Y-Knot program allows disabled to go with the wind

Special to The Post-Star

LAKE GEORGE — Wet and tired, Rebecca Stanley had surged down big waves into first place at the finish line, then exclaimed, “Oh, man! That was cool!”

It was the tightest race in the Y-Knot Cup Regatta on Lake George over a windy Columbus Day weekend. Five boats finished in four seconds, and the bows of the first two were less than a foot apart when they crossed the line.

Stanley comes from Altamont and is president of Y-Knot Sailing based at Camp Chingachgook. She has come a long way since a car accident more than 20 years ago left her paralyzed from the shoulders down. She still has use of her hands and arms, just enough to handle her sailboat. She uses a joystick to steer and all lines for the sails are within reach.

She won at the Coupe du Quebec in Montreal a couple of months ago, and when racing was over she was the overall winner of this regatta too. Stanley was one of 15 disabled skippers competing in the fifth annual regatta, which drew competitors from Burlington, Vt., Connecticut, Montreal and Kingston, Ontario, to compete with the Y-Knot regulars from this area.

Racing began in conditions that would daunt many able-bodied sailors. The wind had piped up to 18 to 26 mph during the morning, and seas built up throughout the day.

But Patrick Standen from Burlington spoke for all the sailors: “When you shove off, you leave your disability on the dock.”

They arrive on the dock in their wheelchairs and are lowered by crane into a seat on their boat. Strapped in, they steer and control both mainsail and jib. Managing this process falls to Dockmaster Maryellen Rudolph from Albany, who directs the volunteers as they rig the boats and load in the sailors.

Mike Peluso from Guilderland, vice president of the group, grew up attending Y camps. “It’s a beautiful thing,” he said. He loves the interplay of wind and water and the concentration needed to make decisions during the race.

Ron Byrne from Schenectady, treasurer of the group, remembers how it began. During the summer of 1996, Dave Whalen, a lawyer, sports enthusiast and quadriplegic, got together with Byrne and George Painter, director of Camp Chingachgook, to arrange a sailing day.

Everything had to be improvised on board one of the camp’s 24-foot Rainbow sailboats, including a special seat for Whalen, who had to be lowered in and have his hands taped to the tiller.

Whalen organized a fall clinic to share the experience with disabled friends. The fall day was anything but comfortable — cold and windy with soaking rain — but the disabled sailors wouldn’t quit. More than 20 of them sailed that day.

By 1998, another boat had been added, one designed for people with disabilities, with swivel seating and special rigging. This boat was fitted with a joystick and sip ‘n’ puff tiller control (more on that later) for quadriplegics who cannot use a joystick.

The next addition came in 2000 when the first Martin 16 was donated to the fleet. Now the program has four of the boats, ingeniously designed by Don Martin and built by Abbot Boats of Sarnia, Ontario, to make sailing possible for disabled people.

The boats are 16 feet long with a heavy keel, fitted with a skipper’s seat in the center where all controls lead and a second seat aft for a helper. They can be sailed solo or double, but in racing all the controls belong to the disabled skipper.

Patrick Standen, a director of the class, said about 120 of the boats are now in use worldwide.

We met an owner of a Martin 16, Rene Dallaire from Montreal, a veteran of the class. He was a competitive skier before his accident, then was forced to become a spectator until the Martin 16 brought him back into competition as a sailor.

Dallaire and his co-owner Marc Landry sail the “Aladdin” using sip and puff method, with two straws mounted in front of him so he can place one in his mouth and either sip or puff. One straw controls the rudder, the other the trim of the sails. Anyone without the use of either legs or arms can still sail by breathing in or out.

Audrey Kobayashi from Kingston, Ontario, was watching the morning races from her wheelchair on the dock, ready to sail in the afternoon. She is a professor of geography at Queens University in Kingston. She spoke about her friends in the group who use either sip and puff or a joy stick. Some solo sailors do have a person sitting behind who may do some of the sheeting but cannot make decisions for the skipper.

Spencer Raggio from Malta has served as regatta chairman for the last five years. He notes a marked improvement in the quality of the racing even though “everyone is encouraged to get out there, even if they have never competed before.”

Many of the sailors were competitive in other sports before their accidents, Raggio said, but “the community of disabled sailors is very tight-knit, and they support each other.”

After dinner on the night of the regatta, the group sat around telling stories of funny, scary and otherwise notable sailing events. Mike Pelusa told of the time when the seat he was anchored to popped out and he wondered what would happen next, including being jettisoned overboard. His radio didn’t work and his whistle had gotten wet and only squeaked, but he toughed it out and came in without any more problems.

Heather Berg from Burlington recalled when she was asked to steer for the first time. As a breakwater loomed ahead, the volunteer sitting behind her said, “Do you think you want to tack?” She did tack and later found out the volunteer didn’t know she is visually impaired.

Patrick Standen told about what happened when he overestimated what he could do. His sunfish tipped over and he righted it, but then noticed that his bailer (a Clorox bottle) was floating away. He plunged in and paddled to recover it as his boat was sailing away. Finally he gave up on the bailer and swam after the boat, knowing that he had violated rule one — never leave the boat — until he was luckily rescued by a fisherman.

Several sailors mentioned the ingenuity of BJ Henry from Mayfield, who has a knack for creating just the right piece of equipment for a disabled sailor to use. He has made harnesses out of cargo straps and a tiller system using windshield wiper motors.

A number of Lake George sailors volunteer to make Y-Knot sailing possible, including members of the Lake George Corinthian Yacht Club who have made it their special project.

Dave McComb of the Lake George Club runs clinics and “barks” at disabled sailors in an affectionate way as they strive to make good tactical choices on the racecourse.

Rex Moon missed some of his own races this summer to volunteer.

Anyone wishing to volunteer and interested disabled sailors should call
George Painter at 656-9462. For more information on Y-Knot Sailing,
visit www.yknotsailing.org.

This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2004 edition of the Glens Falls Post-Star, and is republished here with their permission.