Sailors, Leave Your Wheelchairs Behind
To any casual observer ashore it must look like a typical one-design regatta sailed aboard a fleet of matching Ideal 18s based out of the American Yacht Club in Rye, New York.
It’s the same out here on the racecourse. Aboard my boat, our skipper, Jen, is talking us through her starting strategy while our mainsail trimmer, Laura, paints lines on the mainsheet with a Sharpie, marking default positions for various points of sail.
“A few rules on the boat today, ladies,” says Jen. “First is to have fun. If the level of fun decreases by more than 50 percent, we sail in. Second, cursing is allowed on this boat. Third, yelling is not. Except sometimes, when I have to yell at other boats. Got it?” And with that, we’re off, executing Jen’s starting strategy, reading windshifts and jockeying for a winning position over the finish line. Yep, it feels just like a typical day on the water.
Except for one thing: “Jen” is Jen French, a quadriplegic, a Paralympic Silver Medalist and the 2012 Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, and “ Laura” is Laura Shwanger, a paraplegic/Army veteran/breast cancer survivor who, although still only a novice sailor, has medaled in not one, not two, but “a solid dozen” Paralympic events.
The competitors aboard the other Ideal 18s are also disabled female sailors: quadriplegics, paraplegics, amputees and victims of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—hardly your typical bunch of sailors. Did I mention they’re all also really freakin’ good?
Now in its fifth year, the Robie Pierce One-Design Regatta has grown into one of the highlights of the U.S. disabled sailing circuit. It takes place in the spring and is hosted by the American and Larchmont Yacht Clubs in alternate years. Thursday is the girls-only Women’s Invitational—the only all-women disabled sailing event in the country. Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the main event, with 17 co-ed boats competing in 2013. In addition to drawing sailors with a variety of disabilities, this regatta also attracts sailors with a wide range of sailing abilities, from Paralympics medalists to newbies.
All sailors compete aboard Ideal 18s crewed by two disabled and one able-bodied (AB) sailor. Volunteers from Larchmont Yacht Club retrofitted these boats with high- and low-back chairs, into which the disabled sailors are securely buckled during the races. As per the Notice of Race, the able-bodied sailors’ “sole responsibilities will be to serve as ballast and to perform physical functions the crew cannot.” No coaching by ABs is allowed. In practice, that means the ABs trim sails, call traffic and hike out. They cannot initiate moves, call tactics or steer.
I like this job, I think to myself as we head toward the first mark. It allows me to both take in the course from a distance and observe my teammates up close: teammates who are becoming more remarkable by the minute.
As we tack back and forth, Laura is belted in loosely to a low-back chair in the center of the portside bench, just in front of the mainsheet block. She keeps her right leg beneath her, foot on the ground, and her left leg stretched out straight to act as a brace when the boat heels to starboard. Although she’s new to sailing, she’s quickly comfortable in a boat.
Laura has been sailing with Jen in their native St. Petersburg, Florida, for a couple of years, where she discovered adaptive sailing through her involvement in other adaptive sports, many of which she’s medaled in, including rowing and track and field. Compared to her other sports, Laura is enjoying that fact that adaptive sailing is so inconspicuous. “We leave our chairs on the dock and once we’re out there, the other boats have no idea we’re disabled. Then we get back on the dock and hop in our chair, and they say, ‘Hey! You were just out there and…and…I couldn’t catch you!’”
Laura has had a long history of overcoming obstacles. Shortly after retiring from the US Army, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Then, while on a training ride for a triathlon, she was hit by a car, which left her paralyzed from the waist down, but also, incredibly, shocked the MS from her body. Soon after, she began to redefine herself as an adaptive athlete, competing and medaling in the Paralympics Games in 1988, 1992 and 1996 before she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Yes, she overcame that, too, took up rowing, and medaled in 2008 in women’s single sculls.
“I consider myself lucky,” Laura says. “I’m healthy. I’m here today. That’s not to say that I would wish to have a disability, but you know, you take what you’re given, and you do something with it.” She stops to look around at the boats, the water, the people, “Life is really good! Life is a lot of fun! Look where we are! My gosh.”
Like Laura, the organizers of the Robie Pierce believe that disabled sailing is unique among disabled sports in that it allows competitors to participate at the same level as their mainstream counterpart. In the words of Robie Pierce Regatta co-chair and American Yacht Club member Bill Sandberg: “Sailing is the only sport in which disabled and able-bodied people can compete on an equal playing field.”
It takes about 60 volunteers to host this regatta each year. They recruit new competitors, run races, pack lunches and wheel sailors down to the docks. Once the wheelchairs are alongside the boats, the volunteers assist in “transfers”—lifting disabled sailors from their chairs to their seats and ensuring they’re safely strapped in. Then, with wheelchairs, braces and even a wooden leg strewn about the docks, the fleet sails away. Just like any other regatta.
Back on our Ideal 18, Jen is busy rallying the troops. In race one, we foolishly misread the leeward gate as a leeward mark and inadvertently rounded it backwards, forcing us to throw out what would have otherwise been a first-place finish. Now we need to get our heads back in the game. Badly.
Fortunately, Jen is more than up to the task.
From the waist down, Jen has little to no strength or mobility. From the neck to the waist, she has limited strength and ability to twist, which is what differentiates her as an “incomplete” quad. In her book, On My Feet Again, which describes in fascinating detail the process through which Jen became the country’s first “bionic” woman when she had stimulators implanted throughout her muscles following her debilitating snowboarding accident, Jen talks about how that word—“incomplete”—affected her. She writes, “Because I was incomplete, I could overcome this. It just bruised my spinal cord and bruises heal, right? The fact that I had an incomplete injury stuck in my head. I just had to work harder, and I would be able to walk again. With this in mind, I would put more hours into rehabilitation than the next guy.”
Today, she is an eight-time winner of the Milan-Gruson Award for the year’s top disabled female athlete. She’s also a member of the US Sailing Team, and in 2012, she won Olympic Silver with teammate Jean-Paul Creignou in the SKUD-18 class. That same year, she was named the US Rolex Yachtswoman of the Year, the first disabled sailor to receive the honor. (Ed Note: Nick Scandone was the first disabled person to recieve the US Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Award, in 2005. Scandone also won gold in the 2008 Beijing Games.)
At the helm, Jen’s resilient nature shines. Nothing fazes her–even that thrown-out race–and she has a knack for steering a sailboat with precision. She competes with an intensity that contrasts her humility and soft-spoken nature. She is patient when coaching her two crew and encouraging in general, cheering on the competitors even if they’re beating her. After one down wind leg in which she blazed past four boats to steal a surprising victory, Laura and I look at her wide-eyed. “How did you pull that off?” we ask. She responds with a hearty giggle, “Oh my gosh, that? I pulled it out of thin air!” Somehow I think Jen French’s “thin air” is much thicker than mine.
The next few races continue to get better and better for Jen, Laura and me, as we iron out the kinks and keep our cool in the rapidly diminishing breeze. At the end of the day, four bullets out of six races is enough to secure a first place. By the time the last whistle blows, the wind has died and we have to get towed in.
In addition to the competitors, there’s another notable boat on the racecourse today. Dr. Robert H. Leviton is training a team of doctors how to classify disabled sailors as per US Sailing regulations. In order to compete in US Sailing-sanctioned regattas, a disabled sailor has to receive a classification. This is a number between 1 and 7–one being a total quadriplegic and 7 being a knee-down amputee—that attempts to objectively label disabled sailors based on an on-shore physical test followed by an on-water observation. On a three-person team, for instance, the total score must add up to no more than 14. “It’s a tricky procedure, to judge how disabled an athlete is,” says Dr. Leviton. “That’s why I’m trying to be thorough about collecting data, so we can put together a legitimate, equalizing method and make the process easier for everyone.” To learn more about the process, visit
Life on shore is almost as entertaining as life on the water. Throngs of disabled women wheel about, laughing and drinking beer. “As disabled female sailors, we have so much in common, and it’s fun to be surrounded with people like yourself,” says Maureen McKinnon, who won gold in the SKUD-18 class in Beijing in 2008, becoming the first woman to represent the United State in sailing at a Paralympics Games.
Though Maureen didn’t do so well in the Women’s Invitational (fondly referred to as the “Chicks with Sticks Regatta”), she and teammates Duane Farrer and Sol Marini ultimately come in second in the co-ed event. “It was my first time sailing with a blind skipper,” she says, “and the really significant thing, the really great thing about it was that he could feel the wind on his neck, his shoulders. When it was light and fluky going downwind, Sol and I were going nuts looking for the wind, and Duane just turned around in the boat, felt it, and sailed us right into it.”
Maureen became disabled in 1995, when she fell 13 feet from a seawall and was paralyzed from the waist down. Over the next decade, she followed a “crooked path” back into sailing—it took her that long to find a good community, good mentors, and boats she could comfortably sail in. “I see the Robie as an important feeder regatta, where well-established sailors can reach out to newbies, where first-timers can match up with and against folks from the US team.” One such first-timer is Vivian Snyder, who came to the Robie from Oakland, California. Eight years ago, Vivian, now 48, was in a helicopter crash while serving in Iraq. She broke her back and legs, and suffered a traumatic brain injury, as well as PTSD that knocked her down, both physically and mentally. She stayed down (literally, on the couch) until January of 2013, when she discovered BAADS, the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors. “For the first time since joining the Army, I felt a sense of pure joy again. I mean it when I say sailing changed my life,” says Vivian.
Judy Kowalesky, a paraplegic from San Diego who was disabled following radiation treatment for uterine cancer, feels similarly. “I tried to find joy in the things I used to do and everything was frustrating. I was home, gaining weight and depressed,” she says. “Then I got in that sailboat and 30 seconds out, I knew I had found it. Ever since then I’ve been looking for any disabled regatta to learn, to race, to get out sailing.” Her hard work is paying off. That one race in which we took second place? Judy got the bullet.
On shore, Maureen loans me her chair, and I take it for a spin. My forearms are immediately fatigued. I wheel a fair distance away and glance back toward the tent, where the ladies are gathered in a circle of wheelchairs, enjoying their Heinekens. It’s then that it hits me: in the end, the most amazing thing about the Robie Pierce Regatta is how very typical it is. The competitors drive themselves (in adapted vehicles), whiz around the yacht club (in wheelchairs), drink beer and chat about their kids, their summers and, of course, their sailing. They aren’t self-serious. They don’t ask for sympathy. They’re just sailors competing in a regatta, the same as you and me. Except for one thing: they’re a heck of a lot faster.
Photos courtesy of James Reilly, Sandy Martin Pierce and Meredith Laitos
Meredith Laitos is SAIL’s Senior Editor.
She cruises and races all over New England on boats small and large