ANNAPOLIS, JUNE 16 -- With passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act last month, Congress helped make the land a more hospitable place for the nation's 43 million disabled citizens. Meanwhile, a nonprofit organization based here is working to make the sea more accessible as well.
The National Ocean Access Project sponsored a clinic at Sandy Point State Park this afternoon to acquaint the disabled with the joys of marine sports such as sailing and scuba diving. About 75 Baltimore-Washington area residents with disabilities from spinal cord, eye and head injuries lined up for Chesapeake Bay cruises in the project's three specially adapted sailboats and four other vessels donated for the day.
"The organization of groups like this means I am a human being again. I can do things with other people," said Martha Ranne, of Silver Spring, who could barely sit still in her wheelchair while waiting for her first sailboat ride in more than three decades.
Parked underneath a shady tree overlooking the docks, with her husband and son by her side, and with a white straw hat in her lap, Ranne said she had shied away from the water since she was paralyzed in an automobile accident 10 years ago. She has taken a couple of transatlantic voyages and accepted one or two rides in power boats but felt hampered by their inaccessibility.
"It's been too much of an imposition on the family. I don't want my husband to get a hernia from lifting me into and out of the boat," she said.
With a group of volunteers and a plywood "transfer box" (essentially a platform with a slick ramp attached) to help passengers over the especially low side decks, Ranne and other would-be sailors easily made the trip from shore to ship, leaving their wheelchairs behind for the hourlong cruises.
The key to the project's program, however, is what is on board its fleet of custom-designed Freedom Independence sloops, said Donald Backe, executive director of the four-year-old organization, which was founded in Newport, R.I., but moved to Annapolis last year.
The 20-foot fiberglass daysailers have no cabins but come equipped with a pair of seats that lock into place and can be swiveled from side to side for tacking. With a stiff mast and a heavily battened keel, the boats are extremely stable and virtually unsinkable. The simplified rigging to raise and lower the sails can be fully managed from either chair.
While hundreds of disabled sailors regularly get out on the water without the benefit of these features, Backe said the beauty of the Freedom sloops is the confidence they give novices and the independence they offer more experienced boaters, who can sail them solo.
"It makes everything easier, especially if they don't already have the sailing 'bug,' " Backe said. "It's a lot harder to get the bug if you are worried about whether you'll be safe or how you will look on a boat."
Backe, a lifelong sailor and a former headmaster of a Takoma Park private school, credits the project with restoring much of his enthusiasm for life after he was injured in an automobile accident two years ago.
"It reunited me with recreation, in the classical sense of re-creation, and after that, everything else became possible," said Backe, who now uses a wheelchair on land. "It made me think I could do anything I wanted to; it was just a matter of figuring out how."
Most of the people in today's workshop were first-timers, such as Dennis Bozell, 27, of Westminster, Md., a paraplegic who has participated in organized basketball, skiing and track events for disabled athletes. Shirtless and with his knees tied together to keep his feet in place, Bozell steered a boat onto the bay and pivoted his seat to keep out of the way of the swinging boom.
"You're doing a great job with that tiller, better than anyone I've ever seen who's never handled one before," volunteer Gary Madison told him.
There was little wind on the bay, though. And after returning to the dock, Bozell was unsure whether he would sign up for the project's 35-hour course, finding sailing "a little slow for my blood."