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Uncharted waters

Tim Swieckowski is a quadriplegic, but a specially designed boat allows him to be one of the few who sail on their own.

By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published May 9, 2004

SAND KEY - The afternoon gusts suddenly have grown stronger on the choppy waves of Clearwater Bay, but the young man in the tiny sailboat adjusts without missing a beat. Wavy brown hair flying in the breeze, he sets his sail in tight and steers upwind.

It is a course Tim Swieckowski knows well.

He navigates the sea the same way he traverses his daily life, fueled by an unflagging determination to face the next challenge, propelled not by the wind but by the strength of his own breath.

On land he is confined to his wheelchair. But here beneath the bright, cloudless Gulf sky, he is transformed by a dinghy named Speedy that carries him upright and snug. On the water, it's almost as if he has the use of his arms and torso and legs again, such as a race car driver fully in charge of his fate.

"I feel like I'm driving a Lamborghini," Swieckowski, 29, says later. "I'm totally in control. It's just me, alone, and the boat.

"And all I've got are the straws."

* * *

The straws.

They are long black tubes that have become his lifelines, treasured links to independence for a man who became a quadriplegic after a 1990 bicycle accident, paralyzing him from the shoulders down.

Swieckowski (pronounced switch-COW-ski) relies on a single tube for his bright green motorized wheelchair, controlling its movement by the way he blows into it or sucks air out. This is known as the sip-and-puff system, technology that has been around since the 1970s. But with two straws, he has joined only a handful of people in the world who have taken it a step further: to the water.

In Swieckowski's case, the desire to sail was spurred by his study of sunken treasure from centuries-old Spanish galleons, which disappeared with their valuable cargo beneath the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. He has been immersed in research and fund-raising the past decade for treasure recovery projects and increasingly craved a closer connection to the water, to better understand the elements and uncertainty Spanish fleets faced.

Help came some 18 months ago on two fronts: from a woman who started Sailability Greater Tampa Bay Inc., a group in Sand Key that teaches boating to disabled individuals; and a Largo wheelchair manufacturer, Custom Mobility, that figured out a way - using two tubes instead of one - to adapt the intricate, breath-controlled electronics to the rudder and sail of a 7-foot dinghy.

So began the voyage of the sip-and-puff sailor.

* * *

For just over a year now, Swieckowski has been sailing solo in the pristine green water off Sand Key and Clearwater Beach, aided by volunteers from the local Sailability and its creator, Alder Allensworth.

This past October, Swieckowski entered the North American Championship and International Regatta, hosted by Sailability at its home site at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. Twenty-eight disabled sailors, from age 12 to 87, competed in the access dinghy competition. Swieckowski was pitted against much more experienced sailors, many of whom were paraplegics who could use their hands to operate their boats with joysticks.

He faced a different logistical challenge than a joystick posed: controlling four basic motions with a pair of bendable straws, each connected to an interface that translates breaths into electronic signals.

The straw that wrapped in from around the right side of his face gave him rudder control - blowing to turn right, sucking to turn left. The one that wrapped around from the left controlled the sail - blowing out to let it loose, sucking to bring it in tight.

His father, Mike, a retired electrical inspector, contributed a key innovation. He added a third straw from thin tubing common in fish tanks to create a water-sipping system.

Meanwhile, Swieckowski's torso was kept steady in a specially fitted chair, lowered via a boom with an electric lift into the dinghy below.

With all that, Swieckowski made it to the finals. And he won. In the 2.3 Silver Fleet dinghy category, he took first place against two sailors from a competitive Miami team, and added a second place, too.

His next goal this year: to make the longest sail in time and distance by a quadriplegic and land a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Swieckowski says one man lasted six hours on Lake Ontario. His plan will be to sail for about 15 hours solo - from Clearwater, down the beaches into Tampa Bay, over to Tampa and then to St. Petersburg.

Swieckowski likely will make his journey in a larger dinghy donated by the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, run by the Superman actor who was paralyzed from the neck down after an equestrian accident in 1995. Sailability is trying to raise money to equip the dinghy with a sip-and-puff system while Swieckowski focuses on getting funds to pay a support crew for his run at the record.

"There's so much that can come from me doing this," Swieckowski says. "I want to raise awareness and show people what they can accomplish. All I need out there on the water is my breath. So I want people to see, you might come in first, you might come in last, but if you're out there trying, you're already successful."

* * *

Inside a small duplex on Indian Rocks Beach, Swieckowski's most impressive accomplishment of all, sailing included, may be the casual way he has mastered the little details of an average day.

Mundane tasks - turning on and off lights, answering e-mail, playing CDs, surfing the Web, opening the door - are technological moments at which to marvel thanks to a computer system named Max.

His father wired the whole place to the voice-activated environmental control system. Swieckowski gives a command - "Max, I need your help" - and the computer springs to life similar to a robot from The Jetsons: "Multi-media Max at your service!"

A miniature microphone attached to a straw near his mouth allows Swieckowski to communicate with Max at a moment's notice, operating household appliances without having to rely on anyone else. A nurse does spend several hours a day at the duplex, helping Swieckowski get out of bed in the morning, bathing and feeding him and handling his physical therapy. At night, a nurse lays him back into bed.

But in between, Swieckowski, whose search for sunken riches was the subject of a Times story two years ago, is largely on his own. He spends countless hours with a second voice-activated computer in a bedroom that doubles as his office. He dictates letters via a voice recognition program called Dragon Pad, does painstaking research on locations of shipwrecks for his company Dream Quest Adventures (www.dreamquest.cc) planning search expeditions with associates off the Panhandle and Key West.

At night, even when he lies in bed flat on his back, the work continues. Mike Swieckowski built a rail above the bed and attached a moving cable to the flat screen of the second computer. That way, it can be positioned directly above his son, who often works well into the pre-dawn hours.

"I never stop," he says. "I work about 20 hours a day, because I only need about four hours of sleep. And any time that I'm getting set up for my shower, or doing range of motion exercises, I'll have a book up on a stand. My mind is constantly expanding."

Usually, his thoughts encompass the sea. Everywhere you look, his passion for the water adorns the rooms - glass cases filled with miniature galleons, a tiny gold treasure chest and sand dollars. There are paintings of more ships, movie posters from Pirates of the Caribbean signed by some of the cast. He even looks the part, with gold earrings in each lobe, and a Spanish piece of eight dangling from his neck.

"The dream for me is trying to find history that was lost," he says.

Lost in the shipwrecks. Lost, too, one night in a wreck of his own.

* * *

Before it happened, he was an all-cylinders kid from Colorado who was into everything - soccer, basketball, wrestling, football, snorkeling, even boxing. Where sports left off, music took over: alto, tenor and soprano sax and clarinet in the school bands.

He put together his own bicycle, buying all his own parts, and tinkered with go-carts, too.

"It was like trying to harness a hurricane," says his father, Mike. "You couldn't do it. You'd prepare for any disaster he might create or any course he might take, and he'd always dodge around you."

School never came easy for Swieckowski, the middle of three brothers. He was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and dyslexia and placed in special education classes where he got little help for his learning disabilities. Some mainstream classmates could be cruel, but Swieckowski stayed upbeat and busy. At 15, he had a girlfriend. And one evening, he was biking home from her house as darkness and snow fell.

Amid the road construction, there was no way to see that the bike lane abruptly ended at a 6-foot deep ditch. He plunged in head-first, sustaining major damage to his spinal cord. Swieckowski lay there in 18-degree cold for 90 minutes before his frantic parents retraced his route and found him near death.

"He was a code black when the ambulance arrived," says his father. "He might have survived only another 15 minutes."

But when Swieckowski recounts the crash, he remembers another sensation beyond the trauma and the initial fear. "I lay in that ditch, and I couldn't move, but all of a sudden this real peace and surrender came over me," he says. "This just blissful persona flowed. It was that peace that people say can come right before you die. I believe that when I was found in that ditch, I was in a state of spiritual evolving. And that's the stage I stayed at."

He attributes his positive outlook since the accident to that experience. "I've never been depressed or angry about it," he says. He and his parents certainly had good reason, especially when the Colorado Supreme court refused to hear the case, meaning the city of Fort Collins was not liable for the accident and the family would receive no settlement.

Instead, Swieckowski says he focused on other things. Four months after the accident, still in a Denver children's hospital, he started a weekly newspaper for other young patients. "I went to each kid's room and got their stories, and then I put together what we called the Fifth Floor News. It brought everyone's morale up."

Through the years, Swieckowski has remained determined to lead as independent, enriching a life as possible. He moved out of his parent's house into an apartment at 18, with daily help from healthcare workers. Soon, he was a college student, giving motivational speeches on the side. And 10 years ago - a year-and-a-half shy of graduating from Colorado State University - he decided to move to Florida to do research for a company looking for shipwrecks.

Several years ago, he formed his own fledgling company. Meanwhile, Social Security, Medicaid and the Florida Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Program cover the roughly $90,000 in annual medical care.

His parents, Mike and Cathy, followed their son to Florida, settling in Largo. They have been his constant support system. "I've got the greatest parents in the world," he says.

"Not one year, not one night, has gone by without them there for me."

* * *

Not long ago, he found a new support system.

A member of the Clearwater Sailing Center who had seen Swieckowski give a talk about shipwrecks asked him to speak at the center. That led to an introduction to Sailability's Alder Allensworth, who asked him if he'd like to learn to sail.

Swieckowski pictured a bunch of people on wheelchairs being placed on a boat for a ride. It didn't appeal to him, but he went anyway and was instantly thrilled. He began training soon after.

But he wanted more. He wanted to sail all by himself. So he approached Bruce Bayes, president of Custom Mobility, the firm that equipped Swieckowski's motorized wheelchair. Bayes and his staff were concerned with liability issues, but he visited Allensworth and her group (sailability.org/us/florida) and came away determined to help Swieckowski realize his dream.

In essence, they built, free of charge, a sip-and-puff chair that would attach to the inside of a dinghy. It took three months but worked like a charm.

Safety precautions are an utmost priority. If the winds are too strong, Allensworth won't allow the boat on the water, though she stresses it's flip-proof.

"It's great for people with disabilities, because it won't flip over," she says.

"When I put the centerboard in, it's not going anywhere."

Still, Allensworth always makes sure a motorboat is close behind Swieckowski, in the event of the unexpected. So far, his only problem came during the regatta when his dinghy listed hard, pulling him with it - and his mouth away from the straws.

So his father is designing a seat fitting that will remain upright, similar to a boat compass, no matter how the dinghy leans.

Swieckowski stresses that he minimizes his risks by always being well-prepared. That includes knowing how to hold his breath underwater in an emergency from scuba diving training he's had.

"I don't worry about tipping over," he says. "If I did, it would take a safety crew to pull me out of my safety harness. ... But being scared is not my nature."

When he is on the water, he is alone in his thoughts. He watches for dolphins and imagines them swimming alongside him one day.

He thinks of his treasure quest, of how powerful the ocean is and how vulnerable he is by comparison.

He thinks of the control of mobility he once had, of the control he needs now to make so many constant tiny adjustments in the wind. His head and mouth rarely have time to rest.

Some corroded electronics in the dinghy wiring kept Swieckowski landbound the past four months, but on a recent afternoon, he returned to the sea.

He was joined by Allensworth and his father, four volunteers who helped prepare the boat and a friend named Pam he met recently online.

Soon, Swieckowski was fastened to his chair, fitted in an orange life vest, and lowered in a blue mesh net into the dinghy.

Across the bay, a red tourist boat built similar to a pirate ship from the days of the treasure expeditions, fired cannon shots.

Swieckowski enjoyed the serendipitous moment. Then, off he went to face a brisk northeasterly wind, soaking up the sun, sipping and puffing his way through the vast rolling waves.

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