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Cruising the Bay with SD’s Adaptive Sailing Nonprofit

Challenged Sailors Inc.'s specially designed boats allow people with disabilities to sail without limits
Challenged Sailors a San Diego nonprofit helping disabled people enjoy adaptive sailing
Photo Credit: Erica Joan

For this adventure, you only need to be able to do one thing. “If you can follow directions, you can get in a boat,” says Brewster Schenck, who has quadriplegia and has cruised with Challenged Sailors—a nonprofit that offers free adaptive sailing to people with disabilities—for the past five years.

On an overcast Friday afternoon, a group of 17 huddles on Harbor Island’s docks, home to eight specially designed Martin16 sailboats. The two-person vessels are weighted so they can’t tip over. Even if they filled with water, they wouldn’t sink. The sails are controlled by two ropes and the rudder by a joystick, so the boater can sail without ever having to leave their seat. These boats can even be fitted with technology that allows sailors who can’t use their limbs to control the boat with their breath. As a precaution, a volunteer sailor travels in the seat behind.

Photo Credit: Erica Joan

The adapted boats give participants freedom they don’t always experience on land. Volunteer Dale Burchby recalls a woman who went sailing with them after a catastrophic accident that rendered her suddenly needing a wheelchair. Looking out at the bay, she asked, “Where do we go?”

Her companion sailor said, “Anywhere you want.”

She burst into tears.

Wheelchairs, walkers, and scooters stay on the docks, explains Challenged Sailors President Peter Phillips, who, because of nerve damage caused by Guillain-Barré syndrome, needs leg braces and a walker to get around.

“When I’m walking, I’m experiencing pain. I can’t go fast,” he says. But out on the bay, “there are no limitations—it’s just the boat and the wind and the water.”

Challenged Sailors San Diego nonprofit featuring Penny Anders a paraplegic in the sailing group
Photo Credit: Erica Joan
Penny Anders feeling the stoke after a successful day on the sea.

Back on the dock, Penny Anders, who became paraplegic after an accident two years ago, gets ready to be lowered by a hoist into her boat. She beams as she ducks beneath the boom and takes control of the helm. “You go so fast [when you’re sailing]—you’re just flying,” Anders says. The sport has been a source of joy for her in what has been a difficult transition, she adds.

“It saved me, too,” says Leah Gualtieri, her volunteer companion sailor, who took up sailing after a divorce. “Once you’re out there, you don’t want to not be out there.”

By Mara Altman

Mara Altman is the author of two nonfiction books, Thanks for Coming and Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back), which was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Altman also wrote eight best-selling Kindle Singles and has written for publications such as The New York Times and New York Magazine. Earlier in her career, she was a staff writer for The Village Voice and daily newspapers in India and Thailand. She lives in North Park with her husband and twins.

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