The sailboat was close enough to the shore that you could hear it: the “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” Complete with the accompanying hand gestures.
Credit Werner Meybaum, a retired computer engineer who offers free rides on his sailboat every evening that the weather cooperates.
Make that almost free.
Riders have to be willing to sing, and Meybaum loves kids’ songs, especially “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
“Deep inside all of us is a child that wants to come out and play,” he explained. “When we start singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ I see a joy come out on their faces. That inner child in all of us appears. Magic has happened.”
It just so happens that Magic is the name of his boat.
Meybaum and the Rev. Bill Morton, a retired United Methodist minister, are the driving force — along with the wind, of course — of Sailing Lake Calhoun. This is the eighth summer that they have given rides on their boats.
Their website promises “no strings attached, no hidden agenda.” Their motivation is simple: They want to spread the joy they get from sailing to everyone they can.
“I’ve discovered how much fun it is to share something you love with other people,” Morton said.
There is no set schedule. The rides typically start in the late afternoon and last until sunset. They usually last 20 to 30 minutes, although no one is watching the clock. If there are a lot of people waiting, the trips will be shorter. If it’s a quiet night, the boat will stay out longer.
Would-be riders gather on the boat dock at the Lake Calhoun pavilion. Sometimes they flag down the sailboat, other times the offer comes as a surprise.
Beth Steuer and Kaitlin Sikich were sitting on the dock with a couple of out-of-town visitors — Andrew Schlicksup of Phoenix and Sarah Sweeney from Milwaukee — when Meybaum swooped in next to them on his boat and asked if they wanted to go for a ride.
“I’d heard rumors about this but I didn’t know it actually happened,” Steuer admitted.
“This would happen only in Minnesota,” Schlicksup said.
Two men, one mission
Meybaum, 74, is an effusive man who, once you’ve met him, will greet you with the kind of robust hug normally reserved for a long-lost friend. Morton, 81, is quieter but equally friendly, one of those people who remembers everyone’s name after just one handshake.
Their philosophies differ. You “ride” with Meybaum, but you “sail” with Morton.
Meybaum pilots a large, heavy boat that holds up to eight adults, who sit in a sunken cockpit low enough that no one has to duck when the boat changes direction and the boom on the sail comes whizzing overhead. Passengers are encouraged to sit back and relax — at least until Meybaum decides that it’s time to start singing.
Morton, on the other hand, offers a more active ride. His boat, Wind Dancer, is a smaller, lighter craft that will hold only two other people. The trip begins with a quick lecture about how the passengers are going to have to help by ducking under the boom and scrambling to the other side of the boat as a counterbalance against the wind every time it “comes about” (sailing jargon for changing direction).
Morton also doesn’t sing on his boat. He does philosophize, however, about how zigzagging across the lake is like navigating life.
“If you want go straight ahead, get a motorboat,” he said. “Sailboats go with the wind, and sometimes the wind isn’t blowing the exact direction you want to go, so you adjust. That’s what happens in life, too.”
Morton jokingly claims that he was shanghaied into offering rides.
“I noticed that Werner always had passengers with him, but I had no idea where they were coming from,” he said. “Then one day, I was pulling up to the dock in my boat, and Werner was offering two people a ride. He said to them, ‘I don’t have enough room in my boat for you, but Bill will take you.’ How was I supposed to back out of that? So I said, ‘OK, I will.’ ”
One thing that Meybaum and Morton have in common — beyond their passion for sailing, of course — is a gentle presence. They’re “very unthreatening,” is the way Morton puts it.
There’s something about going up to complete strangers and asking if they want to go for a ride that smacks of unsavory shenanigans. They get some strange looks, Morton said, but once people realize that they’re trustworthy, most folks are eager to climb aboard.
Creating new memories
For Meybaum, offering sailboat rides is a form of karmic payback and a way of reconnecting with a childhood in which happiness was all too fleeting.
The first five years of his life “were made in heaven. I grew up on a farm in East Prussia. But then the war [World War II] shut down my childhood.”
He was separated from the rest of his family for six months — something that left him battling separation anxiety for most of his life, he said — before finally being reunited in a refugee camp where he would spend the next 10 years.
When he was 17, he was sitting with a friend watching sailboats ply Aussenalster Lake in Hamburg, West Germany.
“We were wondering to ourselves how the boats could sail into the wind as well as with the wind,” he said. “We went up to this stranger — which took a lot of courage in Germany in those days, a lot of courage — and asked if we could go for a ride. And he said, ‘Sure, jump in.’ ”
Meybaum, who emigrated to the United States when he was 19 and ended up in the Twin Cities when he married a Minnesotan, describes that afternoon as “about the only joyful memory of my childhood after we left the farm in East Prussia.”
Morton’s introduction to sailing was less traumatic. He was just trying to avoid hurting his family’s feelings.
“My wife and three sons went in together to buy me sailing lessons for a birthday present,” he said. “I thought, ‘What do I need with sailing lessons?’ But I took them. I discovered that sailing is infectious — and I got infected.”
The Lake Calhoun sailing community has rallied around them, especially after Meybaum suffered a stroke — his second — last year. They’ve donated equipment and helped pay the buoy fee for his boat. James Michelau, John Hart and Devlin Shaughnessy, among others, will take people out on Magic if Meybaum isn’t able, while others, like Aaron Kontz, follow Morton’s lead and offer rides on their own boats.
Michelau, Hart, Shaughnessy and Kontz all had their very first sailboat rides for free, courtesy of Meybaum, of course.
All they had to do was sing.