No Limits for American Disabled Sailors

Gary Jobson checks in with Paralympic sailors who have the same goals in mind as any other sailor, including beating their able-bodied counterparts. "Jobson Report" from our December 2007 issue

April 21, 2008

paralympic sailors 368

Dan Nerney/ The Clagett Regatta

Several years ago, Ted Turner and I were racing J Class yachts in Newport, R.I., and one evening we were invited to speak at a disabled sailing event. It was the first time I became aware how many individuals with serious disabilities raced sailboats. The discussion, however, revolved around racing techniques, not physical handicaps. Ted and I quickly learned that this group, like all sailors, was focused on winning. For many years, US SAILING has been an advocate for disabled sailing programs, and these initiatives are paying off in a major way. Not only
are there many participants today, but American sailors are performing extremely well at the international level. This bodes well for the paralympic effort next year in China. This unheralded segment of the sport is one that all sailors should follow and support.

In September, the U.S. Sailing Team won both gold and silver medals in the Sonar and SKUD-18 classes. Paul Callahan, 49, from Cambridge, Mass., attributes the United States’ success at paralympic sailing to, “experience, teamwork, talent, and coaching.” In a recent conversation, Callahan explained to me that disabled sailing, “gets to the grit of what the United States stands for: overcoming adversity, competing as a team, and attempting to win fairly.” He also pointed out that people with disabilities have to overcome a bit more to get the boat around the racecourse quickly.

Callahan was injured as a student at Harvard when he slipped on a wet floor. He has been a quadriplegic ever since. He represented the United States at the Sydney Games and placed seventh. An unfortunate injury kept Callahan away from the Athens Games, but at the IFDS Disabled Sailing Worlds in Rochester, N.Y., he placed second in the Sonar Division. Like most disabled sailors I meet he is not bitter about his circumstances. “I have lived more of my life in the wheelchair than out,” he says, “I can honestly say I think my life has been fuller, and more meaningful in the wheelchair. When I am on the water I concentrate on winning.”


Olympic Sailing Committee chairman, Dean Brenner, is enthused by the performance of the paralympic team. But he says this didn’t happen by accident, “US SAILING’s decision to roll the paralympic team under the roof of our U.S. Olympic Sailing Team was a good move. There are considerable crossover benefits that help the paralympic sailors,”

Says Brenner. “The funding we receive from the USOC is modest for paralympic sailing, but we are getting extremely positive results. One of the reasons for the paralympic successes, particularly in the SKUD class, is directly attributable to Betsy Alison, our head coach.”

Coach Alison amplifies the attitude of Callahan and many other disabled sailors. “One of the coolest things about working with these particular sailors is that they’ve come to terms with their problems, and it just happens to be another parameter to work around,” she says.


When asked about the skill level she sees, Alison observes, “Our sailors compete on an equal basis with their able-bodied competitors.” Nick Scandone, a past world champion in the 2.4 meter class, and 2005 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year, says, “they’re actually much better than people give them credit for.”
Alison proudly points out, “Nick had to beat seven former world champs and 88 competitors, most of them able-bodied, to win the Worlds two years ago.”

There is a classification system for the level of a sailor’s handicap, ranging from one to seven (most disabled). In the Sonar class, a three-person crew must sail with a total of a 14 handicap. Callahan is rated as a seven. He explained how he steers his Sonar: “I have bicycle pedals turned upside down and adapted rollerblading gloves to fit into the pedals. It’s similar to a grinder, where I turn one way and we go to starboard, I turn the other way and we go to port.

“It took an enormous number of hours training to understand the system. I can’t feel the helm, so I have to use other cues in terms of sail trim and other kinds of feedback.” Callahan is quick to credit his coach, 1996 Olympic medalist Jeff Madrigali, for his success. “We train against him, and he gets on and off our boat to help us, he is extraordinarily valuable to this campaign.”


Most sailors were injured many years ago, but Scott Whitman broke his neck recently. Alison tells the story: “We got him involved about one and a half years ago. It has really opened up a ton of opportunities. His parents say they have gotten their son back. He internalized a lot of his conflicts and issues, but now he’s out sailing.” Whitman and crew, Julia Dorsett, placed fourth in Rochester, losing a three-way tie for second in the SKUD-18 class.

Looking ahead to China, Brenner is optimistic. “We have high hopes for our paralympic team. We have the right people competing and a lot of talent in each class.”

Alison says the American results can be attributed to hard work and lots of training. There were many coaches working with sailors in preparation for the U.S. Olympic Trials in October. Cross training with able-bodied sailors is also helping. “Rick Doerr and his crew train against the top sailors in the Long Island Sound Sonar fleet,” says Alison.


Doerr is a paraplegic who is unable to move from the waist down. Callahan describes Doerr as a “strong guy who muscles the boat around pretty well. He uses a transfer bench to get across the boat.”

Callahan, on the other hand, has a more complicated rig to move from one side to the other. “I can turn 170 degrees,” he says, “but if I get released off my track by mistake, I slide toward the leeward side at 100 miles an hour. It can be scary. Then they have to grind my seat back to windward.”

Disabled sailors are inspired by each other. Scandone first showed up for a Shake-a-Leg regatta in Miami and was surprised by a scene in the boat park. “There’s a guy with no legs, and only one arm in a wheelchair waxing the bottom of his Sonar,” says Scandone. “I thought if that guy can do that, he must have some kind of passion for the sport, this is something I can get into.”

Over the past two years Scandone’s condition has gotten progressively worse to the point that he is now in a powered wheel chair, and has switched from the singlehanded 2.4 meter to the SKUD-18, sailing with Maureen McKinnon. He’s still gung ho. “I’m still sailing. I’m enjoying it,” he says. “This is one of the few sports that will not only allow you to sail, but allow you to go out and compete against the best able-bodied sailors.”

During our conversation there is a long pause, and then Nick says with pride, “There’s nothing more satisfying to a disabled sailor than to go out and beat able-bodied sailors.”

Scandone then makes a good point: “I truly believe the International Olympic Committee should take a look at the sport of sailing and consider putting disabled sailors in the regular Olympics.”
It made me think, “Why not?”

After all they are all regular sailors, just like the rest of us.


More Racing