Docked sailboat on White Bear Lake. Photo by Valerie Turgeon.
One of my favorite photos I’ve taken (though, not great quality) is of a lone sailboat in the distance highlighted by the sunset on Waikiki Beach. A few paddle boarders are scattered in the foreground, looking so insignificant compared to the sailboat’s towering mast and sails.
Sailboats are so calm, so serene. They glide across the water like a ballerina floats across the stage. I’ve always been drawn to sailboats’ effortless, almost dreamlike movements. It’s the perfect boat to take around the world—after all, you only need a bit of wind.
My utopian image of sailboats was (almost) shattered when I finally hopped on board a 23-foot keelboat and learned how to sail with my boyfriend, Steve. We took lessons through Northern Breezes Sailing School, which offers a basic keelboat class, the recommended option for beginners. You can take the class in several locations, including popular vacation spots in Duluth, Leech Lake, and Lake Pepin. We were able to stay in town and sail on White Bear Lake. Northern Breezes also offers the opportunity to become certified by the American Sailing Association (ASA), which is recognized by sailing professionals and charter companies worldwide.
The cost of the class is $799 for a pair or $449 for one person—but worth it for all that it includes: a one-year membership to ASA, the Sailing Made Easy textbook, a study guide, a DVD with helpful tips, a passport book to keep track of sailing expeditions and other certifications, and 12 hours of sailing with an experienced ASA certified instructor.
It was recommended that we read the textbook before coming to class, which put us in a back-to-school mindset. On the third day of lessons, we took a 100-question test (multiple choice!) so we could earn our certification, but the best way to learn is, of course, by sailing.
On day one of our lessons, we boarded within minutes of meeting our instructor. As we helped rig the boat, the terms in our textbook were coming to life: the mast, halyard, lines, bow, stern, jib, boom… Sailing is a lot like learning a new language. Even left and right become something different (port and starboard). Similar to a foreign language class, it helps to become fully immersed in the language, so our instructor consistently used sailor speak.
After motoring out far enough from the dock, we turned the motor off and untied the sails. We learned how to easily tell wind direction by looking at telltales (small pieces of ribbon) on the sails. Our instructor also taught us how to predict “puffs” (or wind gusts) by looking for dark ripples on the water. We also learned the basics of steering with the tiller, how to trim the sails and tack and jibe (adjustments made to change course according to the wind direction), how to execute a man overboard drill, plus other helpful tips.
The wind was rather strong during all three days we sailed. For something that looks so graceful from a distance, I was surprised at the adrenaline rush I experienced when the boat heeled (leaned) and how violent the sails can sound when luffing (flapping) as the boat moves directly into the wind. You nearly have to yell to communicate over the noise, but once you’re back on a good point of sail, the peace resumes. Smooth sailing, indeed.
Steve and I both passed our tests and earned our ASA certification. That night, we celebrated with food and drinks at Admiral D’s, which has a gorgeous view of White Bear Lake. We watched a few sailboats leisurely float along shore, and we felt proud that we could identify their points of sail. The next step? We’d like to get more experience by sailing on Lake Superior, then take a trip on the Gulf, and then—the ultimate dream—sail around the world.
We just need a boat first.
Northern Breezes Sailing School
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