'It's like freedom': Wheelchair-accessible catamaran visits Baltimore harbor

For those in wheelchair, afternoon sailing the Baltimore harbor offers glimpse of freedom.

Raymond Plunkett wasn't thinking of his legs or his wheelchair Sunday afternoon, or of the bullet that smashed his spine a decade ago.

The West Baltimore man was looking out over the Inner Harbor and thinking about why a sailboat ride meant so much.

"I can't explain it," said Plunkett, 36. "It's like freedom."

Captain Will Rey had the motor running and went to cast off the lines of the Impossible Dream, a 60-foot, multimillion-dollar catamaran built for a crew in wheelchairs. The stern had a hydraulic lift. The deck had a flat racecourse. An elevator could lower a wheelchair to the cabin below.

"You can literally drive on in your chair," said Lynn Handy, executive director of Downtown Sailing Center in Locust Point. "It's one thing to go for a ride, and it's another thing to crew it."

The sailing center and Kennedy Krieger Institute welcomed the catamaran to Baltimore. It's touring coastal cities this summer, and offering free rides to the wheelchair-bound.

"You're able to enjoy a kind of independence," said Rey, from Florida. "You see in their faces, all of a sudden, well, they get this idea, 'Maybe I can do something?'"

The Impossible Dream was commissioned by Mike Browne, a British entrepreneur who was paralyzed in a skiing accident. He wanted to continue to sail the oceans in his wheelchair. After a decade, he sold the catamaran to Deborah Mellen, a paraplegic businesswoman from Miami.

Mellen and the crew have sent the catamaran on its tour. The crew arrived late Friday and welcomed visitors on board through Sunday.

"It's trying to inspire the concept that through design you can have something that's accessible for all," Rey said.

After Baltimore, the Impossible Dream will sail for New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The crew plan to return to Baltimore and Annapolis in late September or early October.

Katie O'Brien was injured in a car crash. The Catonsville woman said Sunday it had been 40 years since she sailed as a teenage girl in Long Island Sound.

"It's the freedom to be out and not having to ask for anybody's help," she said.

About 80 people, many of them patients of Kennedy Krieger and their families, sailed on the Impossible Dream in Baltimore

Plunkett sat on the bow and considered his 11-year-old son. The boy lay on the netting of the catamaran, peering into the water.

"I wanted to show him something different, other than the street life," Plunkett said.

Soon, the lines were cast off. The captain motored away from the dock.

The Impossible Dream went gently into the waters.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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