April Schrock was losing the race.

On a breezy Saturday morning last month, her sailboat — one of six doing battle on a short course set between two yellow buoys in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay — lagged well behind the others, headed stubbornly in the wrong direction. Schrock, 43, sighed in frustration. She pushed back a lock of brown hair, adjusted her knee brace and guided the tiller into a more promising position.

It was her third time on a boat — and her third time sailing with Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB), a nonprofit operating out of Maryland’s Sandy Point State Park that offers free sailing lessons to people with disabilities. Schrock, an Army veteran dealing with PTSD and debilitating knee injuries, said later that she didn’t really mind coming in last.

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“I’ve always dreamed of going sailing but never had the money for it,” she said. “The great thing about water is, you become part of it, part of its movement. … With my leg, I can’t be active like I was, so this is a way to find the peace I lost.”

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Schrock is one of more than 600 people with disabilities (and hundreds of their family members and friends) who have benefited from CRAB’s programming this year, said Paul Bollinger Jr., the group’s executive director. In the roughly 30 years since CRAB’s founding, that number probably stretches “easily” into the tens of thousands, though 2019 will set an annual record, he said.

Plus, Bollinger added, the group is poised to significantly expand and diversify its fleet of sailboats (currently around a half-dozen, with a bonus canoe). In 2020, CRAB plans to open a $3.5 million marina — an “adaptive boating center,” he said — in Annapolis, Md., specifically designed for boaters with disabilities. The marina will be funded through state and local government grants, according to Bollinger, as well as private donations.

“When we move to the boating center, we will potentially double our number of guests,” said Bollinger, who left his job as a consultant in 2016 to lead CRAB full time. “It’s hard to express what a boon this will be. … For [people with disabilities], sailing is therapeutic, it’s cathartic, it’s just an incredible experience.”

Said Nicholas Abramczyk, a regular volunteer: “CRAB provides something that can’t even be put into words. … On boats, everybody is equal, all the same, and the disabilities just fall by the wayside.”

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Anyone with a disability can sign up for a free CRAB sailing lesson, Bollinger explained: All they have to do is visit the group’s website and enter their name in a slot. CRAB, which offers individual and group lessons, family sailing events and competitive regattas, can accommodate pretty much any kind of disability, Bollinger said: blindness, deafness, autism, muscular dystrophy, “really anything you can think of.”

CRAB tweaked each of its boats in about a dozen ways — installing special blue seats, relocating various ropes (“lines,” in sailor parlance) and modifying the sails, among other things — to allow people with limited mobility to sail without difficulty. The organization maintains one extra-special boat for quadriplegic people, Bollinger said.

“It’s got a sip-and-puff system to steer the boat: One straw controls the sails; the other controls the rudder,” he said. “If you sip on the sail straw, the sails come in; if you puff, they go out. If you sip on the rudder straw, the boat turns to port; if you puff, to starboard.”

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One quadriplegic person “sails with us regularly,” Bollinger said. His ability to participate — to move freely and independently on the water — fulfills the decades-old vision of Don Backe, CRAB’s founder, according to Bollinger.

Backe, an avid sailor, was inspired to create CRAB after he was in a horrific car crash in his 50s that left him paralyzed from the waist down. The accident initially sank him into a deep depression — until a friend insisted he try sailing again. Backe, who died in 2013, found the experience so “invigorating and uplifting” that he decided he had “to do this for other people,” Bollinger said.

He somehow finagled a donation of four sailboats, and CRAB was born.

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Over the years, the nonprofit — which has two full-time and three part-time employees and an annual budget of about $450,000 — has continued to fund itself mostly through donations, whether of old sailboats or cash, Bollinger said. It holds a large fundraising regatta and party each year at the Eastport Yacht Club, which typically brings in around $100,000, according to Bollinger.

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CRAB also relies on the services of about 100 volunteers, including about 40 extremely skilled sailors. These sailors — known as “CRAB skippers” — are vital to the nonprofit’s ability to operate, Bollinger said. Each must possess decades of sailing experience, pass a background check and undergo rigorous CRAB-provided training on how to tutor sailors with disabilities.

No CRAB boat can leave the dock without at least one skipper aboard, Bollinger said, in addition to a volunteer crew, the person with disabilities and their chosen friends and family members. That’s because CRAB doesn’t just take people sailing for free — it teaches them how to sail, a fact Bollinger emphasized to Schrock and her peers at the sailing event last month, a Sept. 21 “Recovering Warriors Sailing Regatta” targeted to veterans with disabilities.

“When you leave here today, you’ll know how to sail a boat,” he told the assembled crowd of about two dozen people, just before setting them loose on the bay. He added a final injunction: “It’s okay to talk smack from one boat to the other, just no throwing water bottles or anything like that.”

Schrock’s first chance to “talk smack” came early. (Though she didn’t take it.) As she and her crew — including two close friends, Joseph and William Bailey, CRAB skipper Abramczyk and another volunteer, longtime sailor Peter Rony — motored out to the racecourse, another vessel cut in front of them.

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“All right, that’s the last time we’re getting passed today,” Abramczyk joked.

He was wrong. Again and again over the course of the morning, other sailboats nosed ahead of CRAB Ship No. 4. Across five races — each comprising one or two laps of the yellow buoys — Schrock and her team notched fourth-, fifth- and last-place finishes.

Nonetheless, the mood in the boat — where Schrock steered as helmsman while the Bailey brothers helped wrangle the sails — was buoyant. Abramczyk and Rony provided advice and guidance (less and less, as Schrock grew more confident) from the back of the vessel, peppering their directions with insults tossed over the water to competing ships.

Everyone soon came to the same conclusion: No. 4′s poor finishes were not the fault of the top-notch crew, so cohesive and competent. It had to be the dastardly sea monster stuck to the bottom of the boat.

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“Dang that sea monster,” Joseph Bailey said, as the crew headed back to harbor. “This is still the fun boat.”

William Bailey slapped the side of the ship in agreement: “C’mon, fun boat, baby, party boat!”

Hand still on the tiller, Schrock looked over and smiled. She had felt anxious at the start of the morning: Her PTSD stems from a traumatic sexual assault she experienced in the military, so she viewed the two unknown men (Abramczyk and Rony) with trepidation.

“I struggle to be around men,” Schrock said. “So I was nervous going out — but once we got into the sailing, on the water, I was able to let loose a lot more.”

She paused. “I don’t know how to say it. It was just. I felt okay. I felt okay being on that boat.”

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