Sailing through their disabilities
By CHRISTINA HEADRICK
© St. Petersburg Times,
The only time the 84-year-old retired Sand Key resident looked vulnerable was when two volunteers used a hydraulic lift to hoist him several feet into the air from his wheelchair. They gently swung Stagg over the dock at the Clearwater Community Sailing Center and lowered him into a new Access Dinghy sailboat.
Stagg asked a few questions about the boat's rigging. Then the old salt pulled on his leather gloves. At that moment, he was just a sailor, and a pretty good one, with 70 years of sailing experience under his belt.
"I'm here to help," Stagg said in a gruff, serious voice reminiscent of Clint Eastwood.
A dozen people in wheelchairs lined the dock beside Stagg's boat, awaiting a ride.
By the end of the summer, many of these sailing novices will be out of their wheelchairs and into their own solo boats, even if they lack the use of their arms and legs. A new program that will help them, called Sailability Florida, will be one of three in the state.
Already featured on CNN, Sailability Florida's mission is to help people of all ages and abilities learn how to sail, which is possible using stable, easy-to-maneuver Access Dinghies from Australian boat builder Chris Mitchell.
Even someone who is quadriplegic can sail independently in one of these boats, using an electric joystick that moves the rudder and lets the sail in and out.
Other boats have a manual joystick that steers the boat, in addition to specially rigged cords that can be pulled to adjust the sail. The sailor sits low in the boat, and a 45- to 60-pound centerboard makes the craft almost impossible to flip.
"You can't tell once someone's parked in these boats whether they're disabled or not," city Harbormaster Bill Morris said. "The goal is to have an
integrated program, with all kinds of people using these boats."
Sailability's first three Access Dinghies -- all purchased by donations from other community groups -- arrived recently from Australia. They were tested for the first time Saturday.
Thrilled sailors included Mary Ann Hennosy, a St. Petersburg artist who has cerebral palsy. She was all smiles as she went out in the two-seater guided by Stagg.
Eric Costen, a 27-year-old from St. Petersburg who is blind, said that riding in one of the Access Dinghies was like sitting in a Cadillac.
Jennifer Penko, 29, and her fiance, Tim French, 39, also took off together in a boat. They moved to Florida recently from Cleveland, primarily to be able to sail.
Penko bruised her upper spinal cord while snowboarding three years ago. She was originally told she would be a quadriplegic, but then feeling returned to her arms and she worked to learn how to use them again.
She has sensation in her legs now and hopes to walk again.
In the meantime, Penko wants to sail. In addition to Sailability, she also has tried a program called Sailing Alternatives in St. Petersburg, which trains disabled participants to compete in national and international competitions.
Penko characterized the Access Dinghy as a "great little learning boat." Another highlight was that a pod of dolphins circled the grass flats near Sand Key while she was on the water.
"This is a dream for someone in a wheelchair," Penko said.
Already, there are plans to hold a North American championship this fall for Access Dinghy competitors in Clearwater, which will include a visit from a woman who sails with a ventilator in a specially designed model.
And more Access Dinghies, which cost $2,500 to $4,500 depending on size and whether they have electronics, will be added to the fleet at the city's sailing center as people sponsor their purchase.
Three more boats are already on order.
Two people in particular have been the wind behind the Sailability effort.
Alder Allensworth is a 43-year-old psychotherapist who works with Hospice of the Florida Suncoast's bereavement program.
Allensworth made national headlines last year when she sailed up the Atlantic Coast to prove that people who have had a disabling injury or sickness need not be held back.
A decade ago, a rare cancer in a tear gland required Allensworth to undergo radical surgery to remove her left eye, eye socket and additional tissue back to her brain. She was given a 10 percent chance of living, but Allensworth was back in a sailboat within a week and recovered.
Now she is tapping friends in the local sailing community to assist with Sailability.
Allensworth couldn't believe that two dozen people turned out Saturday to see Sailability's new boats, thanks to publicity through the Tampa Bay area's Spinal Cord Injuries Outreach Network.
"I'm just astounded," Allensworth said. "I'm really excited about the people here."
Stagg is another blustery force behind Sailability. The retired bank official has been sailing since he was a kid in upstate New York. He lost the use of his legs when a powerboat struck him while he was windsurfing 14 years ago.
He continued to race sailboats despite his injury. And he has bugged Clearwater officials for years to make sailing more accessible.
When Allensworth came along with the idea to start Sailability, Stagg encouraged fellow members of Paralyzed Veterans of America to help purchase two of Sailability's new boats.
Stagg is enthusiastic about introducing people to sailing.
"You have to overcome your fear of the water, and you have to overcome your fear of your disability," he said. "You have to get rid of your negative ideas and keep the positive ones. You go sailing once, and then see the progress from there. You have to want to do it."
Mike Ackley, a 40-year-old Palm Harbor resident, says the new Sailability project in Clearwater is already a success.
Ackley bought a small powerboat that will be used as a safety boat to follow the Access Dinghies during sailing classes that begin this summer. He helped rig all three dinghies Saturday afternoon.
Ackley's family moved to Florida a few years ago from New York after he suffered a severe spinal cord injury. About 15 cases of beer fell on top of him while he was working for a beer manufacturer. He hopes the warmer climate here will delay the day when he needs a wheelchair.
Ackley watched with amazement Saturday as Bill Sundberg, a 55-year-old Seminole resident, allowed himself to be hoisted into the double-seated Access Dinghy 303 with Stagg.
Sundberg, a quadriplegic who broke his neck in a diving accident in the 1970s, had never tried such a small boat. Hoots and hollers erupted from a group of Sailability volunteers on the dock as Sundberg and Stagg sailed away.
"That guy is so very discriminating about safety," Ackley declared. "I had said to myself, "Success will be when we get Bill on the water."'
Saturday, that's exactly where Sundberg was.
Sundberg said Stagg was a terrific captain, even explaining shifts in the wind. After about 20 minutes on the Intracoastal Waterway, Stagg maneuvered back to the city's sailing center so another person could ride with him.
Sundberg said he'll probably be back.
"You could easily spend five hours out there," Sundberg said. "Just look at it. This is a beautiful spot."
How to get involved
Sailability Florida will offer sailing classes at a cost of $100. Organizations that want to help purchase more boats and equipment, as well as people who want to be instructors, captains and sailors, can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 327-0137.
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