Unfurled freedom: Y-Knot makes the thrill of gliding over water accessible to everyone

First published in the Times Union on Tuesday, July 19, 2005
By Kristi L. Gustafson, staff writer

The wind blows lightly, sea gulls squawk overhead and the sun beats down with such a deep heat that barefoot beach revelers appear to dance on the sand.

Mary Langelier’s dad, Ray, helps his daughter slather sunblock on every inch of her exposed, fair skin.

Conditions are near perfect.

Ray helps Mary, 18, maneuver her wheelchair over the dirt path and onto the dock at YMCA Camp Chingachgook on Lake George. The wheels create a ba-dum, ba-dum as she rolls toward a waiting Martin 16 sailboat.

It’s Mary’s first day with Y-Knot, a program started in the mid-1990s by a small group of disabled sailors and friends with the Y who wanted to create an accessible sailing program in the Capital Region. Y-Knot now hosts regular events, like this clinic, throughout the summer at Camp Chingachgook, where the docks and the waterfront are specially equipped for complete access.

A path designed for wheelchairs runs along the camp’s waterfront, and a pulley on the dock helps sailors who need a hand getting from their chairs to the boats. The sailboats themselves, Martin 16s designed not to tip, have a remote-controlled rudder, so sailors don’t have to shift from side to side, and a seat low enough to keep sailors safe from the swinging boom.

“It’s particularly awesome for people to experience the freedom of sailing when they’re managing limitations day after day,” says Mike Peluso, president of Y-Knot.

Disabilities ashore

Mary, who has spina bifida and is unable to walk but has use of her arms, has wanted to sail since she watched her sisters Julie, 25, and Kate, 24, try it years ago while vacationing in Cape Cod.

From the start, Y-Knot’s mission has been to provide sailing opportunities for everyone, regardless of physical condition, age or ability, Peluso says. Some events are supervised recreational sailing, others are competitions.

“Our motto: ‘We leave our disabilities on shore,’ says Peluso.

Out on the water, Steve Mintz of Ballston Lake, a Y-Knot participant, maneuvers another Martin 16. He catches the wind at just the right angle to bring the boat up on its edge. Water pours in, and Mintz lets out a whoop. He has sailed for 55 years and joined Y-Knot in the late 1990s after having a stroke that left him with limited mobility.

“It’s something I always loved to do,” says Mintz. “And after the stroke I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it.”

The best part, he says, is watching others enjoy the thrill of gliding over the water with the wind rushing at them so strongly it makes their eyes tear.

Getting on board

Today, Mary will feel some of that joy, Mintz says. Once the teen is on the dock, several Y-Knot volunteers gather around, lifting her legs, then her entire body and putting a mesh sling beneath her. After she’s safely buckled in, they attach the sling to a pulley and move her to the sailboat.

“This is pretty cool,” says Mary, smiling and laughing. “My parents can’t lift me anymore, so I want one around the house.”

The volunteers laugh, but stay focused on getting Mary safely situated.

“Are you OK? Are you comfortable?” asks Mary Ellen Rudolph, the Y-Knot chairwoman, as they tuck Mary in the seat.

“Yes. Let’s go,” Mary cheers, looking up at Rudolph through sunglasses balanced over her eyeglasses. Ray Langelier stands on the dock and takes pictures of his daughter, as Rex Moon settles into the seat behind Mary.

Moon was her ski instructor this winter at Double H Hole in the Woods Camp in Lake Luzerne. Today he’s here to help her sail.

Although everyone wears a life jacket, trust is key, say the participants, especially because many can’t swim.

“He didn’t let go of me when he skied with me,” says Mary, as dock ties are released from the boat. “And I asked him not to let go of me when I was sailing. He says he’ll hold on to my shoulders.”

Getting the fundamentals

As if on cue, the wind picks up moments after Moon and Mary leave the dock, grabbing the sail and taking them out over Lake George. Moon talks with Mary about the fundamentals of sailing — how to catch the wind, steer the boat and stay away from the rocky shore.

“It’s a lot different than skiing,” Mary yells so Moon can hear her over the wind. “I have one huge boat instead of one ski.”

Mary and Moon head toward one of the many small islands on Lake George. The wind is at its peak for the day, Moon estimates, and they’re moving right along, bouncing over the wakes of several speed boats.

“I looovvve sailing,” screams Mary, turning her face skyward.

Moon, with his hands rested firmly on Mary’s shoulders, grins and tells Mary what a great job she’s doing. They come around the island and head for shore.

As Mary steers them to the dock, Moon assists — only slightly — with a small paddle.

“Wow. I never thought I could do it. I didn’t think I had enough upper body balance to sit up and to use the controls,” says Mary, now on land and looking for her dad’s cellphone to call her sisters.

Her father hands her the phone and speed dials her family.

“I loved it,” squeals Mary. “I can’t wait to do it again.”

Kristi Gustafson can be reached at 454-5494 or by e-mail at [email protected]. All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2005, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.