St. Croix River sailor rediscovers his childhood passion for sailing.
For the third straight summer, J.R. Hunter is spending as much time as possible on his 34-foot Catalina sailboat, docked at Bayport Marina. Hunter lives in northeast Minneapolis and works in downtown Minneapolis as a Hennepin County security supervisor, but this time of year he lives on the boat. He is pursuing a lifelong love of sailing, following fond memories and chasing a dream.
Hunter spent part of his childhood in New Orleans, he went sailing on Lake Pontchartrain. He got his first extended experience with sailing on a trip from New Orleans to Clearwater, Fla., and in the British Virgin Islands.
He always enjoyed sailing but didn’t take it up himself until a few years ago when he turned 49 and underwent a reassessment. Hunter says, “I asked myself, ‘Why do I work so hard?’” About that time, hearing his favorite genre of music, “yacht rock,” on the radio brought back happy childhood memories of sailing.
“I remembered sailing in the Gulf and knew it would be an affordable way to go,” Hunter says.
In July of 2016, Hunter Googled “sailing classes” and found Sail Away Sailing School, which offers classes on the St. Croix River, Lake Minnetonka and in the Virgin Islands. He immediately signed up for three classes—one that September on the St. Croix River and an eight-day sailing class in the British Virgin Islands the following March–April.
Completing each course involved a 100-question test, with 80 correct answers required to pass.
Including airline tickets, he says the classes represented a $3,500 investment, but Hunter believes it was definitely worth it.
In May 2017, he rented a slip at Bayport Marina—before he even owned a boat. He bought his boat in St. Louis on June 1, 2017.
One of the things he enjoys about sailing is the intellectual challenge. “It has a really high ‘ceiling’ for education. I could sail for 40 years and still not know it all,” Hunter says.
Joan Gilmore, owner of Sail Away Sailing School, was impressed by Hunter’s enthusiasm for learning to sail at her chartering course in the Virgin Islands. Most of her students don’t go “all-in” so quickly, she says. “I was surprised when he bought a cruising boat so quickly after finishing the class,” Gilmore says. “He seemed to fall in love with it fast.”
Because Hunter’s boat is “very well-equipped,” he says, Gilmore’s sailing school uses it for their docking class and its coastal cruising class. Gilmore was impressed by the LED lights Hunter installed just above the water, around the inside of his slip for precision nighttime docking.
With a cockpit that seats 12, two bedrooms, a galley and bathroom, the boat has plenty of room—it also has central air conditioning and central heat. With friends onboard, Hunter likes to drop anchor in the “south lake” part of the river (south of I-94) and go swimming or barbecue. He also looks to show movies, projected on the main sail, to create “a very unique experience,” he says.
Hunter likes the 34-foot boat, as it’s relatively easy to sail. “It’s head sail-driven; I can just put the head sail out and sail on that alone. It makes single-hand solo sailing easier,” Hunter says. For those times when the wind isn’t blowing, the boat has a three-cylinder, low-horsepower diesel engine. Traffic on the river can get crazy, but Hunter enjoys the busyness of it, especially seeing everyone having fun.
Hunter is planning to retire in a few years, eventually hoping to sail around the world, putting his training and Caribbean sailing experience to work.
“It’s the cheapest way to see the world,” Hunter says.