‘A way to find the peace I lost’: Maryland nonprofit teaches people with disabilities how to sail boats

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Maryland nonprofit is teaching people with disabilities how to sail boats

Boats compete in the Recovering Warriors Sailing Regatta off the coast of Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, Md. on Sept. 21, 2019. The race was hosted by Chesapeake Region Accessible (CRAB), a non-profit that teaches individuals with disabilities how to sail.

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 non-profit operating out of Sandy Point State Park, Maryland, that offers free sailing lessons to people with disabilities. Schrock, an Army veteran who suffers from PTSD and debilitating knee injuries, said later that she didn’t really mind coming in last.

“I’ve always dreamt 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.”

Schrock is one of more than 600 individuals with disabilities 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 a new 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,” Bollinger said — in Annapolis, Maryland, 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.”

Maryland nonprofit is teaching people with disabilities how to sail boats

Participants of the CRAB Recovering Warriors Sailing Regatta unload their sail boats at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, Maryland.

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.”

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 different ways — installing special blue seats, relocating various ropes (“lines,” in sailor parlance) and modifying the sails, among other things — to allow individuals with limited mobility to sail without difficulty. The organization maintains one extra-special boat for quadriplegic individuals, 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.”

One quadriplegic individual comes out and “sails with us regularly,” Bollinger said. His ability to participate — to move freely and independently upon 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 suffered a horrific car crash in his 50s that left him paralyzed from the waist down. The accident initially sunk him into a deep depression — until a friend insisted he try sailing again. Backe, who passed away in 2013, found the experience so “invigorating and uplifting” that he decided he had “to do this for other people,” Bollinger said.

Maryland nonprofit is teaching people with disabilities how to sail boats

A sailboat owned by CRAB — Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating — prior to the Recovering Warriors Sailing Regatta at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, Md., on Sept. 21, 2019.

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

Over the years, the non-profit — 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, which typically brings in around $100,000, according to Bollinger.

CRAB also relies on the pro bono services of about 100 volunteers, including about 40 extremely skilled sailors. These sailors — known as “CRAB skippers” — are vital to the non-profit’s ability to operate, according to Bollinger. 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 individual 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 Warrior Sailing Regatta” targeted to military 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 OK to talk smack from one boat to the other, just no throwing water bottles or anything like that.”

Maryland nonprofit is teaching people with disabilities how to sail boats

Paul Bollinger, Jr., the executive director or CRAB, explains the race course to participants in the Recovering Warriors Sailing Regatta.

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, long-time sailor Peter Rony — motored out to the race course, another vessel cut just in front of them.

“Alright, 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 helmsan, 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.

Maryland nonprofit is teaching people with disabilities how to sail boats

CRAB plans to open a marina specifically designed for boaters with disabilities next year.

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.

“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’d felt anxious at the start of the morning: Her PTSD stems from a traumatic sexual assault she suffered 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 OK. I felt OK being on that boat.”

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