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

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By John Meyer John Meyer: jmeyer@den­ver­post.com or @john­meyer

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.

Lindsay Pierce, The Den­ver Post

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.

Lindsay Pierce, The Den­ver Post

Ti­bor Van den Wilden­bergh and Erica Cook, the new own­ers of Vic­to­ria Sail­ing School, race their 30-foot sail­boat at Chat­field Reser­voir last week.

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