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Sailing Minnesota's 10,000 Lakes

During the gloomy winter of 2011, while temperatures in Minneapolis hovered around -10F, my fiancée, Christine, and I made a pledge to sail as many of Minnesota’s lakes as possible in one summer.

During the gloomy winter of 2011, while temperatures in Minneapolis hovered around -10F, my fiancée, Christine, and I made a pledge to sail as many of Minnesota’s lakes as possible in one summer. There are over 10,000 of these, and though it seems counterintuitive, Minnesota in fact has more shoreline than California.

At the time I was hospitalized with a stubborn case of pneumonia, after which my formerly indestructible self was discharged with a mitt full of antibiotics and a far fresher view of the fragility of life. Indeed, my life will never be the same. Thanks to my illness I must now report monthly to an infusion center for immunoglobulin treatments. Lying in my hospital bed with an oxygen tube in my nose and a needle in my arm, I decided to waste as little as possible of my remaining time on this blue orb.

Upon being discharged, I went straight to work and began searching for a small vessel appropriate for sailing Minnesota’s lakes. I soon found Pied Piper, a 16ft Johnson X-Boat. We inspected her in a dilapidated warehouse in Pine City, where she’d been resting peacefully for a decade. I knew little about Johnson designs, but preliminary research suggested that $700 for the boat, trailer, sails and everything else was a fair price. So in the first week of April, with snow still on the ground, we dragged her home.

On April 8, Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) declared Albert Lea Lake “ice-out,” and we sailed it the very next day. Albert Lea is a 2,685-acre lake with a maximum depth of just over five feet, so navigation is tricky, to say the least. 

Two days later we drove an hour south of the Twin Cities to Faribault, where we cruised Cannon Lake in a brisk 20-knot breeze. The 1,593-acre lake had been declared ice-out a day or two earlier and provided some exciting early-season sailing. Christine’s 5-year-old son, Lorenz, kept a lookout for “icebergs” and was completely at ease, even when the little boat was heeling 25 degrees. 

In May, a steady succession of lakes followed: Calhoun, Minnetonka, White Bear, Buffalo, Waconia, Medicine and Washington all passed under our carefully waxed hull. At White Bear we soaked in some local history. This crystal clear 2,427-acre lake is the birthplace of the Johnson X-Boat and has an active racing scene. White Bear Lake Boat Works started when J.O. Johnson came to the United States from Norway in 1893. Johnson rejected traditional displacement boats in favor of his new inland scow concept, and in 1896 one of his scows spanked a number of other yachts in a White Bear Yacht Club race. Soon the shoehorn-shaped craft was a regional legend.

On Waconia Lake we experienced our first instance of serious weather as we sailed through a squall line. The wind backed from southeast to east and gusted to 20-25 knots, whipping up some menacing whitecaps as we hid on the north side of Coney Island under a heron rookery. Thirty minutes later the dark nimbostratus clouds passed, the wind eased, and clear skies returned—a familiar pattern in the Upper Midwest.

Then, on June 7, tragedy struck. As Christine and I rowed out to where we’d left Pied Piper on a mooring in Lake Calhoun, we could tell something was wrong. Drawing closer, we saw she was all but totally submerged. Christine leapt from the dinghy and swam to the wreckage, crying and choking on the water. The painter had parted and Pied Piper had washed up against a stone embankment.

Pied Piper was irreparably damaged. We took her back to her birthplace, White Bear Boat Works, where they pronounced her dead on arrival. During the gale that sank her, NOAA reported sustained winds of 22 knots and gusts up to 39 knots. It had been a windy spring, what some climatologists are calling the “new normal” for the north-central United States. A few weeks later, on July 1, NOAA reported even stronger winds, with gusts to 90 knots, that overturned about a third of the sailboats moored on Calhoun.

Christine, Lorenz and I weren’t about to give up sailing, and within days of losing our precious X-Boat, we had a replacement: an O’day Day Sailer we picked out from among the Capris, Flying Scots, Lugers, Buccaneers, Tartans and Johnson scows we found on Craigslist. 

The robust Day Sailer, which we named Haemony after an enchanting flower in John Milton’s Comus, proved ideal for a spate of “big water” sailing. In retrospect, the X-Boat would likely have been swamped on the big lakes with their bigger, steeper waves. 

Within weeks of buying Haemony, we blazed across Mille Lacs, Pelican, Gull, Cass, Lake Saint Croix, Lake Pepin and even parts of Lake Superior, dodging plenty of shoals and sandbars in the process. While navigating Pelican Lake between Gooseberry Island and the reef jutting out from east of Halverson Bay, our centerboard hit bottom—hard. Local maps identified this as a “stay out” zone, but we had been told that locals sail through the area all the time. We were more cautious from then on, recognizing that water levels on many lakes are now lower than in the past. 

More often than not, we sailed in 10 to 15 knots of wind at speeds between 4 and 6 knots. We sometimes sailed in stronger breezes and once hit 8 knots surfing just south of Sandy Point on Gull Lake. At one point, when I eased the mainsheet, one of our battens shot clear out of the mainsail and flew about two hundred yards from the boat.

As the summer progressed, Christine and I learned more about sailing than we had in several years aboard my bigger boat. Trailer-sailing in neighborhood lakes, or even ones farther afield, allowed us to spend a great deal of time actually sailing, often in new environments. Every lake offered fresh challenges. That summer, we had no “home waters.”

Part of sailing any boat is dealing with logistics, and when trailer-sailing a smaller boat these can become an issue as soon as you step outside your door. We couldn’t sleep aboard, so we camped, which required a tent, sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, pots and pans and a cooler—all of which had to be stowed in the Day Sailer’s cuddy whenever we went island camping. 

Hauling a trailer to lakes that are often four or five hours away also requires some care, especially on narrow roads with potholes or in construction zones. I learned this the hard way, driving back from Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands, when I overturned our trailer on a soft shoulder, wrecking both the trailer and our boat. We soon purchased another inexpensive Day Sailer and named her Haemony 2. We also reassessed our safety procedures on the road. 

Minnesota’s infamous bugs were another issue. We were careful about pest management, but I still found myself occasionally pulling ticks from my beard while sailing. One time we were chased from a campsite at Williams Narrows in the Chippewa National Forest by bloodthirsty bugs. 

Still, it’s all part of the experience, and indeed, it’s these same hardships that help you appreciate the good times: like when we ended up retreating to a cabin in Williams Narrow, where reservations had been cancelled because of cold temperatures and rain. The next day the sun appeared, and we sailed 12 nautical miles across the formidable Cut Foot Sioux and Winnibigoshish Lakes. The wind whistled through our rigging as Haemony 2 sliced through the wild waters in 15-17 knots of wind. We made 27 miles in six hours: distance-wise, crossing Winnibigoshish is comparable to crossing the Georgia Strait in the San Juan Islands.

“Dead in the morning and born at night,” a medieval Japanese recluse once wrote, “so man goes on forever, un-enduring as the foam on the water.” As our little boat skimmed across one lake after another—more than 30 in all—our passion for the wind, for the water and for one another was confirmed. Our lives on this blue orb may, indeed, be ephemeral, but the shared experiences that define us also endure.

10 Items for Trailer Sailing

1. Leatherman

2. WindMate anemometer

3. Red distress flag and two

whistles

4. First aid kit sealed in a plastic

water bottle

5. Hand bilge pump and sponge

6. Handheld GPS with

regional information

7. Binoculars

8. Handheld VHF

9. Flotation cushions

and PFDs

10. Flares

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