High school sailing team navigates uncertain waters
“I think — and I think a lot of the kids on the team think as well — that sailing is just the most fun in the world. ... I will say that sailing, particularly the kind of sailing that the high school team does — which is small boat, fairly physical sailing — is unlike any other activity you’re likely to find anywhere.” — Josh Sullivan, coach of the Brainerd High School sailing team.
BRAINERD, Minn. -- The Brainerd High School sailing team may be relatively new, but it takes fun seriously.
The team started in the spring of 2018 and has consistently competed in events statewide since it began, Josh Sullivan, head coach of the co-ed team, said.
Sailing programs in Minnesota are not sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League but governed by the Midwest Interscholastic Sailing Association . The association has three sections and the west division includes 48 teams, mostly Minnesota and Wisconsin schools, though most of the Minnesota teams are based in the Twin Cities. There are two South Dakota teams, Lincoln in Sioux Falls and Dakota Valley in North Sioux City.
“Our team is very new,” said Sullivan, who is also the waterfront director of the Gull Lake Sailing School. “We’re not a top competing team by any means. Even sailors that have been around for most of that time are still, in the grand scheme of things, novice sailors.”
The team consists of 16 members, and the team sails April through the first week in June and then the beginning of September through the end of October.
“The team is called the ‘Brainerd High School sailing team.’ … But we have students from Brainerd, Pequot Lakes, Crosslake, Forestview. We’ve been looking to expand further. We even had a couple of homeschooled kids on the team this past season,” Sullivan said.
Those interested in joining the team do not need racing experience or even have to have been in a boat before, according to Sullivan.
“You get a fair number of different reactions. Most of the time it’s one of surprise — ‘Oh, that’s cool!’ Sometimes you get some questions asking what it’s like. Sometimes people say, ‘Well, maybe I want to try that, maybe that’s something I should look into,’” he said of the interest.
Fun in the sun
The fresh air, the sun shining down and recreating outside in the Brainerd lakes area and elsewhere holds a natural appeal for outdoor enthusiasts, particularly for students during the coronavirus pandemic when social distancing is encouraged to slow the spread of the disease.
“It is a true coed sport. Boys and girls not only race on the same racecourse but can be in the same boat, so you can have boats that are two boys, two girls, boy and girl … competing against each other at the same time on a given racecourse,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said the Gull Lake Sailing School’s board of directors hired him to start the Brainerd High School sailing team.
“I believe that the sailing school has wanted to have a high school program to kind of build and grow the sailing school as a whole for many years,” Sullivan said.
The team practices after school for three hours, three times a week, at the Gull Lake Sailing School.
“It is very, very different,” Sullivan said of sailboat racing as a sport. “But most of the time, I find that people very much enjoy it when they give it a shot. … The trick I always found was just getting them to try it.”
And in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, there's plenty of opportunity.
“It’s a great combination of a mental and a physical challenge because you have to basically control this big boat with your body. And you got to think about the wind, the waves and what you’re doing in the boat … and where the other boats are on the racecourse.”
Ethan Stohr is a 16-year-old Pequot Lakes High School student. The 10th grader has been a Brainerd High School sailing team member for three years.
“My parents thought it would be cool for me to try and be in it. And I was not on board with it. ... And then I fell in love with it. And, you know, ever since then, I’ve practiced and practiced, and it’s always fun to get out in the water and do something, even if it’s in October,” Stohr said.
Stohr now gives sailing lessons and works at the Gull Lake Sailing School during the summer.
“Getting out on the water, being outside, is always really fun, and, you know, if it’s a beautiful day, if it’s windy,” Stohr said.
Due to COVID-19, the Gull Lake Sailing School has redesigned all its activities with a focus on social distancing, hand hygiene and facial protection. Six-foot radius seating arrangements have been developed for instructional approaches.
“There’s a lot of work and thought that gets put into it. It’s not so much you jump in a boat, and you go and sail. There are rules, there are lots of hard work, lots of physical activity that I mean probably isn’t touched on and what people don’t think about when we’re sailing,” Stohr said.
Teagan Hartwig-Burton is a 14-year-old team member at Forestview Middle School in Baxter. She said her uncle encouraged her to try the sport because he knew the coaches.
“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try it,’ and then I really grew to love it quickly,” Hartwig-Burton said. “It’s not scary but yet it’s like so fun. … People think it’s like a nerdy sport or a preppy sport when it’s really not. … You’re pushing yourself — not so hard you’ll get hurt but still trying your best.”
Practices are hosted by the Gull Lake Sailing School in boats called “Club 420s.” Essential safety and racing gear are provided.
“The sailors are responsible to keep track of and care for the teams. Coach Josh selected the teams and they stay paired with their same teammate per boat,” said Kellie Burton, mom of Teagan Hartwig-Burton.
The Brainerd High School sailing team is part of the Midwest Interscholastic Sailing Association. There are 55 member schools, according to officials.
“It seems to be everything she’s ever been looking for,” Burton said of her daughter’s involvement. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen my child’s eyes light up the way they do when she gets to sail. Her enthusiasm and passion shine bright for this lifelong sport.”
The Brainerd High School sailing team could have competed in regional and national events if COVID-19 had not forced the cancelation of those events.
“We could, if we wanted to travel regionally, sail in Chicago, Milwaukee, even as far as Ohio within the association, and there we have the ability to compete in qualifiers to attend national-level events and compete against teams from all over the country,” Sullivan said.
The association’s objective is to further the sport of sailing, and to provide a standardized set of rules and procedures for competition. Sailors have the chance to attend competitions across Minnesota most weekends, but due to COVID-19, the team sailed only locally on Gull Lake.
High school sailing
Sullivan said he started his own high school sailing team as a freshman at the school he attended and led the team to a state championship victory, a regional championship podium, and a national championship appearance. He grew up sailing on White Bear Lake.
“It’s probably my favorite thing in the world to do. There’s very little else that I would rather do if anything. I’ve pretty much saved my whole life and I’m absolutely in love with it,” Sullivan said.
Stohr added, “I just think it’s a great thing to go out and do. It’s not your everyday thing that you hear about — ‘Oh, kids are going out racing sailboats’ — you know? Just everything about it, you know, is really fun.”
Scholarships are available for students through the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation's Charles McQuinn Memorial Fund.
“It’s not just a school sport like football. Sailing is a lifelong skill that I can use all through my life. … I can be, you know, 60, with my little sailboat and sailing around, you know?” Stohr said.