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Odyssey of inspiration
By JON WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- The bottle of christening champagne, someone joked, was nearly as big as the boat. Alder Allensworth, wearing a smile as broad as Tampa Bay, cracked the ceremonial jug Tuesday morning.
Then she stepped aboard a 12-foot sailboat and, as about 75 well-wishers cheered, began a 2,000-mile journey alone.
"That's my sailing coach!" beamed Lisa Wallace, who remains an athlete though she has used a wheelchair since being hit by a drunken driver 10 years ago.
Allensworth, 42, is on a journey to give others courage. In 1990, a rare and deadly eye cancer struck her; doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of survival. Radical surgery took her left eye, its socket and muscles around it -- but Allensworth received a clean bill of health in 1995.
She wants to show others that disabling illnesses and injuries can be beaten.
"It's important in life to face challenge," Allensworth said. "You've got to find a passion in your life, something you love and go for it."
Plans call for Allensworth to visit 30 to 40 ports, where she will speak to civic clubs and organizations for disabled people.
"I'm just an ordinary person who's been through some tough times," she said. "I'm nothing special. The hardest thing for me is getting out of bed."
Courage, the Gulfport resident said, can be defined by the disabled sailors here this week and last for clinics and competition. Trials start today on Tampa Bay to choose the U.S. Paralympic sailing team that will compete in Australia this fall.
The idea for Allensworth's voyage sprang from Sailing Alternatives, a Sarasota-based organization that teaches the sport to disabled people at the St. Petersburg Sailing Center.
It took about eight months to organize, said Serge Jorgensen, Sailing Alternatives president. Corporate sponsors provided much of the gear for the trip.
Jorgensen asked her to go after the sailor originally designated had to drop the project, Allensworth said.
"I had to think about it. But the challenge made me do it," she said.
Allensworth, who left her job as a counselor with Hospice of the Florida Suncoast, helps the non-profit group organize regattas and works with its volunteers.
The organization sees Allensworth's journey as another way to build community among disabled and able-bodied people, Jorgensen said. Sailing Alternatives also teaches able-bodied sailors and helps coach the Paralympic hopefuls.
The St. Petersburg Sunrise Rotary Club, which helps back Sailing Alternatives, honored Allensworth at a prelaunch breakfast.
As Allensworth prepared to sail, Bruce Watters, a Rotarian and past Yacht Club commodore, read from the Bible -- chapter four of the book of Mark, in which Jesus calms the seas.
Watters also blessed the boat, named Prevail.
Solo journeys up the Atlantic coast aren't unusual, but undertaking the trip in a boat so small is rare, Jorgensen said.
"I think she'll be setting quite a few precedents," he said.
Catching a southeast breeze breathing gently on main and jib sails, Allensworth started her first leg from the sailing center at Demens Landing, maneuvering toward the open bay.
Tom and Jean Allensworth watched their daughter depart.
"We're excited for her, but apprehensive as parents," said Tom Allensworth, who taught his daughter to sail in 1977.
Alder Allensworth became an accomplished boardsailor, but switched to crewed boats after she found that having only one eye made her less competitive on the board. She has a reputation as an aggressive sailor.
She has placed first in the Carlisle Classic against male sailors, and was first mate and navigator for the second all-women's team to compete in the annual St. Petersburg to Mexico race.
The boat that will be her home until August is much smaller than her usual craft. It is specially geared for safety, with 250 pounds of extra ballast and a reinforced mast. It weighs about 1,000 pounds, including all gear and water. She'll have aboard communication equipment and navigational aids such as global positioning system units.
In safety drills late last month, Allensworth deliberately tried to capsize the boat. It was a hard job. She had to stand on the gunwale, then climb hand over hand on a halyard to flip the boat.
"Safety's No. 1," she said. "I'm not trying to beat any records."
She'll wear a life jacket at all times, she said, in addition to a harness hooking her to the boat. She plans once a day to clean barnacles, dirt and sea grass off the boat's bottom, either while docked or anchored to a sandbar.
While sailing, she will record the trip on tape and in a notebook. She also hopes to read a bit; sailing authors Tristan Jones and Hal Roth are among her current favorites.
Allensworth looks forward to what she thinks will be a trip highlight when she reaches New York Harbor.
And she hopes to reach it by July -- in time for the Fourth of July's tall ships to escort the tiniest boat on the sea.
"I'm out here and I'm just like everybody else, and I can do this," Allensworth said.