UMD students brave rough seas to learn sailing

UMD students received a crash course in sailing on Saturday as their boats fought the water, gusts and rain of the Duluth-Superior harbor. Two outdoor recreation groups, the Recreational Sports Outdoor Program (RSOP) and the Duluth-Superior Sailing Association, collaborated to produce Saturday’s sailing event. Designed to promote student and community interest in sailing, the event usually begins with lessons in terminology and mechanics. Rain threatened the harbor, however, and the true-grit sailors hit fast-forward:

“We’re here to teach you the down-and-dirty basics of sailing,” said Tim Ingersoll, program director of the Sailing Association. “We’ve got about 30 minutes before the rain.”

Within five, the students had zipped up their lifejackets and boarded sailboats.

With jibs hooked and tied, sails uncovered and raised, the instructors manned the tillers and the boat turned into the wind. Students braced for the waves.

Storm clouds sped over the harbor, pouring rain that drenched the boat and whipped the sails.

As the harshest weather hit, instructor John Zimmermann taught some students to tack—move the jib sail between starboard and port to navigate against the wind. Then a massive gust struck the main sail.

“I can’t teach anything in this weather,” Zimmermann said. He heaved the mainsheet, clenching it in his teeth as his arms tired. “Loosen port,” he said. “We’re heading in.”

As it neared the docking post, Zimmermann dove atop the helm of the rocking sailboat. He tied it down, but not before he crushed his thumb and painted the deck with drips of blood. A second sailing instructor, Matt Booth, later commented on how two other boats sailing the nearby channel almost capsized when attempting to jib.

“They caught too much wind—that’s the worst thing that could happen in that situation,” Booth said.

Despite the poor conditions of the harbor, some students wanted to continue sailing. But after consulting the two instructors, Ingersoll ended the event.

“The weather’s uncomfortable … and I wouldn’t put instructors or you (students) in an uncomfortable position,” he said.

Sopped and silent, the students boarded the bus two hours earlier than scheduled.

Nick Rorem, the supervising RSOP affiliate, said he hoped participants learned something.

They did.

Before the chaos in the water, grad student Jillian Votava asked Zimmermann about his first time sailing.

“My father told me to take the sailboat out on the water by myself, and I tipped it right away,” he said. “Best lesson I ever had.”


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