Freedom on the Bay

Don Backe is an enthusiastic advocate for people with disabilities who use boats to gain freedom and enjoyment on the Chesapeake Bay. He now serves as executive director of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) but, prior to the afternoon of Aug. 28, 1987, it's unlikely that he'd ever given much thought to such a program. It was then that Don was involved in an automobile accident which left him seriously injured and clinging to life itself. After months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, Don slowly recovered but was left without the use of his legs and limited use of his arms.

For those of us who are fortunate enough to be what society calls "able-bodied," we lack understanding of what it's like to lose effective use of one's limbs. We have all sorts of stereotypes and, like most, our stereotypes are often based on ignorance.

For example, Don rails at the phrase "confined to a wheelchair." For him, his wheelchair is his freedom, not his confinement. He prefers to be known as a "wheelchair user" which more accurately describes the way Don looks at life today. Along with his lifelong love of sailing, it is this marvelous attitude and indomitable spirit that drew Don to the program called CRAB.

Founded in 1991,CRAB is affiliated with Disabled Sports/USA and was originated by the National Ocean Access Project. It's a volunteer-driven, non-profit sailing program which promotes the joy, independence and freedom (there's that word again) of sailing in specially modified boats for persons with disabilities and their families. Those specially designed and modified craft are known as Freedom Independence 20 keel sloops. They're unsinkable and have special seats, one for the skipper and one for the crew with seat and lap belts for additional safety. They're custom-tailored to the special needs of sailors with disabilities. Their free-standing masts, self-tacking jibs, and lazy-jack equipped main- sails are easy to handle and make the boat a natural choice to lessen the physical demands of sailing and allow the crew members to more easily cope with the job at hand. Thanks to well-engineered seats that are safe and comfortable, wheelchair-user sailors can leave their "wheels" at the dock and take the helm with nearly as much dexterity as a person without a disability.

Most of us believe that those who use wheelchairs tend to develop upper body strength to a greater degree than the rest of us. That's true, and it serves them very well on the water. They often make great progress acquiring sailing skills since steering, sheeting and halyard handling are more upper-body dependent skills and do not require one to necessarily be ambulatory. Many CRAB instructors are themselves disabled, and through practice have truly sharpened their sailing skills. According to one active paraplegic sailor, "There's not alot of room to roam around on a sailboat, and the real pleasure lies in navigating the craft, not running around the deck."

In addition to on-the-water activities, CRAB also offers small group instruction on basic navigation and seamanship issues vital to all sailors, as well as lots of mentoring that's part and parcel of a program that stresses looking out for each other.

For the volunteers of CRAB, access is the name of the game and, with a combination of modified boarding ramps and wheelchair-accessible docks at Sandy Point State Park, hundreds of sailing enthusiasts with disabilities have been able to set sail and enjoy a very special recreational experience on the Chesapeake Bay. The success of their efforts can be seen on any given weekend between April and October when, on the fourth Sunday of each month, a program called Sail Free is open to the public. One does not need to be a "wheelchair user" to participate in this program. The goal is to introduce non-sailors to a joy that can last a lifetime through free sailing clinics and a stint aboard Hermit, Fiddler, Blue and Steamed, the names of the four CRAB Freedom Independence 20 sloops. Last year, more than 300 people benefitted from Sail Free days to learn more about the sport of sailing. In addition, CRAB held special sailing days to host another 112 people from such organizations as the Central Special School from Edgewater, the Maryland School for the Blind, and the Pennsylvania Center of Adaptive Rowing.

With only one staffer, Don Backe, CRAB relies upon its dedicated group of volunteers. It derives its income from boat donations, charters and rentals, memberships, and corporate and individual gifts. Because it is a chapter of Disabled Sports/USA, it enjoys 501(c)(3) non-profit tax-deductible status. Boats donated to the program afford owners a tax deduction while providing CRAB with the revenues necessary to carry on its mission.

According to Don, contributions from corporate and individual members of CRAB have made it possible for the group to make sailing accessible to all people, regardless of their financial situation. Individual and corporate memberships are offered. "Anyone can join. You don't have to have a disability to be a member of CRAB," Don adds. He mentions that the Annapolis-area marine industry, in particular, has been extremely responsive to the needs of the program, offering both in-kind services and financial support. Don singles out Everett Pearson, past president of TPI, Inc., and builder of the four Freedom Independence sloops. Don says that "not only did TPI build us great boats in the first place but, in 1997, they took them back for a refit and returned them to us as good as new."

Don and the CRAB board of directors also recognized the late Jerry Wood of the Annapolis Boat Shows for his support and Zeb Johnson, owner of London Town Marine, for his help in hauling, storing and launching the CRAB fleet. But nowhere is support of the boating community more visible than at the annual CRAB Bash where supporters and contributors put on a boat show celebration as only "boat people" can.

What does the future hold for CRAB? One long-range project that's well underway is the conversion of a donated 22-foot Marshall Cat boat into a custom cruiser that's adapted to handicapped access. Don calls this his "getaway" concept-a chance for members to bring their wheels with them and cruise overnight and across the Chesapeake. He sees this particular boat as a means of expanding the reach of the program and acting as a reward incentive for those who develop key sailing skills. "With an ever-growing level of community support, we're looking forward to a bright and active future," Don says.

For more information about this unique sailing program, contact CRAB, P.O. Box 6564, Annapolis, MD 21401, 410-626-0273 or e-mail: or visit



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