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The Joy of Learning to Sail Lake Superior

S Bence


On the shores of Chequamegon Bay,  Ben and Laura Paulsen seem oblivious to the fact that – at least for now - there's barely a wisp of a breeze.

The siblings, who grew up right around the bay in Washburn, are part of a team of instructors with a nonprofit called North Coast Community Sailing.

Credit S Bence

The Paulsens busily extract sails and portable buoys from a small storage trailer; they press on, hauling “dinghy sized” boats to the water’s edge.

Ben and Laura barely remember when sailing wasn’t part of their lives. They started about eight years ago.

“ We both learned in this program. Now we're instructors! We started with the Optis. They’re small and very stable They’re used for kids 8 to twelve” Laura says.

When the kids have mastered the basics, they can move on to the bigger boats.

“The 420s are two person boats, you can fit three if you try. They have two sails – the jib and the main sail and that’s for kids 12 to 18,” she adds.

Laura is 16, and Ben 14. They’ve risen to the rank of “instructor in training.” The teaching season started as their school year ended.

The Paulsens work with the Opti level – the boat that sort of looks like a dinghy.

“I enjoy the Optis the most because it’s the little kids and it’s fun watching them,” Ben says.

Laura prefers working with more experienced kids, “I think the advanced Opti class is probably the best because the kids have learned this stuff before and you can do a lot of fun games and stuff and they kind of understand.”

Every week, the Paulsens and other instructors take on a new crop of students.

Credit S Bence

  Ben explains the nearby sign I spotted – a makeshift dry erase board decorated with a folk art style sailing vessel. The sign proclaims “Welcome Pirates,” because every weeklong course ends with a celebration.

“Well the pirate day is sort of the big finale we have a potluck and everything. We start off on Monday with rigging and de-rigging; then we go to points of sail, learning the winds and get a little more advanced every day and then Pirate Day is just a fun end of the week,” Ben syas.

After the day’s festivities, the team will pick up everything and move it to another spot along the Chequamegon Bay coast, for the next week’s classes.

“All the boats move, like Saturday, we’re doing a boat move from here to Bayfield. We put the Optis on a trailer and we have to sail the 420s over,” the two say.

Both says they can’t imagine life without sailing.

Today’s students are due any minute, so I leave the Paulsens to last minute tasks and head up Main Street. Just as I reach Ashland’s imposing city hall, built in the 1800s from locally-quarried stone, I spy a young fellow.

Nine year old Alden Van Beest is dressed in black from head to boot, sword in hand. He’s on his way – you guessed it – to sailing class.

I learn he’s no mere fledgling.

“I did it last year,” Alden says.

What he likes about sailing?

“Well I like to get onto the water and explore the lake and see all sorts of fish, if you can go and fish,” Alden.

Alden explains, he doesn’t actually get to fish when he’s sailing.

It’s not easy explaining how far out in the bay Alden actually sails during class.

“Well, we usually go not as far as the buoys but farther than ….three feet from the shore,” Alden says.

After this week’s class, Alden Van Beest is prepared to sail deeper waters. He’s among two hundred kids who’ve learned this summer under the watchful eye of Laura and Ben Paulsen and the rest of the North Coast Sailing team.

It appears – like the Paulsens - sailing is in Alden Van Beest’s bones.

His mom and dad named him after a famous boat designer, and when THEY were first married, Alden’s parents LIVED on a sailboat.

Perhaps his story has the makings of a novel, or at least a hearty pirate song.

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Alden Van Beest graduated to Advanced Opti this summer.

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.