Sailing Differently

Reprinted from the National Club Association’s Winter 2024 Club Director Magazine

Abutting downtown, historic Annapolis, Maryland, and the U.S. Naval Academy, Spa Creek is a boater’s paradise all spring and summer long. On Wednesday nights and weekends, dozens of sails unfurl and sailors take to the water for regattas held by the Annapolis Yacht Club and its across-the-bridge neighbor, the Eastport Yacht Club. At least twice a year, those regattas focus on sailors with different physical abilities, including some who believed they were locked out of the sport not too long ago.

Adaptive sailing, which uses some simple boat equipment and different-than-traditional techniques to get people with disabilities into and out on sailboats, is a growing trend across the U.S., and, thanks to the amenities they already have, private clubs offer terrific venues for the programs. Partnerships between nonprofits and the clubs have become a natural fit, and people who thought they’d never sail are discovering and embracing the sport—and the host clubs— like never before.

Lifelong sailor and Annapolis Yacht Club (AYC) member Don Backe lost the use of his legs in a car accident in the mid-1980s and for a while, thought sailing would be impossible. A few years later, friends figured out some adaptations that got him back out on the water, and Backe, realizing how much returning to his passion helped his recovery, made it his mission to do the same for other people. In 1991, he founded CRAB—Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating—to do just that.

“They used friends’ boats at first and then established a center with boats at Sandy Point State Park,” says Rebecca Gonser, CRAB’s director of marketing & development. “This year, we moved to the country’s premier Adaptive Boating Center, on Back Creek in Annapolis.” CRAB offers everything from entry-level sailing and boating programs to racing opportunities.

CRAB currently has six adapted Beneteau 22(A) sailboats. Each has a race-car seat with a four-part harness, tiller extensions, and lines that run around (instead of through) the boat cockpit. A lift transfers some sailors into the racing seats.

“Not everybody who sails with us requires the four-point harness,” says Gonser. “Our sailors with paraplegia or quadriplegia need that stability. Guests with other types of disabilities may require assistance to get boarded, but once in the boat, they can sit where they are most comfortable.”

“This regatta is strictly for sailors with disabilities,” says AYC Harborside Director Linda Ambrose. “Our club members got behind it 25 years ago and when Don passed away [in 2013], we kept the regatta going.” Past leadership of AYC felt so strongly about supporting the event, they commissioned the perpetual trophy in Backe’s name. Nearby Eastport Yacht Club hosts the annual CRAB Cup, which includes sailors of all abilities in partnership with CRAB.

“It’s pretty amazing,” says Ambrose of her club’s annual regatta and events with several nonprofit organizations. “We’ve had bilateral amputees, people without a single limb they were born with, go out and race. It’s fascinating to watch and it’s empowering for our sailors.”

In what’s become a tradition, AYC members volunteer throughout the regatta, serving on the Race or Protest Committee and as able-bodied crew on board the boats; each racing vessel has an able-bodied person on board to offer tactical suggestions but not to sail the boat. “It’s become a great community service opportunity for our high school sailors,“ says Ambrose. “They really enjoy helping at this event and it’s amazing to see the kids get off the boats, having brought so much joy to other people.”

Members not only welcome the regatta but clamor to be part of it. “Our members absolutely rave about this event,” says Ambrose. “People vie for a spot on the race committee for this event because it means that much to them. Some of our sailors have dogs that come with them, and we even have members volunteer to stay at the club and care for the dogs all day.” AYC covers all event fees for sailors and crew so everyone can participate.

The day starts with breakfast and a competitors’ meeting, followed by sailing, lunch, more sailing, and an awards party and trophy presentation, sponsored by the club. And while Ambrose says it’s not a heavier lift on the club than other regattas, there are a few things volunteers need to know.

“Depending upon the participants’ individual situation, which may include paralysis, some sailors don’t sweat the way you and I do,” says Ambrose. “They can’t cool their bodies down. So part of our volunteers’ job and that of the CRAB team is to manage how those sailors are doing and feeling and hydrating. But it’s absolutely a typical regatta otherwise and we deal with no wind or too much wind like we would any other event. There are no exceptions made—it’s the same starting sequence, the same marks. It’s an adaptive sailing program but they are still very much in a standard regatta. Giving someone the opportunity to get out on the water and have races run by a top-notch, world renowned race committee is an amazing thing.”

Sailing for Veterans
One of the organizations AYC works with in adaptive sailing is Warrior Sailing, part of the USMMA Sailing Foundation since 2011 that offers a variety of training camps and sailing programs for military service members facing injury and illness. “We teach wounded and ill veterans how to sail,” says Program Manager Cory Kapes. “And partnerships with clubs are really the reason we exist.”

Veterans start in a three-day training camp to master the basics of sailing and can move on to certification programs and racing. “We partner with clubs around the country and the largest part of those partnerships comes in those three-day training camps,” Kapes explains. One of their secrets to success is being able to make just about any sailboat work for their sailors without making permanent alterations to the vessel.

“We like to say ‘no holes in boats,’” says Kapes. We replicate everything we do everywhere we go, whether it’s bench seating, bars, handles. Everything we do slides right into other boats safely and effectively and works with existing infrastructure. We’re not doing anything that’s affecting any vessel.”

Warrior Sailing’s three-day programs typically involve 18 to 21 people, with one instructor to every three veterans and six to seven boats in every certification program. “Our sailors miss the camaraderie of service,” he says. “We offer a small- team, challenging environment where you’re relying on that guy to your right and your left again, and that’s something special to offer. Some of our guys have raced around the world.” The program has also drawn involvement from professional sailors.

“One of the things clubs appreciate about us is that we don’t ask for much,” he says. “We have a team we bring in—we’re generally able to put the club staff at ease when they learn the backgrounds of our team. We usually have a club liaison who ensures the facility side of things is up and running and who we can contact if we need anything. But we’re pretty self-sufficient.” It’s helpful when clubs are reasonably close to airports and hotels, and most clubs provide lunches for the veterans during the courses.

“We’re very grateful for the clubs that support us,” Kapes says. “We couldn’t do it without them.” And it’s not unusual for veterans who learn to sail with Warrior Sailing at a private club to end up joining and becoming active in those clubs.

“We love getting a liaison with a club and finding out that person is a veteran who learned to sail with us,” Kapes says.