Sailors With Disabilities Find Freedom On The Water

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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.

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