Challenged Sailors leave disabilities at the dock, embrace freedom on the water

SAN DIEGO -- Challenged Sailors of San Diego started four years ago as a nonprofit organization to help get those battling physical disabilities onto the water to sail.

The program has since impacted hundreds of people and continues to grow, encouraging people to briefly forget about their challenges and embrace the water.

At 26 years old, Colin Smith was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, resulting in growing weakness in much of his lower body.

"Being disabled, I'm not able to do any of the other physical things I used to be able to do," said Smith, a challenged sailor. "Sailing, I'm still able to do."

Challenged Sailors of San Diego offers people like Colin, with physical disabilities, the opportunity to sail Martin 16 sailboats with the aide of a companion.

"Most boats you steer from the back of the boat," said Chandler Moore, a volunteer with the program. "This boat, there's actually more of a joystick, like in an airplane. If the sailor moves the joystick left, the boat turns left and if they move the joystick right, it turns right. All of the ropes and the sheets for the sails are within inches of reaching distance, which makes it really easy."

Their mantra encourages participants to leave their disability at the dock and embrace independence out on the water.

"I felt things I hadn't felt for a long time," said Smith. "Things like hope, freedom, empowerment, you know just being able to go out and not have to worry about whether I was paralyzed, which I'm not, or being blind or deaf."

"They can be fully operating and be in charge. They are in charge on the water," said Gail Smith, director of Challenged Sailors.

The program often refers to a quote from Captain Jack Sparrow from the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean." Paraphrased, it reads: "A sailboat is more than just a mast, rutter and sail. A sailboat is freedom."

For these challenged athletes, that statement means reality.

"I can't think of anything that anybody with any kind of physical disability could do that's more freeing because it doesn't matter how much sailing experience or if you know how to sail or not," said Smith.

"We have people that can't even walk but they can sail a boat and to see the expression on their face," said volunteer Daryl Clark. "They're true athletes trapped in a body that just doesn't respond."

Open to all ages and levels of disabilities, the no-cost, twice-a-week program offers a  sense of community in which both able-bodied and disabled can come together over a shared passion for sailing.

"They're just like you and me -- normal," said Chandler. "You can do anything you want out there and I think it's great because they forget about any difficulties they have in their day-to-day life."

"I just know that when I'm in the boat, that's it, I'm out there on my own," said Smith. "I don't have a disability anymore. As I said, it's been left on the dock."

Left there to stay, even if just for a brief moment.

The group meets on Fridays and Saturdays at the Sunroad Marina on Harbor Island.