ON LAKE SUPERIOR, near Duluth, Minn. – Jerry Paulson had just maneuvered his sailboat under the Aerial Lift Bridge and out the Duluth Ship Canal, then steered slightly toward the North Shore.
Then he cut the little diesel motor on 32-foot Aeolos and unfurled its main sail.
"That's the second best sound on a sailboat," Paulson said, as the chug-chug motor noise gave way to the soft sounds of breeze filling the sails, water lapping against the big sailboat's hull, and almost nothing else (the first best sound on a sailboat is the engine starting if you need it in an emergency).
Now, we were really sailing, something Paulson has been doing on Lake Superior for 45 years, and something he can't get out of his blood.
"The first place I ever sailed was when I was travelling in Yugoslavia," said Paulson, a Hinckley native who first came to Duluth to attend University of Minnesota Duluth and then stayed. "When I came back to Minnesota and moved out to Park Point, I wanted to try sailing. So I got a little 11-foot plastic- covered Styrofoam sailboat and started teaching myself how to sail ... That was 1973 and I'm still doing it."
Paulson said it's best to learn on little sailboats because if you make a mistake "you get slapped a little and you end up in the water," he said. "These big boats are very forgiving, very easy to operate compared to the little ones."
Paulson has owned several boats between that first one and the Aeolos (a name that's a loose interpretation of an ancient Greek god who provided wind to mariners.) The retired jewelry smith has been chartering for 12 years, hitting about 75 trips each year. He gets a mix of out-of-town tourists and local customers, many of whom bring visiting friends or family to see the big lake up close and personal.
Compared to the tourists who watched us from shore as we sailed through the ship canal, Paulson's customers "probably have a little more time, maybe a little more money to spend" on a real treat.
"It's almost always someone doing something nice for themselves or a friend or a family member," Paulson said.
That includes Tammy Goodale of Duluth, who books at least one trip each summer with Paulson. She was out with three friends and two newspaper people on a recent July afternoon awash with sunshine and a favorable breeze.
Goodale said she likes to paddle kayaks, and ride in other boats, but there's something special about sailing.
"I love the quietness, the waves. It's exhilarating yet relaxing, if that makes sense," Goodale said. "I think it's one of the most spiritual, exhilarating sports there is ... This is like washing your brain. Everything else goes away."
Goodale's friend, Cathy Coffman of Duluth, had to pay a little more attention for part of the trip. Paulson picked her out to steer the boat for a while.
"Oh my gosh, this is great. I get to drive. This is so cool!" she exclaimed, quickly advancing from jerky, over-corrective turns to a mostly straight course.
Many Northlanders may not know that charter sailboats are available in the Twin Ports. The sailing captains tend to have a lower-profile than charter fishing boats often seen coming and going under the Lift Bridge.
"When I got into it no one else was doing it. Now, there's a couple others. If you ask me there should be a dozen of us chartering every day all summer. I don't understand why it's not more popular," Paulson said.
Paulson hears a lot about the visual beauty in sailing – the water and the sky and the shore and how they meet on the horizon. But it's also a cerebral thing, like figuring out how to position the boat and the sails to take full advantage of whatever wind is offered. Like "tacking" the boat upwind, something most first-timers find astounding.
"I'm a lazy guy at heart. Sailing upwind in a 12,000-pound boat this effortlessly ... It's like coasting a bike uphill with seven people on it," he noted.
It seems like you shouldn't be able to sail this fast against the wind, but we were.
"We're out here on a beautiful day riding on the waves and we can still eat, drink, talk, socialize." he added. "You can think about something or you can think about nothing. The distractions go away."
Almost no one has ever expressed disappointment after spending a few hours on Lake Superior powered by the wind.
"On most days we can get out on the lake, and that's what most people want. They want to go out under the Lift Bridge and be on Lake Superior," Paulson said. "For people who haven't seen it before, seeing the city from out on the water is really an amazing experience."
Even for those of us who have seen the skyline often from the water, the view from the boat is breathtaking.
On our afternoon excursion we got to see the Mesabi Miner up close as the 1,000-foot Great Lakes freighter powered toward the Duluth entry. We later saw that Federal Asahi, a salty taking on grain in the Duluth harbor, up close. In between we saw kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders as well as several charter fishing boats, but only a few other sailboats.
"I don't think as many people are sailing as there used to be," Paulson lamented. "And they're missing so much out here."