Tucked away in the corner of The Grille on Laurel, on the first summer-like day of June, is Hunter Ratliff. Dressed in a navy cashmere sweater, striped polo shirt, khaki shorts, and the ever-so-apropos boat shoes, he greets me with a question.
“Why exactly aren’t we doing this interview on the water?” he asks.
Had it not been for the name of this column, “F&B Lunch,” and my assumption that these stories should begin and end in a restaurant, I could easily have been persuaded to join Hunter where he spends most of his days—the Sailing Center, just off the boat launch at the southern end of Lake Forest Beach. So over steamed mussels and a salmon Caesar salad, Hunter shared how he’s turned a childhood passion into a career.
To call sailing a childhood passion may be slightly overstating things for Hunter. “I didn’t love sailing at first—at all,” remembers Hunter. “My Dad signed me up for lessons and I wanted to quit. He told me to stick it out and by the time the classes were over, I was hooked.”
Hunter sailed competitively throughout his academic years, competing both nationally and internationally. In 2012, he competed to sail for the United States in the Olympics held in London. Although he didn’t make the team, Hunter was grateful to have had the experience. “The training and logistics of competing in the Olympics is like no other competition,” he remembers. “Training aside, just figuring out how to ship my sailboat to where it needed to be was an undertaking.”
All of these lessons have proven valuable to Hunter, who for the last eight years has trained local children and adults on the fundamentals of sailing through the Lake Forest Sailing Program, a department of Lake Forest Parks and Recreation. This is a year-long sport for the program, in spite of the frigid temperatures that plague those sailing on the waters of Lake Michigan. “This last winter was one of the worst I can remember,” says Hunter, whose sailors met him wearing dry suits down at Lake Forest Beach for sailing in March and April. “While the conditions weren’t ideal this year, the sailors turned up and we made the most of it.” Fortunately, local sailors do travel to warmer climates, like that of Miami, to compete in winter events.
The cold temperatures also give Hunter time to work with new sailors on some of the more practical matters of the sport. “Sailors are always working on their boats. Our students need to know how to maintain them and how to fix things that can break when they’re on the water. We spend a lot of time troubleshooting and problem-solving in the classroom so that when things happen, they have confidence in what they’re doing,” he says.
Hunter accepts sailors as young as the age of 8. “Every sailor picks things up at different rates. Some are naturals—they’re just born with the skills—while others learn them over time,” he explains. “But it usually only takes a lesson or two before the kids are comfortable guiding their own sailboats out on the water.”
And this summer, after much preparation, Hunter is launching the Adaptive Sailing Program for sailors with special needs.
Hunter’s quiet demeanor makes him an effective sailing instructor with students of all ages. He currently coaches the sailing teams at both Lake Forest High School and Lake Forest Academy. “I’m very competitive,” says Hunter with a smile, as he often has to coach his teams as they vie for placement against one another. His methods clearly work, for today, Hunter has more alumni from his program competing on the national team than any other sailing program in the country. “No one can believe that Lake Forest’s Sailing Program, one where sailors have to train in the freezing waters of Lake Michigan in the winter, would be one of the most successful at preparing students to sail competitively,” he says.
Any sailor who participates in the Lake Forest Sailing Program has the opportunity to compete. On July 26, the 13th annual North Shore Cup will talk place. Junior sailors from around the Midwest will compete in this entry level event. This event is in addition to the race series Hunter hosts at the Lake Forest Beach on Thursday evenings. All competitions are open to the public to watch.
“Sailing is an amazing sport that you can do forever,” Hunter says. “Today when I sail with my family as an adult, I’m so grateful to them for encouraging me to pursue it.”
To learn more about Lake Forest’s Sailing Program or any of the upcoming sailing events, call Hunter Ratliff at 847-615-4592.
-Ann Marie Scheidler