Sailing in gorgeous conditions, I’m at the helm during my first watch on a 60-foot catamaran, 130 miles offshore in the north Atlantic. The crystal-clear night is alive with stars, the Milky Way and constellations are planetarium-bright, accented by a sliver of a crescent moon rising in the distance. After a while, the stars seem to move in slow motion.
Around 3 a.m., a tiny light on the horizon matches a blip on the radar screen. The tracking system identifies it as a three-mast square rig tall ship, and we are gaining on her. I expect to see her sails by morning. I feel like a pirate ship hunting its prey. Yarr! The experience is so perfect and ethereal, I don’t want to risk pinching myself lest this is a dream, but it’s real. I’m on my first off-shore voyage, a 900-mile passage from Boston to Canada on board an ocean-going catamaran built with universal design, aptly named the Impossible Dream.
I had a boat that I sailed on the San Francisco Bay, and I had long dreamed Mitty-esque adventures of making an extended off shore voyage. However, as decades passed, this seemed less likely, especially on a conventional sailboat where wheelchairs don’t fit, and getting around the vessel requires lots of dragging yourself by your arms. The Impossible Dream became the key to achieving my goal.
Building the Dream
The Impossible Dream was custom designed and built in 2002 for Mike Browne, a British paraplegic who wanted a boat on which he could sail the oceans independently. At 60 feet in length and 27 feet wide, with an 80-foot-high mast, she is spacious, stable and swift. Every detail of the catamaran is based on universal design and is equally accessible whether you are walking or wheeling. There are three hydraulic lifts, one to get from the dock onto the boat, and one on each side of the main cabin going down to the hulls where the boat’s two bathrooms and four cabins are located. The futuristic-looking vessel has features like push button hydraulics for sail management and trim, and a helm that looks like it could double as the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
In 2012, Impossible Dream was purchased by Deborah Mellen, a business woman with paraplegia who had discovered the exhilaration and freedom of sailing through Shake-A-Leg Miami, a nonprofit adaptive sailing and aquatics program located in Biscayne Bay, Florida. Mellen formed a nonprofit, also called Impossible Dream, which has a multifaceted mission that includes introducing sailing to groups of people with disabilities and their families and friends, raising awareness of the equalizing power of universal design and working in synergy with Shake-A-Leg.
Impossible Dream’s home mooring is at Shake-A-Leg, where she spends her winter months taking groups, many of whom are still in SCI rehab, for day trips that often inspire return visits to learn to sail. Each summer, the boat sails up the east coast stopping at many ports, usually offering three multi-hour sails a day. Last summer she stopped at 25 ports and took over 1,000 people, mostly wheelchair users, sailing — all for free, as the boat’s operations are funded by donations from individuals and corporations. “Something that has become very important to me is when we take out newly injured people and their families, the boat somehow lifts some of the physical and emotional pain they are going through,” says Mellen.
Beyond the daily sails, the nonprofit accomplishes its mission in unique ways, including competing in races crewed by a combination of disabled and nondisabled sailors, and hosting charters, like a 2016 sail from Key West, Florida, to Cuba for a week-long cultural exchange that I wrote about in “Wheeling in Cuba” [August 2016 NEW MOBILITY].
In my research for the Cuba story, I mentioned my interest in joining a passage on the Impossible Dream. In April 2017, Mellen emailed me an offer that I couldn’t refuse: “In June, the Impossible Dream will be providing a week of day sails in Boston harbor during Sail Boston Tall Ships Rendez-Vous 2017 — a regatta of 40 tall ships from around the world — and will join the tall ships on their 900-mile, seven-day offshore sail from Boston to Canada. Would you like to go?” Even better, my longtime friend Allen Fiske, a T11 paraplegic, who I had sailed with for years, phoned me and said he would be on the passage. This was an opportunity to realize our dream together! I booked my flight.
I arrived in Boston early so I could go on several sails taking participants to view the tall ships. On June 20, I joined a group of SCI inpatients and therapists from Spaulding Rehab Hospital, a state-of-the-art facility that overlooks Charlestown Marina where Impossible Dream was docked, on a warm afternoon sail under a blue sky.
This was a first outing for many of the participants. Talk about a cool transition. Wheeling from your rehab, across a dock onto a universally designed sailboat! People wheeled on board, some in manual and some in power chairs. After touring the main cabin, most people wheeled to the foredeck for an up-close view of the tall ships, and to enjoy a healthy dose of “vitamin sea.” Being introduced to sailing, experiencing the universal design of the boat, as well as hearing some of its history — including a solo transatlantic crossing made by sailor and quadriplegic Jeff Holt — is a powerful example of what is possible.
“I’ve never been sailing before — this is something I would like to learn to do,” remarked Sean Quin, 23, who has been injured at C5 for 12 weeks. “The best thing about today is being out in the sun, the wind and the smell of salt water!” A sail on the Impossible Dream is exactly what Cynthia Payne-Meyer, 59, who was injured 12 weeks ago at C4, needed. “I love being on the water,” she says. “I’ve never sailed before, and hearing that I can learn to sail on my own with a chin control sounds remarkable!”
Captain William Rey says the gushing reactions are the norm. “I’ve seen some powerful transformations when people sail with us,” says Rey. “For many they are sailing for the first time, and everything is fully accessible, probably more accessible than what they encounter on land. It’s a big deal, and it shows that there is hope. The boat can help to be a catalyst for change. Helping change and improve a person’s life is incredibly gratifying.”
For the next day and a half, we provisioned and prepared the boat. Fiske and I were on board with Rey, the first mate and the assistant first mate. We wondered if we were going to be passengers, or would we get to crew and have time at the helm sailing? Rey already knew Fiske’s extensive sailing background, which includes a captain’s license. He asked about my sailing background and proceeded to show us the very cool and somewhat complex systems for sail trim, engines and navigation, including touch screens that showed everything from charts, radar, and weather, to music choice via satellite radio or smartphone. Then he called a meeting and announced a watch list. Fiske and I were members of the five-person crew! The schedule was a rotation of three-hour watches, followed by backing up the next watch. Not only were we crew, we would have multiple opportunities at the helm sailing the boat, responsible for sail trim, navigation, watching for boats and ships and hourly log entries. All at the helm of the coolest boat I’ve ever seen.
On the warm sunny afternoon of June 22, we released the dock lines and headed for Canada. It was both exciting and a big leap of faith. I’d never sailed out of sight of land for more than an hour or so, and there was a little voice that said “what if it turns out I don’t like it?” And I’m not immune to sea sickness.
The Open Seas
Any trepidation about being offshore vanished during my first watch, from 1-4 a.m. The sailing conditions were epic. I basked under the stars before being greeted by a radiant sunrise at 3:30 a.m.
Although the weather remained perfect throughout the day, the weather charts showed the tail end of a tropical storm was bearing down on us. It arrived the following day with 10 foot swells, winds gusting to 35 knots and a cold rain that reduced visibility to zero. We were navigating by compass and electronic chart plotter. Fiske and I were encouraged to practice steering by hand because the seas became big enough to overpower the auto helm. Fiske went first and quickly dialed in. “It was some of the roughest water I’ve been out in, but the universal design combined with the stability of a catamaran helped a lot,” says Fiske. “I had to have one hand for the chair and one for the boat, and even though it was uncomfortable, it was way easier than it would have been in a mono-hull.”
I took the helm to practice hand steering next, and soon caught on. It was so fun that, later, on one of the smoother days, I did a double watch, hand steering much of the time, grateful to have the opportunity to be at the helm of this amazing boat.
The trip had been so exciting I hadn’t had much sleep for about two days. When the first mate took over, I took the lift down to my cabin for a quick afternoon nap. As I lay there, the sound of water rushing by the hulls seemed inches from my head. I could feel the rise and fall as we surfed wave after wave, the motion quickly lulling me to a deep sleep, my dreams a continuation of the previous two days — sailing a catamaran in the north Atlantic, a boat so accessible my wheelchair was irrelevant. In what seemed like a moment, my alarm went off, time for my midnight watch.
The storm raged for a day and a half as we sailed up the coast of Nova Scotia, and then abated as quickly as it arrived. A calm, clear morning welcomed us to Canadian customs, and we passed into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. I found that at sea, the problems and stresses of land tend to vanish, or at least are temporarily left behind, replaced by the rhythms of weather, wind, waves and tides. Fiske and I were getting used to, possibly spoiled by, living in the universally design environment on board the catamaran. My back even felt better, pain free for the first time in a long time, likely due to constant gentle stretching from the rocking of the boat.
Since we were three days ahead of schedule, we made time to explore. Highlights included dodging lobster pots on our way to anchoring in scenic Malpeque Bay on Prince Edward Island, learning to shuck and feasting on world-famous Malpeque oysters, fresh off a local boat.
Much of our spare time at sea was passed talking and sharing stories. One of my favorites was about Fiske’s five-year renewal of his captain’s license. “Earning my license included taking a physical, which clearly states ‘T11 paraplegic,’ he says. “When I went to renew it, they said ‘You can’t be a captain, you’re a paraplegic.’” Fiske replied, “I know, I’ve been paralyzed for 25 years, and I’ve had my license and been doing charters for the last five years.” Fiske didn’t back down, and the Coast Guard agreed to go out with him on a sea trial, where they threw a life size dummy overboard and said “man overboard, save him.”
“I did exactly the right maneuver. I pulled up next to the dummy and threw a life sling, and my buddy fished him out. They renewed my license,” says Fiske.
The next day, we set sail on the final 100 miles to Caraquet, sailing on light winds, glassy seas, with a line of picturesque thunderstorms off our port side. Arriving in Caraquet the next day was the completion of a successful trip and the realization of a dream.
When asked what Impossible Dream means to him, first mate Evan Duffy says it makes sailing about ability, not which body parts you can move. It enables nondisabled people and people with disabilities to work together, with everybody doing their fair share.
Rey and Mellen want more people to share in this experience and realize their dreams. “We have found that this is so powerful that even doing three trips a day we need more space to take out more people,” says Rey. Mellen says the organization is raising money for a larger, 80-foot catamaran that can take more people and offer even more access. On the current boat, the lift down to the cabins and bathrooms cannot support power wheelchairs, forcing users to transfer to a manual chair to go down. A larger boat would ideally rectify this problem and add advanced technology to enable higher-level quadriplegics to drive the boat. Mellen estimates a new vessel would cost around $10 million, no small change, but as Rey is apt to say after a busy day of taking people sailing, “We need a bigger boat!”
For information about sailing on Impossible Dream, including the 2018 summer schedule, check out the website below.
• Impossible Dream, impossibledream.us
• Shake-A-Leg Miami, 305/858-5550; www.shakealegmiami.org
• “Wheeling in Cuba: 90 Miles Away and a World Apart,” NEW MOBILITY, August 2016, www.newmobility.com/2016/08/wheelchair-accessible-cuba