Jim Cook has spent 30 years running a sailing school at the Chatfield Reservoir.
Jim Cook has spent 30 years running a sailing school at the reservoir
Given that Jim Cook spent a decade sailing the East Coast and the Caribbean after graduating from college, and that he spent his entire adult life in the sport — seeing whales give birth, sailing out of a hurricane on one occasion, breaking a leg miles out to sea on another — one might think an evening of casual racing on a reservoir 900 miles from the nearest ocean wouldn’t do much to excite him.
But after 30 years of running the Victoria Sailing School at Chatfield Reservoir — a business he is now transitioning to one of his daughters and her fiancé — his zeal for the sailing life remains keen and infectious.
“It’s got nothing to do with location,” says Cook, 67. “It’s passion.”
The countless miles he sailed to reach this moment — a beautiful evening on a man-made lake 5,400 feet above sea level, racing his 30-footer along with more than two dozen other boats against the backdrop of a stunning sunset — frame a remarkable life.
Cook didn’t come to sailing because his family had money and a slip at the yacht club to park their pleasure vessel. Far from it. Cook grew up on a potato farm in Ontario then spent two years working in an underground silver mine north of the Arctic Circle when he was in college to save up for a share of his first boat. And he had never been on one.
The surface area of Chatfield Reservoir is less than 3 square miles, but if sea gulls and pelicans can find it — and they do — why wouldn’t it be a perfectly good place to sail?
“Do people ski in Chicago? Are there little hills just outside of Chicago?” Cook asks rhetorically. The answer, of course, is yes.
“You rotate the scenario and this is not that strange. The largest ski club in the country is in Miami, isn’t it? People enjoy a sport, they need a fix, they use what they have.”
If Chatfield wasn’t a good place to sail, he wouldn’t have been successful running a sailing school there for three decades. He moved his school there from Victoria, British Columbia, after meeting a Denver woman he would later marry. There was an oil boom going on, and he knew a lot of people from Calgary and Edmonton in Alberta were buying boats, so he figured Denver would be a good bet. It was.
“In Victoria, British Columbia, I would have four or five coastal navigation students,” Cook says. “The first time I held a coastal navigation class here, I had 65 students. It was pretty instantaneous.”
A sailor’s tale
It’s a long way from Nova Scotia, where this sailor’s story begins. It happened that when he went to college at the University of Western Ontario, he became friends with some rich kids who wanted to buy a boat and sail the Mediterranean after graduation.
“It was the ’60s,” Cook recalls. “Everybody in those days started hitchhiking around Europe. These guys weren’t going to hitchhike, they were going to buy a boat and do the Med.”
He was convinced their plan would never come to fruition, but they found a boat, a wooden 50-footer that leaked. Each of the four was to come up with $5,000 Canadian. Dads wrote checks for the other three. Cook went to work in the silver mine, taking correspondence courses to finish college, hitting the books while the other miners spent their spare time playing poker.
After graduation they took possession of the boat and started sailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Six months later Cook went home to help his dad with the potato harvest, thinking he was never going back to the boat because two of the guys weren’t getting along. Soon those two wanted out, walking away from the boat and leaving it up to Cook and the fourth guy to find a buyer.
“We tried really hard to sell that boat for nine years,” Cook says facetiously.
Soon they were making a living through sailing. They got involved doing “professional deliveries,” sailing other people’s boats for them up and down the East Coast, northward in the spring, southward in the fall.
“There’s an industry where people drive boats,” Cook explains. “Once you get known for driving a boat and not wrecking it between Point A and Point B, the work is fairly straightforward.”
This went on for nine years. He delivered boats to the Mediterranean. He broke his leg when he got hit by a turnbuckle and had to crawl around the boat for three days until getting to shore. When he was ready to stop sailing full time, he moved to Victoria, became an instructor and started the sailing school.
From student to wife
Victoria is about halfway between Vancouver and Seattle, and that’s where he met a woman from Denver named Kathy Jakelsky. She’d come to British Columbia to kayak on vacation, saw a brochure about his sailing school and decided to take a class. And, well …
“Do I really have to explain this to you?” Cook says, ever the kidder.
“She was quite the party animal back then,” daughter Erica chimes in.
That’s the short story of how the Victoria Sailing School wound up on a reservoir built by the Army Corps of Engineers in Colorado about the same time Cook was learning how to navigate by sexton and compass. Later, Cook added Colorado Watersports, which offers day camps for kids in dinghies, paddleboards and kayaks. At the sailing school, adults can learn racing, navigation, even engine repair and maintenance.
Erica and her sister grew up in Morrison. Vacations when they were kids meant major sailing trips overseas with Jim and Kathy on rented boats. Now Jim is ready for retirement. Erica’s fiancé, Tibor Van den Wildenbergh, recently moved here from Canada to learn the family business with her.
“Growing up and watching him do it,” Erica says, “it was like, ‘My dad is Captain James Cook, that’s cool, I help him put stamps on envelopes and I help clean boats.’ Now that I’m learning and I’m taking over, it’s 5,000 times bigger than I could have ever imagined when I was little.”
On this night, Van den Wildenbergh — a native of Belgium who moved to Canada when he was 7 — is at the helm of Cook’s 30-footer racing in the Wednesday night summer racing series while Cook calls out instructions. Van den Wildenbergh has played on Belgium’s national lacrosse team.
“I’m an athlete, so I’m taking it as, ‘I get to go racing every Wednesday and I get to go fast,’ ” he says. “This boat is the fastest on the lake. If we sail it well and we’ve got a good wind, we’ll win everything. … If I can get this excited about coming out to race and learning how to sail, why not turn that passion into the business?”
After the sun sets, the boat is back in its slip and night falls on the lake, Cook is off with another story, explaining how the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Current off Cape Hatteras, warm water meeting cold, which attracts all sorts of marine life. “We would sneak up on whales when they were sleeping …”
So many great stories, captain James Cook has.
Jim Cook helps to guide one of the Victoria Sailing School’s boats at Chatfield Reservoir in a race last week. “It’s passion,” Cook says of sailing.
Tibor Van den Wildenbergh and Erica Cook, the new owners of Victoria Sailing School, race their 30-foot sailboat at Chatfield Reservoir last week.