Tale of a lady

Two young sailors find treasure 
in a neighbor’s backyard and spend a summer on the water

The Lady Slipper slowly wilted in Jim Martin’s backyard for years before two curious boys showed up at his doorstep in July to ask about it.

It looked faded, filthy and deprived of water. To friends Soren Walljasper, 14, and Wyatt Richard, 15, it was a thing of beauty. It was a sailboat.

“We really thought it was a shame that nobody was using it and it was falling apart,” said Wyatt, who lives just down the street from Martin in the Lynnhurst neighborhood. “In a couple more years it probably wouldn’t have been there.”

So their thought was to help Martin, who at 63 is retired and in less than peak health, get the old 20-foot wooden boat cleaned up and perhaps he’d sail it again, maybe even take the boys out as his crew.

“They came back a couple days later and asked if they could clean it up,” Martin said. “That’s not the sort of offer I’m accustomed to. I said, ‘yeah, I guess so, if you want.’”

The boys spent the better part of a day scrubbing the Lady Slipper and when they were done, Martin came out to look it over — and make them an offer. They could have it for a dollar.

“It was really just the fact that they were so strongly interested,” Martin said. “It’s often seemed to me that kids aren’t that much interested in sailing anymore.”

Martin stopped sailing the 1985 Wagner Brothers canoe yawl (it’s pointed at both ends like a canoe and “yawl” is a term that describes a two-mast boat with the aft mast positioned behind the steering mechanism) several years ago after purchasing a larger, more user-friendly boat he keeps on Lake Superior.  

Built by two brothers in Minnetonka, the Lady Slipper has an unusual layout and an old-fashioned varnished look that attracts plenty of attention. But Martin said the brothers were better woodworkers than sailors and he wanted to fix some of the boat’s quirks to make it less awkward on the water.

“A lot of these things I could have fixed given time enough, but I’m not in real good health, and I’m not very strong and I like sailing them better than working on them,” he said.  
So the boat moved down the street, much to the astonishment of its new owners.

“We were kind of like, ‘wow,’” said Soren, who lives in Kingfield. “We didn’t know if he was joking or what.”

Because he and Wyatt were both under 18, the title was actually transferred to Wyatt’s dad, Byron Richard, but the vessel is every bit the boys’. Wyatt said he gathered the payment from change lying around his room.

 After the purchase, the friends spent weeks getting the boat seaworthy, which mostly involved applying loads of new varnish to the hull. In late July, it was ready for launch.

Both Soren and Wyatt already had years of sailing experience — Soren even had a small catamaran purchased off Craigslist moored at Lake Calhoun — but neither had piloted a boat like the Lady Slipper. Calhoun was the chosen spot for the boat’s trials and a crowd of family and onlookers gathered to see it set sail.

It was a clumsy affair. First attempted without the rear sail, the boat went in circles. Still, Soren called the experience a thrill.

Over time, the boys improved. They secured a mooring for the Lady Slipper and spent almost every day on the lake before returning to school. Both have been taking lessons at the Lake Calhoun Sailing School as well.

On a recent, seemingly windless, Wednesday evening, Soren and Wyatt worked together to sail their treasure across the lake and back with little effort.

They’ve become celebrities of sorts on the water. Kayakers glide by and shout a compliment, fellow sailors call to the boys by name, onlookers gawk from the dock.

The Lady Slipper is in a league of its own on the lake and it has made Soren and Wyatt a fixture in the lake’s close-knit sailing community.  

“It’s opened up a new world,” Wyatt said. “The keelboat community here. Cabin boats.”

“Everybody knows each other,” Soren added.

Because of the boat’s pirate-ship look, they added a Jolly Roger flag to the stern mast, which also draws attention. Soren joked that the money for all the varnish came from raids on other Lake Calhoun boats.

Larry Salzman, director of the sailing school, said finding youth with such a passion for sailing is not commonplace.

“They are true sailors,” he said. “I think they could give up the rest of their lives and spend them on the water sailing.”

Neither of the boys grew up in a sailing family, but Soren took to boats at an early age, when he and his mother, Julie Ristau, transformed couches and blankets into sailing ships. His fondness for sailing has stuck with him and brushed off on Wyatt, who got into the sport on Soren’s old catamaran.

“I just really like being out on the water and using wind to power the boat instead of a motor,” Soren said. “I’ve always liked boats since I was really little. I thought the way they worked was really cool.”

Soren and Wyatt’s parents said the boat has strengthened the connection between their families, giving them something to work together on and have fun with. Plus they enjoy seeing their children’s dedication and pursuit of a passion.

“I think what’s so extraordinary is the kids have this opportunity to learn and to expand their possibilities,” Ristau said.

Possibilities that came from a generous neighbor, who went along for a ride this summer with Wyatt and Soren on the boat that for years sat unused in his yard. It was a windless day and the boys just paddled around the lake.

“They seem to really like it,” Martin said. “And that’s OK with me.”