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Sailing Story: Gene Kirschbaum

Sailing Story Flathead lake


Gene Kirschbaum’s introduction to sailing is about as unique of a story as they come. 


“I started sailing in about 1976 when I was a school teacher in an ocean going school,” Gene explained. “We taught a nine month typical curriculum— reading, writing, arithmetic— 8th grade through high school.”


The 85 students and 15 staff members lived together aboard two tall ships. With no prior sailing experience, Gene found himself learning amongst the students. “Like the kids, I learned from other instructors who were already competent sailors,” he said.  


“I flew over to Copenhagen and we didn’t sail for the first month because we had to teach the kids to sail,” he said. Once they learned the basics, the kids sailed the ships from Copenhagen to Bornholm, an island off the coast of Denmark. From there, the adventure was on! They sailed and sailed, both day and night, with the students even navigating tricky passageways, like the English Channel. 


From there, Gene’s love of sailing blossomed. Aboard tall ships and square rig vessels, Gene began entering sailing races with his friends. However, in retirement, Gene began looking for a calmer sailing experience than racing in Quebec, Sweden, and beyond. 


He moved to Montana, and while living on his wife’s family farm in Columbia Falls, decided to buy a 26 foot MacGregor with the intention of sailing on Flathead Lake, Fort Peck Reservoir, and other Montana lakes. “There is just a lot of beautiful territory in Montana to sail,” Gene noted. 


However, Gene didn’t want to sail on Flathead Lake with friends and family aboard without some practice first. “I wanted to get smarter about sailing on Flathead Lake before taking anyone out,” he said. That’s when he signed up to take ASA courses with Go Sail Flathead Lake.


Even though Gene has years of sailing experience, the ASA courses provided him with new skills and invaluable knowledge. “I never heaved to on a sailboat— I don’t know how you do it on a square rigger!” He laughed. “I’ll do that in the future, it’s a nice way to kick back and have a cocktail.” 


Additionally, Gene feels like taking courses with Go Sail Flathead Lake gave him a better “lay of the land” on a lake he hopes to become well acquainted with sailing. “There are some other factors on Flathead Lake you don’t see elsewhere,” he said. “On the north end of the lake you get logs that float down and you don’t want to hit a log at high speed on your boat. That’s not something you have to worry about in the English Channel!”


Gene has a particular affinity for night sailing, however, he noted the challenges of sailing Flathead Lake at night are much different than when he sailed in the tall ships in the 70s. “We had radars so if we were sailing at nighttime so we could keep track of other vessels— something you don’t need on Flathead Lake— but you need to know where the shores are!”

However, after taking ASA courses on Flathead Lake, Gene feels comfortable taking out passengers and even night sailing. “I feel pretty confident now if I put my boat in down there that I can do it safely,” he said.