Veteran’s Sailing is where it’s at!

Published on October 28th, 2013

By Magnus Liljedahl
I’m not talking about some old timer(s) who couldn’t decide when to fold up their sails. No, this is about the US Military Veterans, the Wounded Warriors and the building of an Adaptive Sailing program, while supporting the Paralympic Movement and the growth of sailing in general.

While most of the Scuttlebutt stories over the summer have been about million-dollar campaigns, exotic materials and how high-to-fly, this is about a grass roots campaign, which diligently is serving a growing number of disabled Veterans.

Thanks to a grant from the US Paralympic Committee, Team Paradise on Biscayne Bay (Miami, FL) began a Veteran’s Sailing program in the fall of 2012. What better source to find the next generations of Paralympic Sailors than the US Military? New talent of physically disabled men and women, often young, but regardless of age, no strangers to discipline and teamwork.

The first quarter of the grant cycle (Q1) was basically preparation time for what was to come. Our priority was to build adaptive seating! How else would we be able to provide for quadriplegics, with no experience, to go sailing in anything over 8 knots of breeze? Our goal was to accommodate individuals with any type of physical challenge. The result was a second-generation swivel seat, capable of holding a 300 lb person. The holidays being stacked towards the end of the year made it difficult to get things going and attendance did not meet expectations in Q1.

Then came the New Year and that’s when racing peaks on Biscayne Bay. January is our busiest time of the year and it’s near impossible to focus on anything other than visiting teams. VA Sailing suffered, but not for long. With plenty of “rock star” sailors around, it was easy to find volunteers who could keep the apparent wind flowing providing an exhilarating time for the “riders”. We kicked some butt during the months that followed. In fact, we did so well that our deliverables were almost achieved after Q3!

Then, summer rolled around and the weather conditions became “iffy”. Thunderstorms and lightning may be cool to watch, but not to go sailing. The advice was to shut down our activities for a few months, but how could we stop the momentum that we had worked so hard to build? “A few good men” had developed out of the bunch and they were keen to keep sailing.

We bottom painted a couple of our Sonar in order to wet-sail them. It drastically reduced our effort and we could now go sailing on a very short notice. We added Saturdays for a twice a week VA sailing opportunity. Our group was now smaller, but also more manageable. We established a call list for last minute updates and offered a “Banner Day” in August, which added another 11 unique veterans from Ft. Lauderdale. Our deliverables were met with time to spare and it was smooth sailing towards the end of Q4.

The Columbus Day Regatta is usually when hibernation time ends and the sailing scene picks back up in Miami. This year, Team Paradise entered the two-day event (Oct. 12-13) with a couple of dry-sailed Sonar. One boat with an all VA team and the other boat with Karen Mitchell, our 2007 SKUD18 World Champion, sailing with an all able-bodied crew.

At the helm of the VA entry was Daniel Evans, our “poster boy”, currently ranked #1 on the US Paralympic Sailing Team in the 2.4mR class. His crew was rookie sailboat racers, Donoray Bickham (vision impairment) and Paul R. Coles Jr (an IED victim from Iraq). Yours truly was on the boat to accommodate spinnaker maneuvers and foredeck work.

Initially, the plan was for the VA to do everything, but the fore deck. That plan didn’t stick with Danny. He wanted to win so badly and he suggested that ‘these guys will never learn how to win if we don’t show them how to do it.” I was easily convinced, because that is how I learned racing. To go racing with someone better than yourself makes a lot of sense.

Our VA team ended up winning and Karen Mitchell finishing second in the five-boat fleet. We all learned a lot. Twelve hours of intense racing in a two-day period makes a difference. Sailing practices since the regatta feel much different than before. Fewer words are spoken and a sense of harmony is present. Practice makes perfect and we are loving it!

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