Water Aerobics
For these sailors, fitness of body and mind is, well, a breeze
By Dan Emerson

Is there an adult alive who hasn't day-dreamed about lounging on a sailboat, scudding gracefully across the waves under a blue sky?

In March, Pam and Jim Bowden of Maple Grove spent a week living the dream, sailing a 38-foot sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. But they didn't start there.

In 2006, Pam bought basic keelboat lessons, taught by Plymouth-based Northern Breezes Sailing School on Lake Minnetonka, as a birthday gift for her husband Jim and son Mark. Pam and her daughter Meredith took the same course in 2007. Their now-11-year-old daughter completed Wayzata Yacht Club's kids' sailing camp the same year.

The courses teach essential skills like tacking, jibing, trimming sails and reefing; upon graduation the family became active members of the school's sailing club, which rents boats to graduates. "We always really liked boats; we have owned a small sailboat and a speed boat," Pam says, but the classes were their first venture into big rigs: the 23-foot Ensign and 26-foot Pearson sailboats. "We're getting to the age to start thinking about retirement; we wanted to see if the cruising life is something we would like." After some initial misgivings about moving from lakes to the ocean, the Bowdens decided a week of Caribbean sailing would be the perfect litmus test.

Sailing the Caribbean

Pam says the passed with flying colors: "we're pretty decent sailors, so there wasn't a lot to master. The charting piece of it was a bit different. We're used to sailing on lakes; in the Caribbean, all of the islands seem to look alike." The Bowdens mastered the navigation challenges with the help of a GPS unit. Another challenge was earning how to dock the 38-foot boat. "Now we can go back and not be nervous about the whole thing. When our schedules allow, we would love to do that," she says.

The man behind Northern Breezes Sailing School is Thom Burns, an Iowa native who founded the school in 1999, eight years after retiring from the U.S. Navy. The school offers 16 sailing courses of various skill levels for adults and children in nine locations,including Medicine Lake, Lake Minnetonka, Leech Lake in northern Minnesota, Lake Superior in Bayfield, Wis., Lake Michigan, and the Caribbean.

Burns cites two common misconceptions about sailing: "One is that it's very costly; it really isn't. Sailing is actually less expensive than golfing," he says. "The other is that it is very complicated. With the modern gear we have on sailboats, it's really not. Over the years, most of the complexities have gone away. It's really empowering to see a 9-year-old girl sailing a dinghy around."

Another positive: "Sailing is a great lifelong sport," says Mike Misk, current commodore of the Medicine Lake Sailing Club. "You can learn at a young age, 5 or 6 years old, and keep sailing when you are over 100. It's also a great family sport."

Sailing is a physical activity

While the calm of the waves can soothe the mind and soul, maneuvering a sailboat across the water is also physical activity that has been compared to anaerobic exercise. It flexes and tones arm, leg, chest, back and abdominal muscles, and is also beneficial to cardiovascular health.

"How, when and where you chose to sail all create different physical and mental demands and corresponding benefits," Jim Bowden points out. "For example, our family enjoys sailing small boats as fast as we can; this requires concentration, teamwork, stamina, agility and physical strength, as we work together shifting our bodies to help balance and control the boat."

"We also enjoy sailing larger keelboats, where our primary goal is relaxation," he adds. "The quiet of sailing, the rhythm of waves lapping the hull, the feeling of sun on your skin and the gentle rocking of the boat - all never disappoint."

This article was published in the Outdoors section on Plymouth Magazine in the July 2010 issue.