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Sailing’s power of restorative medicine is good for all

2015 July 1

Sailing’s power of restorative medicine is good for all


For shoreside spectators, it had all the makings of an epic race. The two dinghies were side by side, their masts flexing in unison as dark blue wind lines danced across the water from the tree-lined shore. 

Both skippers were focused intently on the luff of their sails, neither looking at the other and neither giving an inch. It was clearly a well-established rivalry reminiscent of great races fought during the Olympics or the America’s Cup.

Was this a racecourse off San Diego, California, or Newport, Rhode Island? The showdown for a gold medal or the Cup? 

No, this was Jeffrey and Tor just heading back to the small wooden dock after a sail on Lake Okeeheelee in West Palm Beach, Florida. Stepping onto the rough wooden planks and fumbling with his life jacket straps, Jeffrey had one word to share: “Fun!”

If you’re assuming that Jeffrey and Tor then strolled up to a glossy yacht club for bloody Marys on the porch, you’d be wrong. The “yacht club” was a few dozen folding chairs under a pair of shade tents for protection from the Florida sun. There was no bar, and the restaurant was a folding table with bags of potato chips and a couple of pizza boxes.

Jeffrey, you see, is challenged. Not challenged in the sense that he had trouble handling the gusty winds. Jeffrey is challenged because his body may be 43 years old, but Jeffrey is still a child mentally. Jeffrey will always be a child. And Tor? Tor is 53 and has an added challenge: He is legally blind. 

It was Nancy, a friend of She Who Must Be Obeyed, who said, “Hey, we’re going sailing on Sunday. Come on down.” And so we did, and I rediscovered three things about sailing that I’d lost. 

The first was exactly what Jeffrey said: “Fun!”

All the sailors that Sunday faced challenges, from cerebral palsy to autism, cystic fibrosis to missing limbs, and yet nothing was going to keep them from having fun out on the water. 

Nancy’s daughter, Jessica, uses a wheelchair, but Nancy brings her down to Okeeheelee every Sunday to let her enjoy the wind, the sun and the breeze, along with a group of several dozen other parents and their brood.

Managed by the Therapeutic Recreation program in the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department, the boats that Jeffrey and Tor and the others sailed are Access 303s, 10-footers designed specifically for sailors with disabilities, with heavy centerboards, high sides and a canvas sling for seating. There’s no hiking on these boats, and steering is by a joystick. 

At one point, I hopped in the electric-powered chase boat with Steve Luzinski, who has been running the program every Sunday for 11 years. Our mission was to keep an eye on the sailors, offer advice when needed or pull them out of the reeds if their attention wandered, which it did. As we towed one skipper into deep water, Steve said with a wry grin, “We have a few challenges here.”  It was classic understatement.

But what struck me was the sheer, unadulterated joy on the faces of every one of the sailors. They were literally glowing with the pleasure of being on the water. Reaching, running or stuck in the reeds, they were truly happy. Jeffrey said it all in a word: “Fun!”

It made me appreciate something that many of us seem to have forgotten: that sailing should be about fun. 

I’ve used this page to rail against bored yacht club kids sailing tricked-out 

$8,000 Optimist prams, but what I saw on Lake Okeeheelee was good for my soul. It made me realize that many of us take sailing for granted when it is both so wonderful and so difficult for the challenged sailors of Okeeheelee. Sailing can be restorative medicine.

The second thing I re-learned came from Jeffery’s mother Beverly, who reminded me why sailing is so good for all of us, and not just those of us with special challenges. 

“It’s a whole different world for them on the water than it is on shore,”  Beverly said. 

“It’s their only chance to really be in control.” 

Aaron lost both legs and his memory to a motorcycle accident, but he was out of his wheelchair and into one of the boats within moments of arriving at the lake. His mother had a similar take on why he loves sailing. “It means freedom to him. He has no freedom in his life, except when he’s sailing.”

Think about that one for a moment.

Looking around the makeshift yacht club, with parents in chairs and munchies on the table, I realized the third thing I had been missing in sailing: a sense of community.

These parents were drawn together by challenges and, as Nancy said, “We gave up crying years ago.” But as I listened in on their conversations, there was laughter and sharing. It was a camaraderie born of obstacles most people can’t even conceive, and yet it was good-natured. There was praise, such as “Good docking, Karen,” to a youngster of 36 who is blind in one eye, and some razzing, such as “Don’t you like us anymore, Mark?” to an autistic skipper who sailed to a far corner of the lake. It was a community of shared joys and pains.

When I considered the amount of pleasure per minute each of these people get from sailing, and then considered my own unthinking acceptance of the gift of sailing, I resolved to savor every moment I am so very lucky to spend on the water. 

That afternoon on Okeeheelee reminded me that sailing should always be about fun, that it is one of our last freedoms, and that it is about a sense of community. 

And that sailing truly can be good medicine.