'Sail Free' Lets Disabled Feel The Wind At Their Back

Group Uses Marine Recreation To Lift People's Spirits

July 01, 1991|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

Jay Lane leaned back into the wind, watched the sails above him swell, and smiled. The shortcomings of his imperfect body suddenly did not matter.

"Don't you feel upbeat?" he said. "Doesn't the wind makeyou feel like that?"

At the other end of the boat, 20-year-old Christopher Murphy of Annapolis nodded in understanding as he steered the craft around an inlet at Sandy Point State Park. An experienced sailor, Murphy knows how uplifting the sport can be -- especially for people like him and Lane, who are physically disabled.

Lane, 38, of Takoma Park, suffersfrom severe diabetes and neuromuscular disease. He must take insulinshots five or six times a day; he walks with a cane. Murphy was paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a motorcycle accident a yearago.

Both were at Sandy Point yesterday to take part in "Sail Free," an event sponsored by Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, Inc. (CRAB) to help disabled citizens discover the sport of sailing.

"It's not really to learn how to sail," said Murphy, a certified sailing instructor. "It's more to say you can do it -- to learn you can do something you never thought you could do."

CRAB is the regional chapter of the National Ocean Access Project (NOAP), a private, non-profit organization created in 1986 to provide marine recreation to the disabled. CRAB keeps its headquarters at Sandy Point, where it leasesa dock from the state for its six sailboats and a powerboat.

FromApril to October, disabled citizens can take sailing courses throughCRAB, which offers an elementary "crew" course and a more advanced "skipper" class. Those who successfully complete the four-day skipper class are qualified to steer a boat on their own.

Murphy, for example, often sails single-handedly in crafts specially equipped for thedisabled, sliding back and forth between the rudder and the cockpit.A pleasant, outspoken, slightly cocky young man who also plays wheelchair basketball, he can't resist telling how he beat his non-disabled instructors in a race last week.

"The only people we maybe couldn't accommodate on a boat are those on a respirator -- though we've even had some people who are both on a respirator and in a wheelchair," said Edgewater's John Lancaster, who sits on the board of directorsof both NOAP and CRAB.

People who have suffered severe head injuries, paralysis, cerebral palsy and strokes all have learned to sail, Lancaster said. So have the mentally retarded, the deaf and the blind. NOAP recently sponsored a regatta for blind sailors on Galveston Bay in Texas, he said.

Usually, a sighted person accompanies a blindsailor. But even the blind can sail alone, thanks to technology suchas an audio compass that emits sounds at various pitches to indicatewhen a boat is veering off course.

"We find that blind sailors are very good at sensing the wind and can trim their sails very effectively," Lancaster said.

Lancaster, 46, is an attorney for the President's Committee on Employment for People with Disabilities. A gunshot wound in Vietnam cost him the use of his legs.

"Sailing was a part of my rehabilitation," he says. "It gave me a lot of confidence back. I've really done a lot more sailing since I've been in a wheelchair than I did before."

Lancaster helped create NOAP, which serves about 6,000 people and has a budget of about $75,000.

After livingfor years on donations from the Texas couple who founded it, the organization is struggling financially, said Executive Director Ed McAleer, who also lives in Edgewater. McAleer has been soliciting help from the community, asking people to donate boats for NOAP to sell or give away in a raffle.

CRAB operates as a separate financial entity.It derives income from private donations and membership fees rangingfrom $10 to $250.

Four of CRAB's 20-foot sailboats are designed specifically for the disabled, with special seats from which a disabled person may sail the boat. All of the controls are centered in the cockpit. The boats are said to be unsinkable.

Qualified disabled sailors may rent the boats on a half-day or daily basis.

This year, CRAB expects to serve about 600 prospective sailors from the Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., areas.

"We're doing it for two reasons," said 55-year-old Don Backe of Annapolis, who was paralyzed inan automobile accident. "First, when you can get a boat from point Ato point B, it has a major impact on your sense of self-worth.

"The other reason is that it's just plain fun."

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