PEPIN, Wis. – The wind blew cold across the dark, dull waters of Lake Pepin last weekend.
But David Sheridan had loved the lake in its moods.
So the people who loved him most bundled up, boarded their boats and sailed past the bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” on the breakwater to say their farewells.
Captain Dave was a gregarious 61-year-old skipper who ran sailboat tours around Lake Pepin and owned a wine and coffee bar here, where the Mississippi River stretches wide between the Minnesota and Wisconsin shores.
Half a year ago, Sheridan set out on a sunset sail and vanished.
“It’s a kind of joyful challenge,” Sheridan once said of sailing. He was narrating a promotional video for his business, Sail Pepin, and explaining the joy he’d found in “living where you want to live and doing work that you love.”
Lake Pepin is especially beautiful at sunset, he explained in the video.
“We have what I call Pepin’s sunset winds. About half an hour before the sun sets and for about a half-hour after it sets, the wind comes up and it’s just beautiful,” he said. “Along with the ambience of the sunset you get some really superb sailing.”
You catch a glimpse of that beauty in a photo a friend snapped of him on the evening of April 28. He was gliding across the water on his 31-foot sailboat Dragonfly, its sails glowing gold against the darkening water.
The next morning, they found the Dragonfly aground on the Minnesota shoreline. It would take many more months of anguished searching before they recovered Captain Dave.
It’s not clear what mishap or misfortune sent him into the water that evening. To the grieving friends and family scattering rose petals on the lake last week, how he died was far less important than how he lived.
He was a son, a brother, a friend, a life coach, a free spirit and the beating heart of this small community. Everyone had a Captain Dave story: the way he used to take every eighth-grader in Pepin sailing each year; the tours he led everywhere from the Caribbean to the Apostle Islands; the woman who met him and walked away declaring that she’d just met the “Peter Pan of Pepin.”
He loved to sail, he loved to tell stories, he loved to dance, he loved to laugh. When he went missing, the fundraiser set up to raise $10,000 for the search raised $21,000 instead.
“He’s going to be well missed,” said Bruce Christianson, a fellow charter captain and Sheridan’s friend of more than two decades. A few years ago, he took a photo of Sheridan skippering the Dragonfly on a brilliant blue day, with his second sailboat, Messenger, following close behind. “He was such a gregarious, happy guy. He had a good way about him.”
Many of Sheridan’s college classmates were on the lake last weekend, trading four decades’ worth of stories about their funny, fearless friend who never ended up using that political science degree he earned at the University of Minnesota.
His decision to work as a life coach — taking corporate teams out on the lake and turning a sailing lesson into a teambuilding exercise — amused friends at first. His life seemed like one long, spontaneous adventure.
Then again, if you were trying to follow your dreams, you couldn’t ask for a better guide. When Sheridan made up his mind to own his own sailboat and open a bar at the Pepin Marina within five years, he found a way to make it happen in two. He had just added a third sailboat to his businesses and had been eagerly looking forward to the start of the 2018 tour season.
Sheridan still loved a spontaneous adventure, and no one was surprised when he didn’t show up at his bar, the Breakwater, that evening in April, for a community storytelling event he’d organized.
“There were so many funky, fun things that were ‘Dave’ things,” said Rob Buntz, another friend and sailboat skipper who was in the Breakwater that evening, waiting for the storytelling to start. The sessions were Sheridan’s idea — the community would gather and everyone would take turns telling a story around one theme or topic.
That night’s theme was “transitions.”
There was some time to fill before the program started, Buntz said, and “typical Dave, he decided to go sailing.”
Back at the bar, one of Sheridan’s employees texted to let him know the program was about to start.
Captain Dave texted back.
“I’m coming in,” Buntz remembered the reply. “Tell them I’ve got a story about a boy and his boat.”