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Sailors With Disabilities Find Freedom On The Water

Sep 5, 2013
Originally published on September 10, 2013 5:21 pm

If you think sailing at 40 mph sounds challenging, imagine doing it all alone without the use of your arms or legs, or without hearing or with limited vision. Every weekend in San Francisco, a group of sailors with disabilities does just that, taking to the water to push their bodies to the limit.

Cristina Rubke and her father, Chris, are members of the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors. On a recent Saturday, they were at San Francisco's Pier 40, where the dock is awash in activity.

Chris explains what he's doing as he situates Cristina in her boat. "I'm getting ready to tie down the board that holds her chin control under her chin," he says.

Cristina Rubke was born with arthrogryposis, a rare condition that makes her unable to use her arms or legs. Even so, Rubke became a corporate lawyer and gets around town on her own. But sailing using just her chin once seemed crazy, even to her.

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

This is how it works: In the boat, a small mechanical box with one joystick and two levers sits on a board beneath Rubke's chin. Pushing the joystick to the left or right controls the direction of the boat. If she pushes it front to back, the sails move in or out.

All of the boats are specially made so that they're almost impossible to flip. But this is a volunteer organization, and as many volunteer organizations go, parts frequently break down. That means the volunteers, like Rubke's dad, are often fix-it-as-you-go mechanics.

"I'm making this up as I go along," Chris says. When asked how complicated the boats are to rig, he laughs, "Just complicated enough. ... They're not that bad — there's just a lot of little tricks."

For the sailors, this group provides a sense of freedom. Just being out on the water is enough for some participants. 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.

"So to have something that [lets me] really compete again is really exciting," Pugh says. She placed third in the U.S. Disabled Sailing Championships last year.

Pugh is hoisted up out of her wheelchair and lowered into the boat with a crane. One-by-one, she and the other sailors push off to race each other around buoys in the bay, with volunteer Charles Cunningham helming a motorboat to keep an eye on the sailors.

The boats round a buoy, and Rubke and Pugh are neck and neck. Then, just barely, Rubke edges out her competitor.

A short while later, there's a distress signal from Pugh. The electronic switches she relies on to manage the boat have stopped working. As Cunningham pulls up next to her, she's amazingly calm.

"We have been having problems with our circuit board," Pugh explains as Cunningham prepares to tow her in. "And now I have, like, no tiller, no jib, sporadic main."

At the end of the day, Rubke's won four of the day's five races. But in this sailing club, it doesn't matter if you can use your arms or legs or if you win or lose a given race. It's being free, out on the water, that counts.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

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?

CRISTINA RUBKE: Yeah.

RUBKE: OK.

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.

(LAUGHTER)

GREEN: Just how complicated are these boats to rig?

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

(LAUGHTER)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRANE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Woo-hoo.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORBOAT)

CHARLES CUNNINGHAM: You all good?

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.