Hoofer Sailing Club
By Jonathan Gapen
The University of Wisconsin, Madison, well-known for its radical history, saw
a strange transformation in the summer of 1996. Two shadowy subversives slipped
into a dinghy behind the college union one night and rowed onto the lake under
cover of darkness. The light of morning revealed their handiwork to the campus.
The yacht Soma 3 sat at her mooring pin with a new set of Holstein cow spots
painted on her sides!
Carol Bracewell and Steve Heinemann had studied the cows of Sheboygan County to get the spots just right. They waited weeks for the special-order marine paint to arrive, and carefully outlined the job in pencil before applying it. Of course, they did not ask permission, as that would spoil the fun. The result of their tribute to the Dairy State on the boat perfectly captures the unusual spirit of the Hoofer Sailing Club. It's unexpected, and a little bit odd, yet somehow it works. Let me tell you a bit more about it...
The Hoofer Sailing Club is part of the Wisconsin Hoofers, the collegiate outdoors program at the UW-Madison. The Hoofers was founded at the Wisconsin Union in 1931 by a group of students and faculty interested in skiing and wilderness outings. In cooperation with the famous Dartmouth Outing Club, the new club played a large role in bringing downhill skiing to the Midwest. On the other hand, Madison had had a long tradition of sailing and iceboating dating back to the 1850's, because of its unique location on an isthmus between Lakes Mendota and Lake Monona. With the Memorial Union building located on the shore of Lake Mendota, it was only natural for the Hoofers to expand into sailing. The Hoofer Sailing Club was established in 1939, and immediately 450 students signed up on sailing lesson interest cards. World War II kept the fledgling club small for its first few years, but it grew right along with the university in the following years as all the soldiers returned to school.
Today, I am proud to say that we have the second-largest collegiate sailing club in the nation, and the largest in-land. (Believe it or not, the US Naval Academy has us beat!) Over 1,000 members join the club annually and sail a fleet of around 80 boats and 40 windsurfers. Students make up the majority of the membership, but any member of the Wisconsin Union may join the club, and Wisconsin Union membership is open to the public. Children of Union members may also take part in sailing classes through the Hoofer Youth Program, too. (We'll take anybody, just like real pirates!)
If you visit the Memorial Union lakefront any time during the summer, it's not hard to see why so many people take advantage of club membership. Madisonians consistently rank the Union Terrace as a favorite summer hang-out for its beautiful view of the lake. It's just a hundred steps or so from our piers, so we don't have to go far to get the university's famous ice cream from Babcock Hall, or to get beer from the Rathskellar, or listen to live music many nights. Just beyond the Memorial Union, State Street runs between campus and the state capitol building, and is lined with restaurants, shops, and coffeehouses.
Peter Harken (of Harken Inc. fame) decided to attend the UW-Madison because of the campus atmosphere and the sailing opportunities, and he credits the Hoofer Sailing Club with helping make his undergraduate career the best seven years of his life! He and Olaf established their boat-building operation in Pewaukee, WI to escape the distractions on campus, but while he was here he adapted the MIT Tech dinghy design to create the Badger Tech. He rounded off and sealed the gunwhales, and expanded the bow and transom air tanks to create a boat that rides high in the water even when turtled, and can come up dry when righted.
Our fleet of 45 Badger Techs is our bread and butter. Their simple, cat-rigged design makes them ideal for teaching beginners and getting them rated to take out boats on their own as soon as possible. Often, that's just two, three-hour lessons! The large number of boats means there's usually one available, often fully rigged as another sailor comes in off the water. Their generous design means that you can take a friend out sailing, too. (Indeed, you can take 12 friends or more in the 14-foot boat in one of our "sardine" races.) Though they are heavy, slow boats, they inspire Tech racers from all over the country to return to Madison to race in the Peter Barrett Intergalactic Tech Regatta each October.
Racers don't have to wait for October, though. In fact, the Tech racers get so impatient to sail that they schedule a combined Tech race and fried chicken feast each year before May 1st, the Spring Chicken Regatta. The Tech racing series go all summer with beginner races on Wednesday evening, and advanced races on Friday evening. None of our Techs is particularly new, and some are heavier than others due to fiberglass patches upon patches. If you want to go faster, get there early and pick a light boat! If you can get the maintenance staff to tell you which boats are light, that is...
The twelve Club 420s in the club fleet are much newer and are evenly matched. We have the largest collegiate fleet in the Midwest, I'm told. That's a boon for competitors in the 420 races held each Thursday evening throughout the summer, and for the UW Sailing Team. The undergraduate racers on the Team use the boats to practice multiple times each week during the beginning and end of the school year. Having the boats available draws many fine sailors to the UW-Madison, and the Team often competes at the national level.
We also count ourselves lucky because the Mendota Yacht Club, across the lake from us, hosts the premier Inland 20 scow fleet in the world. (It helps to have Windward Boatworks, the builder, in town.) Many of the I-20 sailors at MYC are former Hoofer sailors, and they generously offer their help with our fleet of four I-20's. We enter and race in MYC races, and occasionally we send a few intrepid Hoofer sailors to national regattas. A core group of E scow sailors also competes in MYC races on club boats, and occasionally we race our J/22's in their cruising fleet races, too.
The buzz around the club this winter centers around the possibility of going to the races with our latest toy: the 30-foot IOR half-tonner Toy Boat, just this autumn donated to the club by Larry Schell. This boat one year placed first in section and second overall in the Chicago-Mackinac race, and another year placed second in section ahead of Soma 3, in sixth place. Weighing in at only 5,600 pounds and with a 51' mast, Toy Boat is far too much boat for 10,000-acre Lake Mendota, but does that stop the Hoofer Sailing Club? Heck, no! We've sailed the 34-foot, 9,500-pound Soma 3 on this lake since she was donated in 1989. In fact, the club instigated a large boat program in 1976, although it didn't get started until 1982 with the donation of a Santa Cruz 33, Maria. Sadly, we lost Maria to a drunken power-boater in 2001, but this year we received donation of not only Toy Boat, but also the live-aboard cruiser Spray, a Soverel 30 donated by long-time club member Prof. Norbert Schmitz. We teach beginners on these boats, which is very much appreciated by people who want to sail big boats, don't want to get wet, or don't have the dexterity or strength for a Tech or a windsurfer.
Beginners or persons with reduced mobility may also start out on our Accessible Sailing boat, an O'Day 23 modified with a seat and belt to hold a person in place as the boat rocks about. Another less physical alternative is the Badger Sloop, which is an 18-foot sloop-rigged boat based on the Interlake design. We have extended the seats to comfortably accommodate 4 crew to a side, and it can seat six on light-wind days. (We also put 12 layers of fiberglass and a chainplate on the bow to make them resistant to repeated pier hits as beginning sailors learn to land them.)
Invariably at our kickoff event at the beginning of the season, a prospective club member will ask, "Is windsurfing included?" Yep! We also teach beginner lessons on windsurfers. Lake Mendota is one of the best places to learn to windsurf, not because of the (oft-fickle) winds, but because of the UW Lifesaving Station. Prompted by a boating accident in the early years of its history, the university has run a rescue service at the Lifesaving Station ever since. If you can't maneuver your board back upwind, they'll send out "Harvey" (nicknamed in honor of a long-time Station director, Harvey C. Black) to pick you up. Many exhausted windsurfers have hitched a lift, many capsized canoeists have been rescued, and many sailors have been observed through the Station's powerful binoculars engaged in activities they thought were private!
We very much encourage such activities, such as taking friends for a sail or picnics on the lake, because the Hoofer Sailing Club is very much a social organization, too. (We have no official policy on the activities you probably were thinking of!) We get together at regular Friday evening cook-outs during the sailing season, and have occasional social events in the off-season. The big special events of the summer are Pirate's Day and Commodore's Cup. For Pirate's Day, teams of sailors compete in a hunt for the lost Treasure of Lake Mendota. Arr, pirate garb required, matey! Commodore's Cup is a full week of crazy events like the Tech sardine race and the All-Fleets Race, with a party each night, culminating at the formal Commodore's Ball.
These social events make all the difference to this club, because it's friendships and fun that inspire people to get involved, and it's these people that make the club work. The Wisconsin Union provides us with work space and a small group of advisors, and the University provides a prime waterfront location, but virtually all of our operating revenues come from membership dues, so we have to keep our costs low. The club officers volunteer all of the time they put in to make a better club for the friends they meet here. Paid instructors get low wages, as do the maintenance shop staff; for them it's a labor of love. The club instructors by and large volunteer their time, just to share the joy of sailing. Instructor Erik Rasmussen once told a group of Tech sailors, about his parking tickets, "I just paid $24 to teach you guys... and it's so worth it!"
It's this extraordinary enthusiasm and dedication of its members that allows the Hoofer Sailing Club to make an extraordinary promise: you can take as many lessons as you need, sail the club boats as often as you like on a wide variety of dinghies, scows, keelboats and windsurfers, and pay only membership dues that are under $200 annually. It's not what you'd expect to find on the Midwestern prairie, but just like cow spots on a boat it works.
Jonathan Gapen is a student at the UW-Madison and commodore of the Hoofer Sailing Club.
For more information,see www.hoofersailing.org or e-mail him at email@example.com.