Smooth Sailing with Hoofers

Inside a seventy-five-year-old Madison tradition

Jul 10, 2014

UW's Hoofer Sailing Club is the second largest inland sailing club in the country.

UW's Hoofer Sailing Club is the second largest inland sailing club in the country.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HOOFER SAILING CLUB

A sixty-two-year-old Canadian analytical statistician and a twenty-year-old Madison-born UW student have something in common.

They’re both part of a seventy-five-year-old club. Their club is transient in nature—it chiefly unites members to practice and learn a specific set of skills. However, it is rich in tradition. Many who join find it hard to leave. Members are often hooked when they’re young and train until they’re of age for full membership.

Twenty-year-old UW student Peter Grimmer is one of those members. He took his first lesson ten years ago and now he’s in charge. Grimmer is the commodore of the Hoofer Sailing Club, the second largest inland sailing club in the country. The club sits on Lake Mendota, just west of the Memorial Union Terrace. The sailing club is one of six Hoofer clubs at UW–Madison, each centered on different outdoor recreational activities.

“I just really love the sport of sailing,” Grimmer says. He races on the UW Sailing Team, teaches sailing lessons in the summer and heads the club as the commodore, managing a budget of $500,000. He shares his passion for sailing with nearly 1,200 other members. 

“This is heaven to me,” says Georges Sutton, the sixty-two-year-old Canadian sailor, who joined just two years ago. He raced sailboats for over thirty years prior to joining, but says he’s never seen anything quite like Hoofers.

“The most unique thing about Hoofers is that there’s such a low barrier to access the sport,” says Grimmer, sitting in full sun on the deck above the newly renovated Hoofers office. Hoofer Sailing Club members are dodging sunbathers to land boats at the docks below, skimming the surface of Lake Mendota on windsurfing boards (the club offers lessons for those too) and standing in line at the Brat Stand, dripping wet with life jackets slung over their shoulders.

“Sailing is often a rich, white person sport,” Grimmer says. Typical yacht clubs require steep membership fees, additional fees for lessons and members must own a boat to sail. With a Hoofer sailing membership, students, university staff and Wisconsin Union members receive unlimited sailing lessons and access to about 140 boats and sailboards. Due to volunteer involvement and student leadership, the cost of membership is low compared to most other yacht clubs. Plus, once members become certified to sail a type of boat, they can take it out on the lake at any time during club hours.

“You can be an absolute beginner,” Grimmer says. All new Hoofers members first take a ground school class, an introduction to sailing class and then typically start out sailing small boats called techs. “If you have enough drive, you can become a great sailor here,” Grimmer says. In fact, past Hoofer Sailing Club members have won Olympic gold medals, coached Olympic sailing teams and entered the Collegiate Sailing Hall of Fame at the US Naval Academy.

Once members master the techs, they can move on to learn how to sail up to fifteen different types of watercrafts, including racers, windsurfing boards and the larger keelboats anchored offshore.

“There’s an insane diversity of boats considering the lake we’re on,” Grimmer says, walking through the different fleets of boats along the lake. At dusk, a deep steam whistle blows, signaling for sailors to return to shore.

On land, club activities continue. Every Friday night, the club hosts socials with food, music and drinks. “It’s almost like a fraternity or sorority,” Grimmer says. Many members join for the social aspect of the club. In addition to Friday night socials, the club hosts events for members and nonmembers year round.

In one July event, when the hot summer air is stagnant, sailors divide into teams to compete in races and quirky contests for nine days to win the Commodore’s Cup. Teams must sail boats overloaded with passengers, attempt to land boats without breaking eggs taped to the bow, and compete in greased watermelon competitions, among other contests. “It’s to blow off steam and do silly stuff,” Grimmer explains. On the final day, the cup is awarded to the winning team at the Commodore’s Ball.

Just like the club, anyone can join in. Beginners, experts and sailors young and old compete for the cup. The club lures in quite a few new members through the contest, according to Grimmer.

The beauty of Hoofers is, as Sutton puts it, “There is no race, culture or age demarcation at all. We just all love to sail.”

For more information or to become a member, visit hoofersailing.org. Hoofer Sailing also offers a youth program for children ages 10-18 to learn how to sail, kayak, canoe, and windsurf. To learn more about the Hoofer Youth Program visit hooferyouth.org.

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