Being disabled means learning how to adapt, and for over 30 years, as a C6/C7 quadriplegic, I’ve always managed to find a way to do most of the things I wanted to do. I am 58 years old now, and four years ago I was run down in the street by little elderly woman in her white Toyota Corolla. My titanium wheelchair saved my life, but my pelvis is forever shattered, my balance will never be as good as it once was, and my stamina refuses to fully recover. In short, my ability to adapt isn’t as good as it once was, and my spirit’s been flailing accordingly, so what on earth makes me think that I can go back to my childhood passion: sailing?
When I was about eight years old, my mother’s favorite song was called “Red Sails in The Sunset.” She was so inspired by this song, she told my father that she wanted a sailboat with a red sail. Shortly thereafter, an 8 foot plywood pram appeared alongside our dock, complete with a gaff-rigged red sail. (My mother almost always got what she wanted.) As memory serves, she may have actually sailed it two or three times before the novelty wore off. My interest, however, was just winding up, and I asked my dad if I could learn to sail it. “When you can swim across the lake and back without stopping,” he said without missing a beat, “you can sail her whenever you want.”
“I can do that right now!” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt. He stepped into the rowboat and said “Okay, let’s go.” It was a half mile to the other side of the lake, and as he rowed and I stroked, he began to enumerate the basic parts of a sailboat, explain what they were for, and instruct me in their proper usage. By the time we reached the far side of the lake I had abandoned the crawl and settled into a more comfortable side stroke. My breathing was heavy, but I was exhilarated because I never swam that far without stopping before, and I knew I could make it back to the dock.
What a far cry from today. I’m up at 5:00 a.m. or so, but by 11:00 a.m. I’m ready for a nap! At 8:30 p.m., I’m so bone weary, I can’t wait to hop out of my wheelchair and stretch out for the night. What makes me think I can sail a boat again? I used to be relentless, filled with passion. My determined spirit repeatedly urged my body on when it had nothing left of its severely limited resources to give. But it gave anyway. In the last four years, however, my passion has been slipping away like helium from an old balloon. Each time I call it up, there is less response. Life, the Universe, and Everything seems far less compelling with each passing day, and when calamities rain down upon my friends and loved ones, it weighs on my soul as never before. There has always been pain in the world, but it never felt so personal nor so heavy before. I guess I just got old and tired.
Every summer that little red catboat was my magic carpet, and if there was even the slightest breeze, I was out exploring every inch of that mountain lake. Sometimes I remembered to take a sandwich, but regardless, I seldom came home before darkness and calm had descended around me. I will never forget the night sounds, punctuated by my dipping paddle, as I ghosted back to our dock. I’ll never forget the way it felt.
Perhaps I’m trying to recapture those feelings. I don’t know, exactly. But after over a year of research and debate, fraught with self-doubt and stirred by moments of wild hope, I ordered a sailboat. I live in Florida’s middle Keys, where, to the north, the gulf side “back country” runs right up into the Everglades. There are thousands of islands and many more species of wildlife to observe and photograph above and below the crystal clear surface. But it’s shallow. . . sometimes as little as 18” deep in the eddy streams and channels. Just south and east of my little island paradise, the Atlantic stretches across the reef and then the gulfstream to carry a sailor anywhere in the world. And because I wanted a boat that could sail safely in both directions, I settled on a Hake Seaward 26RK.
Right now I can’t say whether my passion for the wind will rise up like the Phoenix of old, or whether I just ordered a very expensive toy for my grandchildren to inherit. All I can do is wait for the factory to call.