One Wild Night At Sea

Impossible Dream and its adaptive sailing crew set out to win an overnight race, but the weather ultimately defeated them.
2023 Ida Lewis Race
Sail adjustments are made on Deborah Mellen’s Impossible Dream at the start of the 2023 Ida Lewis Race. Mai Norton

It was just after 0200 on a wild and woolly August morning, just north of Block Island on the rather thrashed waters of Rhode Island Sound. On the 58-foot catamaran Impossible Dream, we were about 12 hours into and a third of the way around our ­129-nautical-­mile racecourse during the annual running of the Ida Lewis Distance Race. We’d come to a crossroads: It was time to make the sort of decision one never wishes to contemplate in any offshore boat race.

Quickly closing in on Rhode Island’s shoreline, in deteriorating conditions with the wind rising and a crew scattered about in various states of blurry awareness or total incapacitation, should we 1) tack for the next mark, dead to weather, off Long Island; or 2) cut our losses, ease sheets, and head home?

Dream’s 15-person squad included owner Deborah Mellen, Capt. Jim Marvin, former America’s Cup racer Sarah Cavanaugh, my old Newport friend Harry Horgan, a four-person film crew making a documentary, and a handful of intrepid disabled sailors negotiating the race from their wheelchairs—an eclectic team if ever there was one.

At the wheel, cocooned in the cozy confines of the central inside steering station, as I watched a gust on the anemometer top 40 knots, I was quite aware that I was enjoying a false sense of security. I knew Impossible Dream well, having raced the boat from Key West to Cuba across a roiled Gulf Stream in the 2017 Conch Republic Cup, and was confident that the big cat could handle just about anything. But I also wondered, Was there even more breeze building? Because I understood that if I slipped up, the worst happened, the cat flipped and we all went swimming, it would be an unmitigated disaster. I had a definite opinion on whether to bail, but it wasn’t my call. 

“Hey, Jim,” I said to the skipper, “I have to turn the boat. Which direction? Montauk or Newport? I reckon you and Deborah need to have a chat.” 

For me, racing aboard Impossible Dream was not only unusual, exciting and challenging, but it also was personal. That’s because, for better and worse, I had more than a passing acquaintance with crewing alongside wheelchair-bound sailors. I was on a camping trip in the early 1980s with one of my best friends, a wild man known as Jack Mack, when he slipped on a steep ridge above a New Hampshire river, instinctively tucked for a dive, broke his neck and became a quadriplegic. In an instant, both our lives were forever changed. 

Not long after, one evening in my Newport apartment, the wail of sirens broke the silence, and the next day I learned that Horgan, another mate, had been in an automobile accident down the street and was paralyzed from the waist down. 

Neither Jack nor Harry took matters sitting down. Jack continued charging through life with his usual dry wit and fierce tenacity. And with a small fleet of specially designed Freedom 20 sloops, Horgan founded Shake-A-Leg, which was dedicated to helping folks overcome devastating injuries and disabilities through firsthand experiences at sea. In one of the very first Shake-A-Leg regattas, Jack and I went sailboat racing, a healing experience for both of us. The saddest thing about spinal-cord injuries, I’d come to learn, is that they’re largely incurred by active young folks, relative “kids” in the prime of their youth. Couch potatoes are immune. I also learned that the greatest things they have going for them are their hearts and resiliency. 

Eventually, Horgan and his wife, Susie, relocated to South Florida and started Shake-A-Leg Miami, which has become a vast watersports entity with world-class sailing facilities on Biscayne Bay that not only annually serves upwards of 10,000 disabled children, military veterans and their families, but also hosts numerous international one-design regattas. It was 2014 when Mellen, a Shake-A-Leg volunteer and local businesswoman who’d also survived a car crash, teamed up with the group to purchase the rugged offshore catamaran that exponentially expanded its breadth and reach. 

Impossible Dream was launched by extreme-sports enthusiast Mike Browne, a Brit who was paralyzed in a skiing accident and commissioned naval architect Nic Baily to design a boat on which he could still pursue adventures. Among its features are a wraparound deck that allows wheelchairs full access forward and aft, internal lifts for wheelchair boarding and access to the below-deck staterooms, and a deckhouse with special seating on tracks and all sailhandling lines led inside within reach of the enclosed helm station. 

In addition to offshore races like the previously mentioned Conch Republic Cup and the 2018 Regata del Sol al Sol from Tampa Bay across the Gulf of Mexico to Isla Mujeres, Mexico, each summer Impossible Dream embarks on an annual voyage up the coast from Florida to Maine (the late President George H.W. Bush once enjoyed a spin off Kennebunkport), introducing literally thousands of inner-city kids, wounded vets, and others to the singular joys of a day on the water.  

This past summer, there was an additional event on the cat’s calendar: the Ida Lewis Distance Race. There was but one hitch: There was no multihull division, but this was a trivial matter to the very persuasive Horgan. The club agreed to a start for an Exhibition Multihull Class, the sole entrant being Impossible Dream. What sealed the deal, Horgan believes, was the documentary. “It’s going to be an inspirational piece that’s going to inspire people to believe in their dreams and pursue them,” he told me. “For me, personally, Ida is where I learned to sail when I was 12 years old. We wanted to demonstrate that people with disabilities can achieve good things with the right team and technology, and be part of the Ida legacy.”

All of which put Impossible Dream on the starting line.

Tall and lean, with a cool demeanor and the striking appearance of a Rastafarian—and a pair of spindly prosthetic legs from the knees down—Bradley Johnson cuts an imposing, impressive figure. Before all was said and done, I was going to be very happy to have made his acquaintance.  

Among others, director Anna Andersen’s film—tentatively titled This Is Not a Dream—will focus on Dianne Vitkus, a former physician’s assistant who was paralyzed relatively recently in a fall, and Johnson, who was returning from the entrance exam to law school at the University of Florida in 1993 when his sports car hydroplaned on a rainy highway straight into a guardrail. “One leg was severed completely,” he told me. “The other was ­lacerated beyond repair.”

Some folks might’ve retreated to their basements. Not Johnson. “It was a choice,” he said. “What are you going to do? I can’t grow my legs back. I also can’t waste the valuable time given to me by being alive. All the efforts by the people who saved me would go for naught if I just shriveled up. I wasn’t going to hold on to something I can’t ever get back.”

Instead, he threw himself into sports, and was competing in volleyball in the 2000 Paralympic Games, when, by chance, he met sailing coach Betsy Allison in a hotel bar, who asked what turned out to be a life-changing question: “Would you consider sailing?”

It led to an international sailing career on Sonars, including a bronze medal in the Athens Paralympic Games in 2004, and eventually on to Impossible Dream. “The sailing’s been incredible,” he told me later. “I’d lose the legs all over again ­without reservation.”

Which is one of the most remarkable things I’d ever heard. Although our fun night on the Ida race might’ve given him some second thoughts. 

It was a scramble from the outset. For the first time ever, engine problems had forced ID to cancel most of the New England stops on its summer tour. Once in Newport, the generator conked out, and without power, there was no way to hoist the mammoth new North Sails in-boom furling main. The diesel mechanics were still working that out just hours before the start, which, thanks to a two-hour postponement for a passing front, we made with ­little time to spare. But the sporty weather was a definite preview of coming attractions. 

Horgan, with many miles behind him and a light touch on the helm, handled the start and the long beat out to the first mark in the rising southwesterly with aplomb. Already, however, the conditions had laid low a few wobbly souls, a handful of whom were experiencing their first ocean race. And an inaugural bout with seasickness. Another sign of things to come. 

I took over the driving on the next leg, thankfully a downwind run to Buzzards Bay Tower. It required sailing hot angles compared with our monohull brethren, which I later learned elicited much confusion with the folks at the yacht club tracking the fleet. But I also knew that the long boards and frequent jibes were stacking miles on an already lengthy boat race.

The conditions had laid low a few wobbly souls, a handful of whom were experiencing their first ocean race. And an inaugural bout with seasickness. Another sign of things to come.

At the tower, with the prospect of a 70-odd-mile overnight beat to Montauk ahead of us but with all bunks already accounted for, I grabbed a pillow and plonked down in the galley to catch some rest, but not before suggesting that we hug the coastline at the outset of the leg for current relief. About two hours later, I roused myself and was stunned to see that we were on an inshore tack directly toward Sakonnet Point, and on the wrong side of a government mark we needed to honor. Capt. Jim was on the cabin top sorting out a traveler issue, but I yelled that we needed to tack—like, now!—and luckily the experienced Johnson was on the helm and quickly spun us out to seaward, away from ­trouble. Close one. 

Shortly thereafter, I took back the steering duties. By this time, there were a few sentient beings among us, one of whom was Horgan’s son, Eli, riding shotgun and keeping me updated on boatspeed and windspeed, buoys and shoals, and so on. His company was welcomed, and though he was more or less a novice at this game, he has a future in it if he wants one. 

Meanwhile, a couple of miles or so to windward, a plethora of blinking lights, including what appeared to be a US Coast Guard cutter, suggested that someone was in major distress of some sort, though there was no VHF traffic to confirm it. The whole thing was starting to feel somewhat apocalyptic. 

That’s when we came to the figurative fork in the road, and I got the order that I was hoping to hear: Bear away to Newport.

I caught up with the crew at the awards ceremony, nobody looking the worse for wear, and explained that it wasn’t the first race I’d abandoned, and it wouldn’t be the last. Sometimes the winning move is exercising discretion over valor. We’d all learned something—about sailing and ourselves. It was all good. And a dozen other boats had retired, including a couple that had dropped their rigs. It was absolutely the right move. We all got a fresh sea story or two out of it.  

I had to laugh later on when Horgan referred to the entire episode as “The Impossible Nightmare.” But I think that they got the title of the film right. It sure as hell was not a dream.