Relishing a day on the bay

Disabled young people get out on the water during the Easter Seals Cruise for Kids

July 27, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Justin Fowler sat nearly motionless in a folding chair on the aft deck, quietly scanning the water and wringing a paper plate in his hands. A moment later, when the boat hit the wake from a passing ship and started rocking, he was on his feet.

Justin, a 14-year-old who has autism, found his sea legs in the light chop of Baltimore's harbor faster than the adults, who grabbed on to the boat's chrome handholds. As he got back in his chair again, his face lit up.

"Whoa!" he said.

More than 100 disabled children and young adults got to experience the pleasures of boating yesterday at the Easter Seals Cruise for Kids, an annual event in which private yacht owners offer free cruises to the children and their families.

For many, particularly those in wheelchairs or with severe disabilities, the event is their only chance to get on a boat and see the city skyline from the water. Organizers noted it is also an opportunity for parents who cope with disabled children to relax and not stress about their kids.

Lisa Reeves, CEO of Easter Seals Greater Washington Baltimore Region, said the cruise is important therapy for the families and is also valuable for the boaters. Many families and boat owners take part year after year, she said.

"There's a freedom to this. You're out there on the water and you're moving as if you had no disability at all," Reeves said. "Some of the parents describe this as their trip to Disney World."

Organizers sprayed sunscreen on the children and handed out anti-seasickness medication. Dressed in his Navy whites, Petty Officer 1st Class Daryl Duff sang the national anthem and volunteers helped get families on boats docked at the HarborView Marina.

On board the Grand Slam, a 47-foot fishing boat, Justin and his family joined the Mackalls - Pamela and her 20-year-old son, Dexter - who have been coming on the cruises for years. They sat in the fly bridge, where the view was better and the breeze cut through the day's heat. They snacked on crackers and cheese.

Justin and his sister Courtney, 9, pointed out tall buildings, buoys and large ships moving in and out of port. The Domino Sugars sign loomed over their heads - "Look at that out there," Justin said, "It's a factory."

"Children with disabilities, they go through so much," said Justin's mother, Jackie Fowler, who lives in St. Mary's County. "To have a day that's dedicated to them is just wonderful. A lot of these children would not get out on the water."

Jerry Troy, a Kingsville resident who owns the Grand Slam, gave a tour as he maneuvered his yacht expertly through the Inner Harbor and out past Fort McHenry, where he opened up the throttle and let Dexter Mackall take a turn at the helm.

At first, Mackall - who lives in Calvert County and has a number of disabilities, including cerebral palsy - made a mistake most beginners make, overcompensating in his steering. But he quickly got the feel of the boat and was sailing straight.

Mackall learned a little about right of way when a small sailboat tacked across the Grand Slam's bow.

"Look at how long that Navy ship is," someone called out, prompting Mackall's mother to give her son some gentle teasing: "Yeah, that's the one we don't want to hit," she said, laughing. "Your grandpa would be so proud of you steering this boat."

About 40 to 50 boat owners, including those who own sailboats and powerboats, take part in the cruise every year, organizers said. Larger boats were on hand for children who are less mobile.

In addition to donating their time and boats, the owners also pay for the diesel for the cruise - no small donation for the powerboaters given the price of fuel. Richard A. Swirnow, who developed HarborView, threw a party for the captains and organizers Friday.

Troy, who has a Coast Guard captain's license, said he enjoyed showing his passengers around the harbor. After the cruise, Troy accompanied both families to a picnic on a site overlooking the marina.

"I think everybody should have an opportunity to get out on the bay," he said. "There's just a mystique to the water that makes you feel good."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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