By Robert Lucke
One would think that a man living in Havre who would build a sailboat from scratch would be a man of the sea.
Not so for Joe Uhl. Despite all the pictures of the sea, boats and boaters in his office at Golden Triangle Mental Health, Uhl is a man of the prairie.
Born and raised in South Dakota, Uhl has yet to make it to either United States coast. He went to graduate school in Kansas, briefly went back to South Dakota and has been in Havre for the last 13 years.
So why sailboat building and sailing on the Montana prairies?
My brother got me started sailing 20 years ago. We had a 12-foot boat at first and went to a 22-foot, Uhl said. Both of us lived in Rapid City and we sailed in the Black Hills Lakes. I crewed for him and never learned to sail really until I got here.
Early boat building for Uhl became a challenge.
I built a small skiff here and then taught myself to sail, Uhl said. And for some reason I wanted to build a bigger boat to see if I could do it. That started a nasty habit of boat building for a hobby.
In the past four years Uhl has built four sail boats and a row boat for his son.
The first sail boat I sold, it was a 15-foot pocket cruiser and I have the one I have just finished. It is a 23-foot Norwalk Island Sharpie, said Uhl. And this winter I finished a little 11-foot Moth for a friend. It was a nice job for over the winter.
Uhl does get help for his boat building.
I do use plans. I am not a marine engineer or architect. I subscribe to boat magazines and have thousands of plans, Uhl explained.
Uhls 23-footer still is not named. There is just too much to do.
I havent named the boat yet, although I do have some names in mind. There are just so many things to do, said Uhl smiling. I have been sailing some with the boat, but there are bunks to finish and every time I am out there is something to fix that I broke.
To get the scope of this boat, think of a craft that has bunks for two, a galley with an alcohol stove, and holding provisions for a whole week without touching shore.
So where to sail in this part of the world?
I sail at Fresno and Tiber with the boat and have sailed back in South Dakota with friends. Uhl said. And I have plans to go to Fort Peck and Flathead Lake.
Besides the large sail boat numbers at Flathead Lake, there are lots of sail boats out and running around Montana, according to Uhl. Canyon Ferry, Fort Peck, ice boating at Valier and in the last few years five or six regular sail boats at Fresno.
Best of all sailing so far for Uhl was Lac of the Woods in Canada.
That place is more like 100 lakes all hooked together, Uhl said. We sailed nine days, 120 miles as the crow flies and never were more than a half mile from the shore.
For Uhl the sailing is never bad, but there is a downside for him in boat building.
It got in my blood, but I have to stop the building, Uhl said. Its expensive and its so isolating. I spend all winter in a garage by myself. I get depressed and wonder where all my friends are. In the big boat I have more than 2,000 hours. It was all consuming. I couldnt stop thinking about it and problem solving. It drove me and I couldnt leave it alone. I need to be around people and do some other things.
That is where the sailing comes in.
There is where the people are. In fact I put an add in the paper a couple of weeks ago for people to call me if they wanted to learn to sail. I would like to teach them and the boat is so large that it takes a crew to sail it, said Uhl or Captain Joe as he signed the ad.