can make this happen,” he said. ”I think it’s going to be an example to the world that we can save a saline lake.”

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.