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