We've always considered ourselves travelers more so than tourists. Sure, we're not above a pit stop or photo op at the nearby roadside attraction, but when we reach a destination, whether it's for the first time or the fiftieth, we like to go where the locals go, the places you won't find in the glossy travel mags or the Instagram posts. When we look for a place to eat, we talk with local chefs and food writers. We turn to fishing guides with the best track record, not the fanciest boats. And when we're in Key West, looking to have a conversation about the sailing scene, we sit down with Ben Hermelin.
Ben's about as Key West as they come—he's a born and raised conch. "Growing up on the island was really, really fun," he told us in between wind gusts that threatened to blow our audio equipment into the Gulf of Mexico.
"Key West is a really quirky place. There's all different types of people here, a lot of interesting people, with different stories from different backgrounds."
Despite their disparate nature, there's usually one thing that connects this diverse collection of day trippers, seasonal tourists and full-time residents: the love of the ocean. And that's where Ben fits in, too—he's the Program Director and Head Instructor at the Key West Community Sailing Center. Call it destiny, proximity, or two parents who needed to get five kids out of the house, whatever it was that led Ben to take up sailing at the Center at age six sparked a lifelong passion that gradually evolved from a hobby into a career.
"My parents were big advocates of letting us try things out and seeing what we like and what we didn't like," Ben said. "Sailing camp was the one that really stuck for me and all my siblings. And the Center is about seven blocks from where I grew up, so it was the one place our parents were always comfortable with us going. And we had a lot of fun here."
As Ben got more into sailing, his laid-back, fun-first approach helped him keep everything in perspective and avoid any potential burnout. "I didn't have the competitive feel that many of the other children did—I just wanted to go and have fun with my friends," he explained.
"Back when I was about nine years old, I competed in a regatta down here and I came in first place that day. That was the debut of my racing career, I was undefeated, and that's how I kept it for a very long time."
As time passed, his motivation to improve his skills prompted Ben to get more involved in the competitive sailing scene. "You realize that the only real way to compare your sailing skills is against someone else. You're always looking to compare yourself and sail with someone else or against someone else and really see how you match up. That's how you learn things."
Now, Ben balances his competitive spirit by teaching the next generation of sailing enthusiasts at the Community Sailing Center through private lessons, after-school programs and summer camps. When he's not out on the water, he's busy charting a course for the sport's future in Key West. "Sailing has actually come quite far in the last several years here in Key West and throughout the Keys," he told us. "We did regattas and built up a lot of excitement around them. I'm really excited to keep that momentum moving forward and bring a competitive racing scene back to the Florida Keys."
The renewed community excitement toward sailing all stems from the spark Ben initially felt when he stepped onto his first sailboat years ago. And, the "Do Things You Like Doing" philosophy that still guides him today. "Do what you enjoy or what makes you happy," he said. "Working as a sailing instructor and sharing my passion with other people has always been something I really enjoyed doing, and this just gives me the opportunity to do it more."
Whether it's unwinding on the boat after a day of teaching or training for his next race—he's considering regattas in San Francisco and New England as prep for the 2022 edition of the Worrell 1000—Ben's always looking forward to his next Every day should feel this good moment: "Sailing on a catamaran, and I'm hiked out on the trapeze, and we start flying a hull, you feel like you're soaring, and the wind is rushing past you, and the water is way down there beneath your feet. That's one of my favorite feelings, for sure. If I could have that every day, I would."