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Sailors with disabilites race on the Bay


I’m next to the Java House restaurant near AT&T Park, walking down an aluminum ramp toward a small fleet of boats. I’m here to see the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors (BAADS) in action. It’s a 25-year-old organization that operates on an annual budget of under $50,000. At the end of a dock, I meet three sailors in electric wheelchairs.

Brian Pease, a former pediatric nurse, is treasurer of BAADS. He tells me his cerebral palsy affects his motor skills control.

Retired lawyer Kathy Pugh served as BAADS’s Commodore in the mid-1990s. “I broke my neck snow skiing Christmas Eve 1979,” she says, “which basically rendered me paralyzed from the shoulders down.”

Sebastian DeFrancesco is one of many veterans who sail with the group. He was paralyzed 37 years ago, when his military jeep hit a landmine.

All three are here at Pier 40 to race. It’s a group effort getting everyone ready. Some volunteers use a lift while others carry disabled sailors over to small boats called access dinghies.

Pugh’s boat has been modified with electronic controls called servo motors. “I use my hands a little bit,” she tells me, “so I can control this joystick here on the side.”

But not all of the sailors can use their hands to navigate their boats. Cristina Rubke, the current Commodore at BAADS, uses her chin.

“I don’t have any use of my arms and legs,” she says. Rubke has a rare disorder called atrogryposis multiplex congenital. “And all that means is that basically in the womb my muscles and nerves didn’t develop properly. I can kind of wiggle my toes a little bit and wiggle my fingers a little bit but nothing useful.”

She gives me a quick demonstration of how her boat works.  “We have to strap a board around my torso so that the chin control or the joystick that I control the sail with can sit under my chin. I have three motors and those all run through a relay box that is hooked into the joystick that I use that sits under my chin.”

Rubke is a seasoned sailor, while Gulf War veteran Patrick Finan will be sailing his own boat for the first time today. He tells me, “it’s a new and unknown. I ski downhill, I’ve done rock climbing, judo, and different activities, but this is the first time that I’ve been around sailboats for a long, long time. The width of the dock is a little scary, not knowing exactly where I am, because I’m totally blind.”

As a blind sailor, Finan will be in a two-person sailboat with a skipper to lend a hand. He can get additional help from volunteers in chase boats. I’m invited out on one to watch today’s competition.

From another motorboat, the referee calls the start of the contest. Pugh and Rubke quickly pull into the lead as other sailors experience technical difficulties. The BAADS members take part in several races. After a few hours, they’re over, and we head back with a stranded sailor in tow.

Rubke gives the results. “I don’t usually do this well, but I did win four out of the five races,” she says. “I got first place, and then I got second place on the one I didn’t win.” She sounds a bit embarrassed by her success; no one at BAADS seems to be keeping a tally, really. Sailing here is about cooperation, not competition.

But it means something even more for many, including volunteer Ryan Olsen.

“I’ve learned how to sail, how to rig boats, and I’ve actually learned a lot about people with disabilities that I maybe had misconceptions about before I started working with them,” he says. “Really, they are every bit as capable as you or I if not more so. Out on the water they just smoke everyone in these boats, they are incredible to watch.”

This week BAADS is hosting the Access Class North American Championship. Tomorrow, September 6, is the last day to see members from BAADS and sailors from as far away as the Netherlands and Australia compete. If you miss the competition, BAADS also has sailing programs most weekends year round. For information on how to volunteer or sail with them, check out their website.

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