Setting sail, the disabled learn to fly

August 28, 1991|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Shirlee Stern assumed she was just there to watch, maybe take a peek from the dock and tell her friends about it later.

The idea of getting up out of a wheelchair and into a sailboat was more than a little bit intimidating, particularly for a shy, retired elementary school librarian with brittle bones and little use of her legs.

Steer a boat when she had never even been in one before? Control a complex sailing rig with ropes going everywhere and those brass contraptions when she couldn't even walk?

"I just associated sailing with the most physical thing you can imagine," Ms. Stern recalled. "I just didn't see how it could be done."

Yet for someone who had lived for many years in Eastport, Annapolis' sailing mecca, the attraction was there. She had read about a program that taught sailing to handicapped people and decided to just take that look.

Little did she know that with a little encouragement from instructors she would soon -- gasp! -- be piloting a sailboat in open water.

"I was sure I'd just get dizzy. I'd faint. I'd collapse or have an anxiety attack," said Ms. Stern, eyes beaming and her words pouring forth in an excited tumble.

"Well, I went out and saw great big herons flying in the breeze. I saw people fishing . . . crab pots everywhere . . . and the beautiful Bay Bridge we went past . . . what a view.

"I just lost all sense of the future, past and present. It was just so therapeutic. The feeling lasted a week until my next lesson, and I've beensailing ever since."

While not every encounter produces such a life-affirming experience, successes like Ms. Stern are not uncommon at CRAB -- Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating Inc. -- which operates a small fleet of handicapped-accessible sailboats at Sandy Point State Park.

The private, non-profit organization opened shop at Sandy Point in April and has since introduced about 400 people, the majority of whom are disabled, to the joys of sailing on the Chesapeake Bay.

Affiliated with the National Ocean Access Project, which promotes water sports for the disabled, CRAB provides both instruction and boat rentals for a nominal fee, on average $10 to $15 an hour.

"We're not here to create Joe Sailors," said Mike Garfinkel, the program's enthusiastic director. "There are other sailing schools that can do that. Here, the idea is to participate at whatever level you desire. For most, we just have to show them what they are capable of doing."

The program uses four 20-foot Freedom Independence sloops, aptly named boats which are specially outfitted with bucket seats that can swing easily within the cockpit and a high boom that provides plenty of head clearance.

On this particular day, Ms. Stern is paired with Mary K. Doyle of Kent Island, a 72-year-old widow whose arthritic knees forced her into a wheelchair three years ago. Both can board their vessel without assistance -- thanks to a wooden transfer box that allows them to slide into place.

"It's kind of a support group for the disabled," explained Mrs. Doyle, who held the tiller while Ms. Stern trimmed the jib. "You get to share in the exuberance."

Mr. Garfinkel serves as crew and instructor for this voyage. There are six part-time volunteers who help with the program.

CRAB's clientele is not restricted to senior citizens, nor even to thedisabled. On any given day, the program might host some developmentally disabled teen-agers or a group of adults afflicted with cerebral palsy or maybe just a group of tourists who have never seen a sailboat up close.

Beth Bishop, a recreation therapist with Community Rehabilitation Services in Annapolis, brings a handful of her clients, all victims of head injury, for boating instruction each week. She has found sailing an ideal therapy for people who feel their horizons have been diminished.

"Sailing is such an active sport, people who have suffered head injury can enjoy the excitement and the freedom," she said. "And it's not justthe enjoyment, it's also something they can carry over after they leave here. That's what's therapeutic -- learning a skill they can take with them."

Several times a year the program conducts "sail free" days where anyone can come and sail without a charge. The next event is scheduled for Sept. 22 at the state park.

"If you're disabled, you know the world's not geared toward you, but when people get on a boat it's a great equalizer," said Mr. Garfinkel.

Four years ago Don Backe, the headmaster of a Methodist elementary and nursery school in Edgewater, was left paralyzed below the waist by injuries he suffered in a car accident. Today, he credits sailing as the "event that changed my life" and returned him to his school.

"It was like I had been looking at the world like a black-and-white TV and it suddenly became color," said Mr. Backe, who now serves as a member of CRAB's board of directors. "I had decided the rest of my life was going to be pretty grim. This was the thing that said, 'Hey, wait a minute. There is more I can do.' "

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