by Brian Scrimshaw
I spent a few weeks over February in the South Island, and had the opportunity to return to and sail a gem of the South island: Lake Clearwater. A lake with a good reputation for consistent reliable wind.
Lake Clearwater is in the Rakaia area of inland Canterbury, at the foot of the Southern alps. Despite the hot weather when I was there (25-30C every day) there was still visible snow on the mountains nearby, a testament to the cold winters the lake endures. I remember seeing a photo of the lake in winter when it was frozen solid during the winter of '92. In summer however the lake is very very warm. It is shallow and doesn't have significant rivers flowing into it so will warm up very quickly when warmer weather arrives.
It's only a small lake, to find it on your map, look for Rakaia and run your finger inland, it's near Mount Somers. To get there take the Main South road out of Christchurch toward Timaru and turn a hard right at Rakaia township (Immediately after the huge fibreglass salmon on the side of the road). Follow the signs to Mount Somers and they turn into signs to Lake Clearwater.
Lake Clearwater is a small lake, about the size of the Pauatahanui inlet, and it is a wind-powered-craft-only lake since it is a nesting area for the Southern black crested Grebe (population 250, the sign said). Nesting areas are well sign-posted and fenced off in some areas, and it's important to have a quick look at the forest and bird sign as to where you're allowed, and not allowed to sail. For power boat heads, never mind, the Lake is right next to (5 minutes walk) Lake Camp, which does allow powered craft.
Lake Clearwater has a small township of holiday homes, and it would be well wothwhile, if you're a planning type, to put an ad in the Christchurch Press wanting holiday accomodation if you want to go. Almost all the baches were empty when I was there.
The sailing: Lake Clearwater has a very good reputation for big winds from the North West (off the mountains) but I've never sailed a really windy day there. Because of its position, lying in a gorge, the lake tends to get wind from only two directions, the west and the east. When I was there I got 20 knots+ everyday from the East, a warm wind and it was steady, with flat water, perfect for practicing gybes and other transitions. Canterbury's easterly is a thermal wind, sucked in off the sea by the heat of the sun on the Canterbury plains. So an easterly invariably results whenever you have a clear sunny day, and by the time it makes it to the lake it is a steady warm breeze. Very nice. Steady wind is fantastic, it made me realise how gusty the conditions in Wellington are. The other prevailing wind is the NorWester, which tends to be both stronger and colder. In the norWester the lake can get choppy and it makes for good jumping conditions with 4.0 to 5.0 size sails. My basic day was this: Get up, No wind (dead still in fact) mountain bike around the lake (about an hour), eat brunch, swim in the lake (it's bloody warm), read and prepare for the wind to come thru at about 2-3pm. From then it blew until 8 or 9 pm, steady. Fantastic. In my craziest day I sailed for 6 hours, had one sail-size change and had to stop because of blisters. The wind blew until the sun disappeared.
For those of you who haven't sailed in fresh water, it is great, you come out feeling clean and your gear looks great, my monofilm sails became much more transparent after a week there... (It's also much more pleasant to get a mouth full of) Everything gets a great washout. The bouyancy loss from salt water is only noticable when waterstarting, if you're a beginner to waterstarting you may want to take a bouyancy vest to give yourself a bit more confidence, but really it's no problem.
There are plenty of camping and campervan spots, and its a pretty remote lake, so you can really get away from it all there. Also I noticed a good number of trout jumping during the morning (before the wind came up) and I saw some fisherfolk pull out some good sized fish (fly fishing only). It's a very nice and relaxing place, everytime I've been there I've had wind, it has a good reputation for wind and my experience is that it's sure thing. Take your mountain bike, walking shoes and books just in case though.
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