Sailors With Disabilities Find Freedom On The Water Every week, a group of people with a range of disabilities hits San Francisco Bay. They sail using specially rigged boats; one woman controls her boat using only her chin. Sailing offers a sense of independence for the participants, some of whom are confined to wheelchairs while on land.
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Sailors With Disabilities Find Freedom On The Water

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Sailors With Disabilities Find Freedom On The Water

Sailors With Disabilities Find Freedom On The Water

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If sailing by yourself sounds a little scary, imagine doing it without the use of your arms or legs. Every weekend, a group of men and women goes out on the San Francisco Bay and does just that, pushing their bodies and nerves to the limit. Emily Green has the story of the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: I'm at Pier 40 on the San Francisco Bay, and the dock is awash in activity. Chris Rubke situates his daughter, Cristina, in her boat.

CHRIS RUBKE: Now I'm getting ready to tie down her - the board that holds her chin control under her chin. OK, that feel snug?



GREEN: Cristina Rubke was born with arthrogryposis, which makes her unable to use her arms or legs. Even so, she's become a corporate lawyer and gets around town on her own. But sailing, using just her chin? That seemed crazy even to her.

RUBKE: I was just coming by here and met some of the folks. I mean, the funny thing was that they were telling me that they could rig a boat with a chin control and that I could sail with my chin, and I really, really didn't believe them. So - but then a few months later, it happened.

GREEN: The way it works is that in the boat, a small mechanical box with one joystick and two levers sits on a board beneath her chin. If she pushes the joystick to the left or right, that controls the direction of the boat. If she pushes it front to back, that moves the sails in or out. All of the boats are made especially so that they're almost impossible to flip. But as volunteer organizations go, parts frequently break down, and all the volunteers, like Cristina's dad, Chris, are often fix-it-as-you-go mechanics.

RUBKE: I'm making this up as I go along. As always.


GREEN: Just how complicated are these boats to rig?

RUBKE: Just complicated enough. I think that's the right answer.


RUBKE: They're not that bad. There's just a lot of little tricks.

GREEN: For the disabled sailors, the group provides a sense of freedom. For some of the participants, it's enough to be out on the water. For others, like Kathi Pugh, the drive is more competitive. Pugh was a serious athlete before she broke her neck in a skiing accident when she was 20.

KATHI PUGH: So to have something that I can really compete again is really exciting.

GREEN: Last year, she placed third in the U.S. Disabled Sailing Championships.



GREEN: Using a crane, Kathi is hoisted up out of her wheelchair and lowered into the boat. One by one, she and the other sailors push off to race each other around buoys placed in the bay.



GREEN: Charles Cunningham is at the helm of a motorboat to keep an eye on the sailors.

CUNNINGHAM: You all good? You good? You got to do to a 360 now.

GREEN: The boats round a buoy, and Cristina and Kathi are neck and neck. Just barely, Cristina edges out Kathi.

CUNNINGHAM: What happened is Christine took the wind out of Kat's sail.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, that's for sure.

GREEN: Then, a little while later, there's a distress signal from Kathi. The electronic switches she relies on to manage the boat have stopped working. We pull up next to her on the water. She's amazingly calm.

PUGH: We've been having some problems with our circuit board, and now I have like no tiller, no jibs, sporadic main.

CUNNINGHAM: Tell the fleet that we are going to tow her in.

GREEN: At the end of the day, it's Cristina who has won four out of five of the races. In this sailing club, it doesn't matter if you can use your arms or legs or, as in Cristina's case, just her chin. Anyone can win. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green, in San Francisco.


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