On Lake Harriet, everyones a captain

Adaptive sailing program enables all to sail

On a sun-drenched summer evening, Paul Van Winkel glides silently through the waters of Lake Harriet in a one-person sailboat.

The vessel seems to be an extension of his body. Without any perceptible physical motion, a warm and steady summer breeze propels him from the dock around buoys to the middle of the lake and back again.

But while he is in total control out on the water, Van Winkel relies on the assistance of others to disembark his vessel. Back on the dock, he quickly hoists himself into a wheelchair, revealing legs disabled by a childhood bout with polio.

Van Winkel is one of more than a dozen sailors who regularly participate in the Lake Harriet Yacht Club’s adaptive sailing program, which empowers folks with disabilities to experience the serenity of harnessing the wind on the water.

Truth be told, Van Winkel doesn’t need much empowerment. An accomplished wheelchair basketball player and world-class wheelchair racer, he’s been a fixture each week at the lake since the adaptive program began four years ago. Other sailors marvel at how easy he makes it look thanks to his athleticism and experience.

Van Winkel said he became interested in sailing while reading Robinson Crusoe as a young boy in his native Belgium.

“I never had the idea that I would once actually be sailing,” he said. “It’s like learning to ride a bike — most of it is experience. You’re always learning, but sailing is pretty simple.”

Despite Van Winkel’s skill, the fact remains that sailing in a typical one-person sailboat would probably be impossible for someone without functioning legs.

Standard vessels require sailors to shift their bodies from side to side in response to the direction of the wind and swinging of the boom. Of course, making that sort of motion while reaching back to control the rudder is difficult to impossible for many folks with disabilities.

But the adaptive vessels feature a deep cockpit under the boom, meaning sailors don’t have to worry about moving back and forth. Hundreds of pounds of lead near the keel prevent them from capsizing.

The boats are modified so that a rudder-steering joystick is in the front of the cockpit, enabling sailors like Van Winkel to skillfully and safely navigate Lake Harriet without appearing to invest much effort.

Additional modifications to the vessels have been made over the years. This year, yacht club member Jim Marquardt installed solar panels in the bows. The panels control a pump that quickly drains rainwater from the cockpit following storms.

The program is truly a labor of love for volunteers like Marquardt and organizer Karen Hemstad. While the number of sailors regularly taking part in the program has roughly tripled since 2007, the number of volunteers has kept pace. All in all, about 25 folks, some yacht club members and some not, donate their time on Monday nights to make sure adaptive sailing proceeds without a hitch.

Volunteers help sailors rig the vessels, embark and disembark. Others head out with motorboats and walkie-talkies to coach sailors while they’re on the water and make sure everyone stays safe.

Hemstad said that before the adaptive sailing program came to be, volunteers would give people with disabilities boat rides around Lake Calhoun on Saturday afternoon.

“It was lovely, but it was very passive,” she said.

Around the same time, the Courage Center donated four one-person vessels to the Lake Harriet Yacht Club. Hemstad and friends modified the boats right in her house — she distributed calcium supplements to her fellow volunteers to prevent poisoning while lead was being poured — a cadre of regular volunteers came together, and adaptive sailors have been navigating the waters of Lake Harriet on Monday nights from May through September ever since.

Ultimately, Hemstad said, she does it because she tries to imagine life from the perspective of a person with disabilities. In that situation, wouldn’t it be great to be captain of your own ship rather than just along for a ride?

“This isn’t about giving someone a ride — it’s about showing them how to sail and giving them the freedom to do it themselves,” she said, adding that many of the volunteers and sailors have become close friends over the years.

Lynnhurst resident Jeff Heathcote echoed Hemstad’s sentiment about the importance of being a captain. Heathcote was born with cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair for about 15 years.

Though he sailed in groups on larger boats during his student days in Duluth, Heathcote said he finds captaining a one-person vessel to be more fulfilling.

“Sailing here is totally on me and that’s good, it’s what I want,” he said. “I want to be able to do it myself, and I think everybody here would probably say the same thing.”

Heathcote was getting ready for just his second excursion on Lake Harriet as captain of his own ship. He said he had a bit of trouble controlling the vessel his first time out, but was confident the combination of Van Winkel’s coaching and less gusty conditions would make for smoother sailing the second time around.

For Van Winkel, Monday nights are about more than just a serene sojourn around the lake. He said that when a boat pulls alongside his vessel, the competitive juices start flowing and he can’t help but try and show that he can sail as fast as anyone on the lake, legs or no.

And ultimately, Van Winkel said, the fact that everyone is equal while sailing is perhaps what he finds most appealing about the program.

“It puts everyone on the same playing field,” he said. “You might not be able to use your legs, but you still need to use your brain to navigate a boat.”

Reach Aaron Rupar at arupar@mnpubs.com.