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Club makes sailing more affordable for Montanans.

Laurie Simms wants to bring the joys of sailing out of the world of the well-heeled and into the realm of Montana’s Roper-wearing residents.

The Capital High School government and social studies teacher understands that most Montanans not only are too busy to maintain a boat, but they also don’t have an extra $2,500 to $15,000 lying around the house to purchase a personal yacht on a whim. So he’s come up with a deal that’s almost too good for wanna-be sailors to refuse:

For $700 per year per family, Simms will provide one of six sailboats, ranging in size from 18 to 20 feet, for a guaranteed 10 days, and up to as many additional trips a person wants based upon the availability of the boats. The cost also covers as many lessons as people feel they need, and the boats can be used for racing or cruising, from morning until night. There’s no slip fees (those usually run about $450), no insurance (about $200) and no storage, launching or maintenance hassles.

“You pick the 10 days and those are yours,” Simms said one balmy June morning, sitting at the helm of his boat as he tugged on a line (there are no ropes in sailing) to swing the jib (the front sail) around to take advantage of the slight breeze. “Then, if you called me tonight and said you have comp time tomorrow and you want to go sailing, I’d set you right up. … You can come out after work with another couple and eat some hors d’oeuvres, drink some wine and sail for a few hours in the evening; come out with the kids and cruise around, then have a picnic on Cemetery Island.

“It’s not a demanding activity; it’s relaxing,” he adds, giving a little pull on the genoa sheet (the mainsail). “Unless the conditions are really wild, it’s not dangerous. The most dangerous part is the two minutes it takes to motor in and out of the slip.”

For those who aren’t ready to make the $700 commitment, Simms will take them out for a free introductory cruise — which usually just serves to whet the appetite.

“It’s kind of addicting, isn’t it,” he says with a knowing smile.

Simms came up with the idea for the True North Sailing Club about four years ago, and launched the business a year later with 12 members. Last year that number grew to 18, and he expects between 20 to 25 families, couples or single people to sign up this year.

“The theory is that boating is expensive; the wind is free but the boats are not,” Simms said. “The club allows someone to learn how to sail, and they get to experience sailing. It’s also an opportunity for someone to decide whether to make the major investment of buying their own boat.”

Simms looks more like a scholar than a sailor, but don’t let that fool you. He fell in love with sailing 25 years ago, when he and his wife, Marlene — a Capital High School science and math teacher — borrowed a boat from a dealer in Missoula and went sailing on Flathead Lake with another couple. The Simmses moved to Australia, where Laurie got a job making fiberglass sailboats, but back in the states he found that instead of being a profitable business, he actually was losing money. So he took a middle management job in Missoula, then resigned and went back to school to earn his teaching certificate. The couple moved to Helena in 1993, and the Simms began sailing some of his boats on Canyon Ferry Reservoir.

Simms laughs and shares a bit of family history after swearing his boatmates to secrecy. He agreed only to divulge publicly that his great-great-great-grandfather was a ship builder in Nova Scotia, as was his great-great-grandfather and great-grandfather.

“So I guess boats are in my blood,” he said.

These days, of course, boat building is much easier. Simms compares making fiberglass sailboats to making Jell-O — “You just mix it up and put it in a mold.”

They’re also easy to maintain and, with 740 pounds of ballast in the keel, they’re hard to flip — or “turtle,” as Simms says.

He gives prospective sailors a copy of the “U.S. Sailing Basic Keelboat” to read, which covers general terms, equipment and etiquette. Once on the boat, everyone gets a safety run-through and a tour, where they can connect the terms with the equipment. Then it’s a hands-on lesson, with Simms allowing his students to make mistakes in order to learn, and he’s not worried if they scuff the side or hit the dock a bit too hard.

“I’ve had people put sails on wrong or other missteps, but ultimately they figure it out,” Simms said. “Usually, the most people need are three lessons. There really isn’t that much to learn. Sailing is like golf; you can learn the basics in three or four lessons, but you will never master it.”

And like golf, while sailing once was seen as an elitist activity, the non-caviar class is embracing it more and more often.

Simms notes that the True North Sailing Club members include a government worker, a banker, a doctor — “but he went and bought his own boat” — a couple of nurses, a teacher and even a rancher.

“He showed up in his boots the first time,” Simms said about the rancher. “I just said ‘Hmmm.’ But he was just looking. The next time, he came in tennis shoes.

“We have a lot of couples in the club, several families and a lot of husbands whose wives don’t have the big drive to sail yet — I think they’re hoping that as they learn, the wives will come about.”

Reporter Eve Byron can be reached at 447-4076 or by e-mail at eve.byron@helenair.com.

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