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Gull Lake Yacht Club rededicates itself to sailing promotion, education

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Bennett Day (left), Hayden Regberg, Taylor Jensen, Jackson Medeck, Lillie Lord Anderson and KK Lord Anderson sail during a lesson on Gull Lake. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)2 / 9
Gull Lake Yacht Club and Gull Lake Sailing School sign3 / 9
Sailing instructor Leo Driessen explains the meaning of various signal flags during a rainy sailing lesson at the Gull Lake Sailing School. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)4 / 9
KK Lord Anderson (left) and Lillie Lord Anderson sail during lessons on Gull Lake. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)5 / 9
Bennett Day sails during lessons on Gull Lake. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)6 / 9
Sailing instructor Leo Driessen explains the meaning of various signal flags during a rainy sailing lesson at the Gull Lake Sailing School. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video)7 / 9
Hayden Regberg (front left), Jackson Medeck, KK Lord Anderson (back left) and Lillie Lord Anderson learn indoors during a rainy sailing lesson at the Gull Lake Sailing School. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Vide8 / 9
Gull Lake Fun Regatta9 / 9

In 1947, a group of boat-loving people got together on Gull Lake with the promotion of sailing in mind, and to that end they created the Gull Lake Yacht Club and the Gull Lake Sailing School.

"The purpose of the yacht club in the beginning was to perpetuate sailing on this lake and to provide friendships surrounding water sports, specifically sailing at that point," said Cheryl Cote, former commodore and former head of the sailing school board.

This year, the club decided to distance itself from some of the distractions that developed over the years and rededicate itself to sailing by merging with the school. Many previous events led to this decision.

It started with the club property, located at the end of Love Lake Road north of Brainerd.

"Some people on Gull Lake had a vision to have this kind of be a get-together place to meet people on the lake and keep sailing on Gull Lake and teach people to sail," said former club Commodore D.J. Dondelinger.

"The early commodores were all sailors," said Cote. "That's how the organization started. Sailing was big on Gull Lake in 1947 to the '50s."

The club was primarily the place where sailors and enthusiasts went for sailing races. Wanting to keep the tradition of sailing going, the founders also started the sailing school at around the same time to pass on the knowledge and love of sailing to children and people moving to the area. The classes included everything from knot tying, wind reading and boating safety to swimming lessons.

"I learned to sail there when I was a kid," Dondelinger said. "I have been a member my whole life. I grew up next door so I went there for swimming lessons and met a lot of my good friends there. It was a little building. It was fun. I would go over there and learn to sail. I can still tie a bowline and a square knot because of the yacht club. You learn all of the boating rules way better than you would in boating safety (classes), it's not even a contest. You understand right away."

During his youth, Dondelinger said there was racing at the yacht club on Wednesdays and Saturdays whenever the weather was right.

Early on the club began hosting regattas, including the annual August Fun Regatta. Dondelinger said in those days many boats showed up to race at the regatta.

"I remember when the regatta would fill up half of Love Lake with sailboats," Dondelinger said.

Through the club's history many things have changed. Motorized watercraft have become more common and perhaps more popular due to their simplicity, and the club became a place for social gatherings of non-sailing members. New people on the lake got to know their neighbors by joining the club, even if they had no sailing interests.

The club was as much about networking as it was about sailing and had members from many local business families like the Cote, Mills, Dondelinger and Driessen families. During that time, student numbers fluctuated regularly from eight- to nine-student classes in early years to more.

"As the sailing school evolved, the yacht club's purpose was to get people involved to help grow the sailing school," said Mary Jetland, past yacht club board member and current sailing school board member. "The yacht club was a way to get people to come and get together and help support buying boats, hosting regattas and people coming in and volunteering. These races take a lot of volunteers."

At the school's high point there were as many as 75 students per summer; at low points it was much fewer.

"It's gone up and down, really," said Jetland. "When I was involved in the '70s it had gone through a dip, and then there were a ton of families again and a lot of boats in the annual regatta. It's kind of gone down a little again and now it's starting to come back up. It's had cycles over the years."

The club's focus also shifted over the years. Promotion of sailing remained an important goal, but club members had their attention split among many other things, including the many events hosted to fund the sailing school. With that goal in mind, the club eventually opted to construct a new building for social gatherings. The group also hoped the building could help provide funds through rentals for weddings and other events.

The decision backfired.

Maintenance of sprinkler systems, expenses for taxes and building construction all resulted in serious, unexpected burdens.

"When the yacht club built the new facility on Gull Lake, one of the things that they thought would be beneficial for the club would be to allow the facility to be used for weddings and parties and events with the hope that would help sustain the club and sailing school and pay for the asset," Jetland said. "Over time we realized we don't have a staff. We are not set up to operate in that kind of environment. We really looked at it as a distraction from our mission of sailing more than anything. It had definite tax ramifications for the club that weren't sustainable."

It didn't help that the new facility was constructed in the middle of the 2008 recession. To make matters more difficult, the club lost members during that time due to financial burdens.

"Stuff like that just broke it," Dondelinger said.

In an area where there are many charities, nonprofit clubs and children's athletic teams requesting money from the same people, a "social club" on Gull Lake didn't rank high on people's priority lists, Dondelinger said.

"There's a lot of places to put that money," he said.

The club needed to make changes, and the board determined that going back to its roots was the best option.

"We really took a look and did some strategic planning for the two organizations and determined what we need to do is to take the yacht club back to its focus on hosting regattas," Jetland said.

The club voted in favor of transferring all its properties to the Gull Lake Sailing School. The transfer simplified operation, reduced costs and eliminated several distractions.

"People can now support it with a tax-deductible donation," Cote said. "We hope that model, long term, will be a good change and an improvement for the overall financial situation for the club. We are out of debt. We've come so far in three years. We really have. That's great, so what we are trying to do now is set ourselves up to be fully sustainable and grow the club and grow sailing again."

"All of the property was transferred to the nonprofit Gull Lake Sailing School," Jetland said. "There is a new board that has been developed and they will be responsible for activities of the sailing school. They will be responsible for growing the sailing school in the future. That is a desire. At this time, in the future we may look to how we can utilize the facility for other things in the community. For right now, we are simplifying a lot of things before we move forward and figure out in what way we can enhance water sports, water safety and water education."

The club still operates on a social level, and there are still non-sailing members, but the school, sailing and racing are the motivation for all of the club's operations again.

"Now, what's old is new again," Cote said. "We're going back to the basic form where the members have more of an active role in the parties and social circuit of the club. We're not making big, formal parties anymore. We are doing the smaller get-togethers that the members put on. We still do the big summer fundraisers so we can make larger amounts for the Gull Lake Sailing School. Then our spring opening party and the regatta will still continue to go on."

Part of going back to the club's roots includes reviving local interest in sailing in an age where electronics keep people indoors on sunny days and many people seem to prefer the simplicity of motorized watercraft. At this time, the club is attracting a growing number of students to the school through the affordability of classes and the availability of scholarships.

"It's a great thing," Dondelinger said. "I think a lot of people don't know it's available to them and inexpensive. You don't have to have your own sailing boat."

"They don't have to own a sailboat," Cote said. "We provide them, they just need to bring a life vest."

Many board members with the sailing school would like to see local schools work together to form sailing teams.

"There are 14 high schools in the Twin Cities that have sailing teams," Cote said. "There are kids getting scholarships around the country for sailing. We feel like we can tap into the kids here. Ski Gull has grown their Alpine ski club to 100 kids. In the Cities, a lot of the skiers love to sail. We'd love to reach out to more groups like that to get a lot of the local kids involved and even look at if we could look into a high school program some day. We aren't there yet because we are still getting things restructured."

"A lot of the schools in the Cities have cooperative programs, so you could have Crosby, Brainerd, Pillager and Pequot together as one program," Jetland said. "They would need to get that affiliated with the Minnesota State High School League. I believe it is a full blown letter in the Cities now. That would really take some local people to champion that. We know there are some local people in the community that might be interested."

In addition to providing outdoor fun on the lake, Cote, Jetland and Dondelinger say sailing teaches countless valuable life skills and lessons that students can use elsewhere. Dondelinger said sailing improves confidence and teaches a rock-solid understanding of boater safety laws. Cote and Jetland said sailing not only improves teamwork and social skills but teaches spatial awareness and physics. Involvement in the school and club tends to have a lifelong impact that students can take with them wherever they go, even on vacation.

"The sailing school is terrific," Dondelinger said. "I think it's a really great thing. I have no problem going to the Bahamas and renting a sailboat. I learned it all on Gull Lake. There aren't a lot of people with that confidence and knowledge. The only reason I have it is because of the Gull Lake Sailing School."

The Gull Lake Sailing School hosts classes from late June to early August for students ages 6 and up.

• Organization: Gull Lake Yacht Club/Sailing School.

• City: Rural Brainerd.

• Number of members: Approximately 15 volunteers and four paid instructional staff.

• Interesting fact: The Gull Lake Sailing School is open to people who don't have any sailing experience, a boat or a residence on the lake. The school provides boats so anyone can learn to sail.

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