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Chicagoans find confidence and adventure sailing on Lake Michigan

From the helm of his 38-foot catamaran on Lake Michigan, sails hoisted and billowing in the wind, Capt. Jim Miranda has spotted magnificent double rainbows, “roll clouds” that resemble Death Star lasers cutting across the sky and sunsets that leave him and fellow sailors speechless.

“There is no end to the tapestry that Mother Nature can paint over the city,” said Miranda. As owner of the sailing academy 3rd Coast Cruising, he has taught hundreds of Chicagoans, including many over the age of 50, to tackle the lake’s fickle and challenging conditions.

“A lot of our students are in [a phase of] metamorphic change,” Miranda said. “They’ve recently gone through a divorce or heartbreak, or death, or they moved to Chicago and didn’t know anybody. And they’re looking to figure out who they are again. … Sailing is that vehicle, and they develop confidence they never knew they had.”

Batavia resident Scott Marquardt, 63, discovered sailing as a way to reconnect with his reputation as a “water guy.” It started in the Navy and extended to annual family canoe trips in the Wisconsin River until 2017, when the water level rose and Marquardt was forced to seek an alternative. Google and Yelp led him to 3rd Coast, and he was hooked by the challenges it presented.

“In sailing, no matter how much experience you have, every year, you’re stunned at how much more you have to learn,” said Marquardt, who trained under Miranda to reach the rank of “skipper” and take out boats on his own.

Marquardt’s most memorable sailing trips are ones where something goes wrong — never to a life-threatening degree, but sometimes the wind dies, or the water chops a little harder than normal. Perhaps he got wet. Challenges have always led to discoveries, he said, like the time the wind was blowing hard to the east and he joked to Miranda that they should try sailing in reverse. They did, and it worked.

Susan Maivald, a 58-year-old Skokie native, sailed for the first time on her 52nd birthday, and the experience set her life on a new tack. She and husband, Jim, a lifelong sailor, eventually owned two boats — they named them the “Lucille Marie” and “Clara Marie,” for their respective mothers — and would race against fellow Waukegan Yacht Club members on Wednesdays. They took longer trips across the lake to Michigan, spending last summer harboring in cities along the coast meeting other sailors, floating under the stars and playing poker for Splenda packets. Jim died late last year. Susan and her friends are planning to sail as a group and spread her husband’s ashes in Lake Michigan.

One of the most important lessons sailing taught Maivald was how to let go.

“[Jim] would say, ‘You need to know your boat,’” she said. “I trusted him, and I’m still here.”

To get started sailing, Marquardt recommends purchasing a trial membership or introductory lesson with a local sailing club, like 3rd Coast or Columbia Sailing School (prices range from $50 to $300), and joining Facebook groups like “Chicago Sailors.” The sailing community is a close-knit but welcoming, Miranda said. He points beginners to Monroe Harbor, which is known as the “Sailors Circle” because the nearby Loop buildings absorb some of the wind, creating calmer conditions.

He also said that the right mindset can make all the difference. Prepare for rough seas and embrace the adventure, Marquardt advised.

“If you’re worried about getting wet or cold, or how the boat might seem tipsy, make a deliberate decision not to have those worries,” he said. “There’s a ‘seize the day’ aspect to it.”

Anna Harden

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