Around Lake Lanier, Ricki Lee Hagen is known as a seasoned sailor and a licensed 100-ton US Coast Guard Near Coastal Master Captain who’s also the owner of Grendel, the 37-foot wooden cutter that would be perfectly at home on an open sea. Hagen’s trademark vessel, and the bones of Lord Nelson Charters Ltd., has graced the waters on Lanier for nearly three decades, providing sunset cruises, corporate team-building programs, and a true representation of the romance of sailing.
“Theater was my first love when I was younger, but the first time I set foot on a sailboat, my life changed,” said Hagen, who came to the lake in the 1980s as a beach entertainer at Lanier Islands. “At that time, I was doing five 15-minute Childrens Theater shows to entertain the kids at the beach, and between sets I explored and learned to sail on a Sunfish.”
That initial adventure, where he readily admits to capsizing or being knocked in the head by the boom, led him to larger boats, becoming an American Sailing Association instructor and landing a gig doing corporate team building for Lanier Sailing Academy, then owned by Bob Evans in the mid-1990s.
Growing up on a farm in Northeast Iowa, Hagen’s early life on a 360-acre dairy farm was filled with 24/7 farm chores, raising horses and no vacations.
“Sailing was the furthest thing from my imagination in those days,” he said with a smile. “Little did I know how much my goals and my life would change.”
Always interested in theater, performing in high school and studying it in college, he moved to Atlanta in 1973 and worked for the Georgia Railroad for nearly a decade. He still found time to stay involved in theater and the technical side of the entertainment business as a sound engineer in the music business, working with several local bands including Midnight Sneaker, Gary Bennett Band and blues singer/songwriter Mary Ellen Jones.
He soon left his railroad job to pursue theater and music full time. He directed plays at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, was lighting designer for Capital City Opera and stage managed The Nutcracker each Christmas for the North Georgia Ballet. He acted in many Atlanta theater productions, taught acting classes and performed in schools with a local children’s theater. He also found time to tour with a Christian music group out of Mount Paran Church and directed Easter and Christmas productions there.
“When I heard about an opportunity at Lanier Islands and a chance to act, I didn’t hesitate,” he said. “Looking back on that time now, taking that job and deciding to learn to sail pretty much shaped the next 30 years of my life.”
He taught at Lanier Sailing Academy’s ASA school, continued to do corporate team building for Evans and began to dream of a life on the water.
“Bob was a great mentor to me and encouraged me to pursue my love of sailing,” Hagen said.
It was at this time he earned his US Coast Guard 50-ton Masters license, purchased Grendel and began nurturing his dream, a 5-year plan to get a sailboat ready for a second 5-year plan to sail to Australia to see the America’s Cup.
Grendel: A story all its own
Along the way, Hagen came across Ned Smith, who worked at Aqualand and had built the Lord Nelson sailing ship from scratch. Grendel was a classic cold molded sailing yacht featuring elegant mahogany hull, traditional bronze fixtures and seven different exotic woods used in the cabin.
“Ned worked on that boat for seven years, first under a tarp at Aqualand and later in a Quonset hut that he actually built for the project. Truth be told, he built the hut around the boat, and had his own dream of a circumnavigation.”
Once the boat was complete, Grendel had several adventures of its own. First it was trailered to Tennessee, where it was used in a pilot for a proposed television series. Then Smith took the boat to Savannah where he was soon to discover that ocean sailing wasn’t for him! When he brought it back to Lanier, Smith sold the boat to Hagen.
Abandoning his 5-year sailing plan, in 1997 Hagen opened Lord Nelson Charters Ltd., his own American Sailing Association school at Lanier Islands, where he also provided sailing charters, corporate team building programs for the resort and managed a sailboat rental fleet. Grendel was the star of the business.
“I had several licensed US Coast Guard captains who brought their boats and joined me at Lord Nelson Charters,” he said, “including Bob Miller, Nate Hope and Vinnie Mendes. Business was good.”
Since that time, Grendel has been used for pirate-themed corporate team-building programs, sunset cruises, chartered half-day and full-day excursions on Lake Lanier. It’s even been the scene for magazine, catalog and TV shoots as well as several romantic proposals and weddings.
“She cuts such an elegant presence on the water and there’s not another craft like her,” Hagen said. “She truly represents the adventure, intrigue and romance of sailing.”
Romance of another kind
In addition to opening Lord Nelson Charters in 1997, his life changed even more that year. He met his future wife Nilsa at a church picnic and in 1999 their newborn son Christian joined their blended family of four daughters. Between them, they now have 15 grandchildren, and this year they celebrate their 25th anniversary.
He and Nilsa started sailing together and eventually were hired to provide sailing charters in the Caribbean for Atlanta-based WinShape Foundation’s marriage enrichment programs.
“We’d do about eight or so couples’ trips each year, and I had someone here running the charter business and school at Lanier,” he said. “When Hurricane Irma hit the BVIs in 2017, we had to restructure and moved the program to the Abacos in the Bahamas.”
Hagen’s love of blue-water sailing prompted him and Nilsa to purchase a 35-foot Endeavor sailboat in 2010 to keep at the coast near Myrtle Beach.
“I purchased the Sea Jay from a buddy of mine who sailed it out of Punta Gorda,” Hagen said. He brought it back to Lanier and used it in the fleet at Lanier Islands until moving it to Little River, S.C. “It was perfect for us to keep on the Atlantic where we often sailed her with family and friends.”
Hagen has continued his charters and nautical team building on Lake Lanier, but in the past year or so, he’s decided he is ready to return to his roots. One of the first steps was selling the Endeavor last month.
“I wasn’t prepared for the emotion of letting Sea Jay go. All I could think of was all the memories, so many memories and it was really hard.”
About those roots
Hagen again has a plan. He has put Lord Nelson Charters, Grendel and the ASA school on the market, either separately or together.
“Nilsa and I are ready to just buy a piece of land north of here, have a garden and a place for kids and grandkids to get away, ride dirt bikes and enjoy a country life,” he said. “After all, I started my life on a farm, and I’d like to get back to that part of my heritage. There’s still so much to do, and of course, we’ll still be sailing.”
Photos: provided by Ricki Lee Hagen