Skipper Thom Burns: A Life Well-Sailed
By Brian E. Clark
Thom Burns grew up in Dewitt, Iowa, a small town far from any ocean. In fact, the Pacific was about 2,000 miles to the west and the Atlantic was 1,000 miles east of his home.
He’d never sailed until he joined the Navy directly out of high school. But Burns, who has skippered sailboats around the globe since then and run the Minneapolis-based Northern Breezes Sailing School (northernbreezessailing.com) for nearly 25 years, took to the sport like a fish to water.
In the decades since then, he figures he’s taught thousands of people to sail. Many have gone on to be instructors themselves.
“I was a wrestler in high school and college, and did other sports, too. But no sailing as a kid,” said Burns, an athletic 75. “Growing up in Iowa, that wasn’t really on my radar.”
Burns went to Navy boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Station on Lake Michigan about 30 miles north of Chicago, where, as he recalls, he “got lucky.”
“They trained me to be a radioman,” he said. “Once out of communications school, I got on an admiral’s staff. And that admiral had a sailboat that he kept in the hangar of the aircraft carrier he commanded.”
(With rank comes privilege, as my father – a retired Army officer – used to say.)
Burns said he delivered the admiral’s “secret” missives.
“I was 18 and I basically ran around the ship distributing messages to officers,” he recalled with a chuckle.
“The admiral would chat with me from time to time when he wasn’t busy. One day, he asked me if I’d ever been sailing and I said ‘no.’ He said ‘what would you think about sailing?’
“And I said ‘I’d sure like to try it sometime, sir.’”
It wasn’t long before the admiral had his aide call the Navy recreation department at Subic Bay in the Philippines and set up a lesson for Burns.
“When I arrived there – because I was on the admiral’s staff – the chief who ran the whole darn thing was my instructor. So that’s how I started to learn how to sail.”
After that, Burns would sail and take more lessons whenever he got the opportunity. When the ships on which he was serving reached a port, he said other sailors would often get cases of beer and drink.
“But I’d search out the recreation centers and if they had a sailing school, I’d take advantage of their classes. One of the first boats I sailed was a 15-foot Mercury, a little keel boat.”
Once he was certified to operate the Mercury on his own, he said he moved up to bigger sailboats.
“Then they used me as an on-the-water instructor for the Mercury,” he said. “The theoretical stuff was still handled by far-more-senior people. But they thought it was great to train sailors to teach other sailors – once you got good enough at the basics.
“And it didn’t take long to become competent. You’d go out three or four times to do tacks and gybes and then dock a boat under sail. When that was finished, they’d say I was ready to teach on the water.”
At the same time, he was learning how to pilot larger boats, eventually moving up to a 30-foot Shields sailboat, which he called a “tremendous” vessel.
“I got to sail quite a bit in the Philippines,” he said. “And when I was back in the United States, I sailed at bases in Long Beach, San Diego and then a lot in Newport, Rhode Island, as well as in Maryland, up the Chesapeake from Annapolis.”
Later – after he’d left active duty and then returned as an officer – he revisited some of those places and taught sailing in his free time.
Bruns spent a total of 22 years in the Navy. When he was back at the Great Lakes Naval Station near the end of his career, he competed several times in the “Mac,” a famed and sometimes perilous 333-mile Chicago-to-Mackinac Island race on Lake Michigan. He also has sailed across the Atlantic to Ireland and teaches in the Caribbean every winter, often for Navigare, a Swedish company.
After retiring at age 42 in 1991 as an O3, he began publishing the Northern Breezes Sailing Magazine in the Twin Cities, which focused on sailing in the Upper Midwest and on the Great Lakes.
“The Twin Cities were my final duty station,” said Burns, who now lives in Minneapolis when he’s not sailing around the globe. “I came up here because my younger brother was living here, because this is a hotbed for sailing on the area’s lakes and because it’s also within a reasonable range of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, which are a wonderful place to sail.
“The Apostles are nicknamed the ‘BVIs (British Virgin Islands) of the North’ and that is a well-deserved description. But in some ways, the Apostles are even better than the BVIs because only Madeline Island (of the 13 islands in the National Seashore) is inhabited.
“It a huge park with wonderful waters for sailing, forests to explore and beautiful sandy beaches to beach comb. It’s also really clean. I love anchoring in a bay off one of the islands and grilling food for dinner. Then waking up in the morning to the cry of a loon or seagull and making coffee and pancakes. It’s a very pleasant way to vacation.”
Burns produced his magazine for 14 years, but pulled the plug in 2005 when the Internet’s surge made it hard to make a profit with a niche publication.
So his focus turned to his sailing school, which he’d started in 1999.
“I’d been teaching for a long time for other people, like the Northern Maritime Institute,” he said. “And because I was already publishing Northern Breezes Magazine, I had instantaneous credibility. We became the second biggest sailing school in one year.”
Now, he said, his operation is the largest American Sailing Association school in the Midwest. He employs 25 instructors in the Twin Cities and in the Apostles, many of whom are part time and teach (in part) because it is their passion.
“We’ve trained many, many sailors through this school,” he said. “I can hardly walk down a dock and not recognize someone. But I think the biggest impact I can have in sailing is to mentor people who go on to become good instructors.
“In fact, that’s how I met my significant other, Cindy. We connected because someone in Colorado, where she lives, told her she couldn’t learn coastal navigation. But she works for the Space Force and runs GPS systems.
“So I told her ‘there is no reason you can’t learn this.’ She learned remotely and I mentored her all the way up to her captain’s license, when we began dating. She’ll retire in 2024, so the timing is spectacular for us.”
Even though he has sailed around the world, Burns said one of his favorite places remains Lake Superior. He’s also a big fan of the Adriatic off Croatia.
“Now Cindy and I are looking at buying a good-sized catamaran and offering trips on that, possibly based in Grenada. We’d do some high-end courses there and maybe sail over to the Azores or Europe to get some real miles on the boat.”
Burns said the best way to get started is to take classes through a club or sailing school.
“Then sail with a flotilla to get time on the water to see if you like it,” he said. “Next join a club, build your skills so you can charter a boat with friends. We usually have 10 to 12 boats in the Apostles that people can charter. That’s a good route to take before you make the plunge and buy a sailboat.”
The veteran sailor said the best thing about cruising for him occurs when the breezes are nice and he can shut off the engine.
“Then it’s all about not being in a hurry, chatting with friends and just having the background noise of the wind and the waves to soothe things,” he mused. “That’s pretty calming and it settles people down. I’m often surprised sometimes what people will share after they get comfortable on a boat.
“Sailing, I’ve found, is very therapeutic. I’m respectful of folks’ privacy, of course, but some of their stories get pretty personal.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.