The setting sun stains the evening sky red and orange hues as it sets over Dallas. It’s a spectacular sight from the tranquil water of White Rock Lake, but odds are, you’ve probably never been sailing to experience the view.
Neighbors Greta and Michael Mittman are out to change that. Since 2017, the couple has introduced sailing to more than 9,300 people by offering free rides on The Spirit of Dallas catamaran. Each cruise allows visitors to experience the beauty of White Rock Lake while learning about its unique history and wildlife.
“You’d be surprised how many people have lived here all their life and have never been on the lake,” Michael says.
“Not only do people from Dallas enjoy it, we’ve had people come internationally. This was on their list — along with Whataburger.”
Families, school groups, senior centers and countless other visitors have taken trips on the 38-foot catamaran, which can fit up to 32 passengers. Cruise options include history sails, environmental sails and firework sails, but the crew’s favorite is the signature sunset sail, where guests can end a long day by relaxing on the lake’s peaceful water.
“Sometimes we have a very diverse group of people on board, and it’s nice to see different demographics interacting,” Capt. Greta says. “They walk up as strangers, and by the end of the sail, they’re the best of friends. They’re all sailors.”
Sails are offered several days a week in the summer and even a few times in the winter. In 2018, neighbors showed up in their pajamas and house shoes for a New Year’s Day cruise around the lake in chilly 9-degree weather. But with only a handful of crew members vetted and certified in boat safety, first aid and CPR, the Mittmans can’t sail as often as demand requires.
The founders have both competed in national races, with Greta, a U.S. Coast Guard master captain, winning several national titles. During a competition at White Rock, Greta won the women’s championship just in time to see her oldest daughter, Rachel, place first in the junior division that same day. Although the Mittmans are accustomed to racing at speeds of 30 knots, or about 35 mph, The Spirit of Dallas coasts at a comfortable 3-4 knots.
The watercraft was built in 1985 as a custom offshore cruiser and was later reconfigured to an offshore racing yacht by a new owner in Chicago. It raced for years until its last regatta in 2016. It placed second in the multiday, 750-mile Race to Alaska from Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan, Alaska.
Legend has it that the boat’s first owner disappeared with the vessel when the builder asked for payment. Ten years later, one of the builder’s employees was vacationing in the British Virgin Islands when he overheard a conversation in a bar. He followed the bargoers when they left and called the builder saying, “I think I found your boat.” Puerto Rican authorities helped recover the vessel, which returned to the United States and started racing on the Great Lakes.
The Mittmans purchased the catamaran from a seller in Reno, Nevada, and remodeled it with their own money into a public excursion boat that embarked on its first sail in September 2017. The couple spent a year adding a deck, passenger seats, safety railings and an awning for shade. They also reduced the engine’s power to comply with park rules that limit motors to 10.5 horsepower. Not only is The Spirit of Dallas under that threshold, once it leaves the dock, it becomes a true sailboat and runs on wind power alone.
“We always had people ask us how to go sailing on White Rock,” Michael says. “You had to buy a boat, rent a boat or know somebody. We thought a good way to give back was to enable the community to sail no matter what your means are or your skills.”
Neighbors may be tempted to assume The Spirit of Dallas is commercializing White Rock Lake, but it is not a business. Sails are free, and no money is ever accepted as payment or as tips. Instead, the onslaught of requests to support the Mittmans led to the creation of The Spirit of Dallas Foundation, a nonprofit that expands the free sailing program and other beautification efforts around White Rock Lake. In addition to establishing a registration website where neighbors can book their free sails, the foundation offers community-building cruises for business groups and shoreline cleanups on land and water.
“We thought a good way to give back was to enable the community to sail no matter what your means are or your skills.”
“When (the Mittmans) said, ‘Come play with us,’ I said, ‘I’ll be there,’” Spirit of Dallas Foundation President Megan Doren says. “The foundation said, ‘There’s enough demand here. Let us help you.’”
The Spirit of Dallas collaborates with other conservation groups, such as For the Love of the Lake and Friends of White Rock, while also supporting the lake’s sailing and running clubs. During the Dallas Marathon, the ship sailed near the shore and rang its bell for participants as they ran by.
“Our big deal is to not only let people enjoy the lake, but also for them to know how we need to conserve the lake,” Doren says. “We want people in 100 years to show a picture of The Spirit of Dallas and say, ‘That was on our lake.’ When they get off, they have a sense of ownership. This is something we need to treasure.”
Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Lakewood/East Dallas.