Fort Gratiot RC Yacht Club: Smaller-scale sailboats provide big fun

The Blue Water region is synonymous with boating, docks, harbors, and marinas. Fort Gratiot Charter Township Supervisor Robert Crawford says people are surprised to hear that the township has a yacht club, despite not having any marinas. This yacht club is a little different than others though. The Fort Gratiot RC Yacht Club is full of members with radio-controlled sailboats.

“We’ve been sailing on Fort Gratiot Pond/ Nature Preserve for 14 years this August,” Crawford says. “It started out with a resident coming into the office asking where he could sail his radio-controlled boat. At the time, we didn’t have a place, but shortly after, we acquired the Fort Gratiot Pond, and we started sailing boats there. It grew from there.”

Today, the club is a member of the American Model Yachting Association, and part of a larger roster of nearly 1,500 sailors regionwide.

Crawford, who participated in radio-controlled sports like flying model airplanes and racing trucks with his sons, says he tried out sailboats after someone handed him a transmitter. He describes how these smaller-scale vessels compare to their full-size counterparts and provide just as much fun.

“The radio-controlled boat actually sails the same as its counterpart, a full-size big boat,” he says. “You only have two controls on the sailboat. You have the rudder to steer the boat, and you have a (serval) that controls how far the sails go out, in other words, how far they pivot, and how far you can bring them in. Those are the only two controls you have to set the sails for their most efficiency, which you have to do while the boat’s on shore.”

Over the years, Crawford says the biggest advance in technology regarding RC sailboats has been the radio control itself.

“You went from having a crystal radio where you had to make sure you weren’t on the same transmitting channel or frequency as somebody else, where you had collisions or crashes,” he says. “Now you have a radio that actually picks out a frequency that nobody else is on. That’s been the greatest advance, a number of boats can be on the same pond and not have radio interference.”

Similarly sailing as large vessels on the lake, the yacht club also operates under the rules that starboard has the right of way, room at the mark, etc.

“Depending on the course, and how many boats can actually fit, you split up your fleets to fit the course,” Crawford says. “We try to finish sailing into the wind. Usually, we have a course of two marks, and you have to round to port (the left side of the boat), and you do two laps around the course to finish.”

The club has hosted regattas, with sometimes 40-50 different boats split up into fleets. “We’ve had people travel here from as far as Alabama and Toronto, CA to compete,” Crawford says.

When it comes to the sailboats themselves, there are three separate classes that the club sails.

“We have the Victoria, which is about 30 inches and weighs about 4.5 pounds, then we have the DragonFlite, which is the newest, high-tech model yacht for sailing at Regattas,” Crawford says. “Then we have the Soling, which is a 39-inch boat weighing 10 pounds.”

Weather-permitting, the club typically sails three times a week in the afternoons for three hours. The DragonFlite sails on Monday, Victoria on Tuesday, and Soling on Thursday. Rechargeable batteries allow skippers to sail their boats for around 4 hours usually, depending on how strong the wind is that day. Crawford says the 4.5-acre pond allows enough room for sailing and other activities like fishing to take place simultaneously.

“The Fort Gratiot Pond is the only municipal pond in Southeast Michigan that I’m aware of that’s set up and designated for sailing radio-controlled sailboats,” he says. “With our local history of the Port Huron-to-Mackinac Sailboat Race, we’ve actually created the counterpart, called the Mini Mack. We have members in our club that have sailed in the big boat races.”

Crawford jokes that for many members, this is the size and class boat they can afford, versus the upkeep and docking prices of big sailboats.

“The DragonFlite is probably our most expensive boat, and it’s close to $500,” he says. “That’s the boat, the sails, the serval motors that turn the sails, a transmitter and receiver.

In terms of upkeep, sails can wear out, so they might need to be replaced over time. DIY and fellow members help each other out with quick repairs.

Over the years, the club has grown in popularity with most of its members being in the retirement age group. It’s not only popular with local residents but also with travelers.

“Right now, we have some residents outside of St. Clair County that are here for the summer in their RV. They come up here, and sail two days a week,” Crawford says.

There’s even been many close friendships and bonds created from partaking in the regular hobby. Some members even celebrate Taco Tuesday after their weekly sailing. Anyone interested in checking out the club is welcome to join in on the fun.

“We are more than willing to show them how the boat works, give them a chance to sail the boat, and if they’re interested in joining our club,” Crawford says. “We have dues that are $20/year for unlimited sailing.”

There aren’t any boats available for rentals, so members will need to provide their own materials.

“We have no age requirements, but members have to be able to control the boat without causing damage to someone else’s boat,” Crawford says.

Every year, the club looks forward to their annual event, Scarecrow Saturday, hosted by the Township. Located at Fort Gratiot Pond, the free event invites families to come out and see the park, view the sailboats in action, enjoy local business vendors, live entertainment, and family-friendly activities. This year’s Scarecrow Saturday is planned for Sept. 24.

Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing resident, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at spohn9@gmail.com.