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Adaptive boats let disabled sail

Tuesday, June 10, 2003

By Bette McDevitt

The two little boats with strange names, "Access Dinghies," docked on Lake Erie look quite ordinary, but some regard them as golden chariots.

Kristi Hurst, 16, of Erie, with sailing instructor Peter Marsh in one of the adaptive boats of the Bayfront Center for Maritime Studies in Erie last week. Kristi was born with Wolf Hirschhorn syndrome, which results in, among other things, mental retardation and less-than-average growth. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)
The 10-foot dinghies at the Bayfront Center for Maritime Studies offer disabled people an opportunity to skim across the blue waters with the freedom of the able-bodied. On the water, everyone is equal.

"We have all the safety features -- chase boats, inflatables, radios -- but what is really important is that when the kids [or adults] are skippering the boats, the looks on their faces are incredible," said Rich Eisenberg, a founding partner of the center.

"Here are the parents on the shore, there are the crutches and the wheelchairs on the dock, and there are the kids out on the water. It's unbelievable!"

The boats were created by Chris Mitchell, an Australian whose boyhood backyard opened out into Port Phillip Bay near Melbourne. He spent his youth designing sailboats out of broom handles and bedsheets and picked up design tips during 20 years of travels through the South Seas. In 1997, he founded Access Dinghy Sailing Systems in Melbourne, which has built more than 750 adaptive sailboats that are used throughout the world.

Nine models come with an array of adaptive equipment, such as electric toggles and joysticks that allow people with limited mobility to steer the boats with their chins, hands, feet or other moving body parts. The most advanced models offer the most severely disabled person the ability to pilot the boat by breathing through a straw-like device.

The Erie center's two $3,500 boats aren't the most advanced models, but they do come with joysticks, and all controls are within easy reach.

"These are high-performance boats," Eisenberg said. "They're heavily ballasted, so they will not capsize. They accelerate well, and they turn well. Once the person learns to handle the boat, he or she can go out by himself or herself."

A hoist on the dock transfers sailors from wheelchairs to the boat.

The center hopes to acquire more boats that will serve the most severely disabled.

More info

Bayfront Center for Maritime Studies offers classes on how to sail the Access Dinghy. Cost is $100 for four 1 1/2-hour classes. Scholarships are offered through the Junior League of Erie.

For information about the Regatta, go to: www.juniorleagueoferie.org or call the Bayfront Center at 814-456-4077 or e-mail eriesailing@hotmail.com

To learn more about the Access Dinghy Sailing Systems of Melbourne, Australia, check the Web site: www.accessdinghy.org.

Three Rivers Adaptive Sports has a Web site, www.traspa.org. It is part of a national group called Disabled Sports USA, www.dsusa.org. You can also call at 412-808-3339.


Clark Manny, who is on the board of Three Rivers Adaptive Sports in Pittsburgh, traveled to Erie at the end of last summer to see if the sailing program could be incorporated into some of the services it provides. He was accompanied by Mark Scheinert, 17, who has spina bifida, and his father, Paul. They sailed on another adaptive boat docked on Lake Erie, a 34-foot Catalina.

"It was pretty interesting," said Mark, who can't use his legs. "There was a joy stick which I turned to the left or right to steer the boat. There was a line, called a halyard, cleated to the side of the boat to control the sails. We picked up speed as soon as we got into the groove with the wind, and the boat took off."

Mark is active as a junior at Franklin Regional Senior High School, participating in the marching band and stage and tech crews. He also is a downhill skiier.

The adaptive sailing program began three years ago after the Junior League of Erie and the bayfront center formed a partnership to get it started.

"These boats put people on an equal footing; that's the beauty of it," said Jane Rayburg, a sailor and league member who has been with the project since it began.

The league has been preparing for more than a year for the Great Lakes Access Dinghy Regatta, set for Aug. 15 and 16 at the bayfront center.

The regatta is open to all, and some scholarship funds are available to assist sailors with expenses. Clubs from other areas, such as Toronto, Burlington and Baltimore, will attend.

Bette McDevitt is a free-lance writer who occasionally writes for Your Health.

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