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The spirit moved him and he found the simple joy of sailing

2017 January 1

I’m going to introduce you to a man who has learned, refined and perfected the art of finding the simple joy of sailing.

For an activity that humans figured out eons ago, sailing can be complicated. Besides keeping up with advancing technology, it often demands serious planning. Cruises and races require organizing personnel and logistics. Even daysails with friends need arrangements to find dates and times that coincide with suitable weather.

For most of us, sailing doesn’t just happen. But it does for my friend Joe.

In the short sailing season north of latitude 43, he sailed his boat 52 times in 2016.

Joe knows the exact number because after each sail he makes a short entry in a computer log. He does this not out of some nerdy compulsion to quantify the use of his boat to, perhaps, justify its cost. He does it, noting wind, water and sky conditions and anything remarkable that might have occurred, to recall the pleasure of the sail.

Though he is gregarious and has legions of friends, he usually sails alone, just so he can do it whenever the spirit moves him.

Joe knows quite a bit about the spirit, specifically the Holy Spirit. He is a Roman Catholic priest—Father Joe Haas.


Father Joe has sailed the same boat for 43 years. It’s an Aquarius 23 that he and another priest bought in partnership in 1973. The priest buddies were self-taught sailors motivated by a determination to spend as much of their time off from ministerial duties as possible on the water.


First they were avid waterskiers. Then, sort of on a whim, they became sailors. They each bought a Sunfish,  and on inland lakes near their parishes, following the curriculum of the school of trial and error, they learned to sail them. They soon graduated to a co-owned 23-foot cruising sailboat.  

“I wanted to name it Second Collection,” Joe said, “but my partner thought that would be tacky.” They settled on Acapella.

A compact cruiser with a fractional sloop rig, the Aquarius 23 is just right for a just-do-it, no-fuss sailor like Joe, who became the boat’s sole owner early on when his partner opted for a career as a navy chaplain.

For all its simplicity, the Aquarius has a rather distinguished pedigree. It was designed by the late Peter Barrett, who is remembered as a Renaissance man of sailing, winner of two Olympic sailing medals, president of North Sails and all-around genius as well as a yacht designer. Barrett, who, it happens, was a contemporary of Joe’s, growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, not far from the priest’s hometown of Spring Green, gave the Aquarius a deep swing-keel and spade rudder for  performance along with a surprisingly comfortable cockpit and cabin.

Joe’s appreciation of the boat grew as his priestly responsibilities grew. “When you’re a pastor,” he said, “there are a lot of things on your mind, and sailing was a way to get away from them for a little while, to be out there on the water, in those days without GPS or a cell phone, and just enjoy the simple pleasures of sailing, which are so beautiful.”

As the years went by, he continued to squeeze those short getaways on the water into his demanding professional life. Then he retired, and you know what he does in his retirement. He goes sailing—a lot.

“I’m so impulsive about sailing,” he said. “I think, ‘this looks like a pretty good day,’ and I just go. I just want to get out there and let the wind blow.”

During the sailing season, Acapella’s home is Milwaukee’s McKinley Marina, a scant 15 minutes from Joe’s home. A typical sail is a five-mile jaunt through Milwaukee Bay and out onto the open waters of Lake Michigan.

Fit, sturdy and, it seems, perpetually enthused, Joe, at 83 years old, is a poster boy for the active life. He’s sailed in the Caribbean on bareboat charters, skied down many a mountain slope and traveled to remote destinations, most recently Arctic fjords. At the marina, where he describes himself as a “pier padre,” he enjoys the company of fellow sailors and the beer and stories that go with that company. 

From May through October, a vintage sailboat and its owner’s enduring appreciation of the simple joy of sailing are fundamental elements of that active life.

As it was for Joe, 2016 was a good year of sailing for me, many miles sailed, some vivid memories to sustain me until a new sailing season struggles to life in the cold spring. My sailing, though, was of the highly organized variety, at times a little complex, mainly racing and getting to and from races. There was nothing impulsive about it, no jumping on the boat and letting the wind blow just because it’s a good day for sailing. For the new sailing year, I resolve to try harder to live up to the sailing priest’s inspiring example of how to do simple sailing.

Shortly after Acapella was hauled and stored for the winter in a rented farm building, Joe got the usual mailing from the marina asking for a deposit to reserve a slip for the 2017 sailing season. He didn’t hesitate to write the check. 

“I thought, yes, one more year of sailing. I can’t wait.”