‘The canvas can do miracles’: Private/public partnership promotes sailing for disabled

Private/public partnership promotes sailing for disabled

Lance Shearer

The song “Sailing” by Christopher Cross might have said it best, or at least the most melodiously.

“The canvas can do miracles, just you wait and see. Just a dream and the wind to carry me … ”

There is nothing like the freedom of sailing on the water, turning the power of the wind into forward motion, gliding along with the rudder and sheet alive in your hands.

A sailor gives a thumbs-up as the boat heads out onto the lake. Adults and children with physical and developmental challenges sailed in the annual Freedom Waters Regatta Saturday at Sugden Park, enjoying the freedom and control of piloting a small boat.

Allowing those with physical or developmental challenges to experience this feeling of independence and control is the impetus for Collier County’s Adaptive Sailing Program. Run by the county’s Parks and Recreation Department in conjunction with the Freedom Waters Foundation, the initiative allows youths and adults, many with Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism, the thrill of captaining their own ship, in a safe and supervised environment.

The program operates weekly during the cooler months, using Access sloops specially designed for maximum safety and stability, or tip-proofness. Those who can sail without assistance cruise around the 60-acre lake at Sugden Regional Park solo, while those who need a little more assistance are paired with a volunteer co-captain.

That sailing is non-competitive, just for the joy of letting the breeze glide you around the lake. But once a year, the sailors put their skills to the test, and challenge each other in a full-fledged sailing regatta. Called “Shenanigans on the Lake,” the regatta is in its 14th or maybe 15th year at Sugden, and it took place last Saturday.

About 20 sailors, developmentally disabled or with physical handicaps including one who is legally blind, participated in the races, with enough volunteers helping out to provide more than a one-to-one ratio. Some joined the clients in a sailboat, some manned the committee boat in the lake running the races, some roamed around in outboard-powered safety boats, and some remained on shore, rigging the sails and handling logistics. The volunteers joked and horsed around as they helped, seeming to enjoy themselves as much as the clients.

Saturday morning brought perfect conditions, with blue skies and a cool, gentle breeze filling the sails without causing concern of capsizing. Parks and Recreation Dept. Senior Program Leader Patricia Rosen bounced around the docks, getting sailors together with boats, ensuring each had their “joystick” or tiller, and even lifting one participant from her wheelchair down into the cockpit of her sloop.

Married couple Richie and Pam Shaw came over from Palm Beach County with a group of six sailors plus escorts. Pam has cerebral palsy, Richie a developmental disability, but the pair got into one of the sloops and sailed off together.

Kris Scheppe is legally blind, but sails by himself.

“I can see straight ahead,” he said. “It’s like I have pinhole vision.” He has taken a number of sailing titles and medals, including a silver at the 2015 US Sail Championship, and a bronze at the US Blind Mtach Sail Racing regatta. “I’m a certified basic keelboat instructor,” he said.


Like any racing sailors, these skippers “jilled about” between races, sailing off in all directions. But when starter Bill Meisner on the committee boat called out the next race on his bullhorn and raised the green flag, a gaggle of boats assembled by the starting buoy, and the race was on.

These captains were way more laidback than most racing sailors. No fouls were called, no protests recorded, and sailors and committee took a laissez-faire attitude toward exactly which side of the buoys the boats were supposed to go.

If a sailor wandered off into the shallows or was pinned by the wind on the wrong side of the lake, friendly help was soon on hand from the safety boats manned by volunteers including Mike Hewitt.

Freedom Waters Foundation, Collier County’s partner in the adaptive sailing program, provides a wide range of programs allowing people who would not normally be able to get out on the water to enjoy the experience. Programs include boat outings for children with life-threatening diseases, fishing trips for at-risk youth, and fishing trips and boat cruises for veterans, in addition to the adaptive sailing at Sugden Park.

Those interested in finding out more about the Freedom Waters Foundation, a 501(c)3 group, and helping fund their therapeutic aquatic programs, can call 239-263-2377, or go online to www.freedomwatersfoundation.org.