Don Backe and Karl Guerra share more than a love for sailing: After their lives were transformed by tragedy, both men used the sport and the organization they now run to regain their sense of purpose.
Backe helped found Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating in 1991, four years after a horrific one-vehicle automobile accident in Crownsville left the former independent private school headmaster a paraplegic at age 51.
Guerra is now executive director for the Annapolis-based nonprofit organization that helps those with physical, mental and emotional handicaps — along with others who can't afford financially to sail — gain entrance to a sport Guerra thought he had lost when he suffered a massive stroke in 2000 at age 52.
But it could take the dream of a much younger man without any disabilities with the same love of being on the open waters to help keep CRAB afloat.
Faced with the possibility of seeing CRAB continue to lose funding and eventually fade into the proverbial sunset, as the national organization that served as its predecessor did in the late 1980s, Backe and Guerra have watched, sometimes in awe, as Matt Rutherford turned an around-the-world sail into a fundraising project that they hope will keep CRAB going.
Rutherford's 10-month journey, which officially ended when he sailed into the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on Wednesday and will have a more ceremonious conclusion Saturday in Annapolis, has raised approximately $60,000 of a stated goal of $250,000. The money will be used to buy new handicap-accessible boats or refurbish the four vessels CRAB has used since its inception.
"I think it will continue to generate some interest [for donations] for the next year," Guerra said in an interview a few hours before Rutherford, aboard the 27-foot St. Brendan, became the first person sail nonstop solo around North and South America. "Beyond that, I think we need to start thinking about other projects that will help raise more money."
That Backe and Rutherford will be at the National Sailing Hall of Fame on Saturday to be a part of Rutherford's triumphant return is remarkable in itself.
An avid sailor since childhood, Backe was a strapping 6-foot-4, 220-pound man who because of his physical prowess and familiarity with boats "had a lot of rides" in helping race yachts and sailboats competitively as well as for pure enjoyment through his early 50s.
But that part of Backe's life ended 25 years ago while he was "driving home to feed my dogs" when he lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. He was left a T4 paraplegic, meaning that he had no feeling below the middle of his chest.
"After I got out of the hospital I figured my life was pretty grim," recalled Backe, who had just made the switch from being a headmaster to selling real estate.
A business associate introduced him to the National Ocean Access Project run by Christine Jurzykowski. It allowed those with physical disabilities to sail. After going out for a sail on the Chesapeake, Backe said he burst into tears.
"I must have cried for half an hour," Backe, now 76, said. "I realized that I could still do it [sail]. I was going to need help, but I was going to be able to sail. It restored a part of my life, just as CRAB helps those with other types of disabilities make their life more meaningful."
After NOAP ran out of money, Backe and two sailing friends, John Lancaster and Mike Garfinkle, raised enough money to begin purchasing the Freedom Independence 20s that are made to accommodate those with a variety of disabilities. CRAB was born.
Lancaster left a year later to become chairman of President Bill Clinton's Commission on Disabilities, and Garfinkle also departed, leaving Backe "the last man standing" for CRAB, which has grown to as many as 200 volunteers, including a hearty group of about 60 who Guerra said "will do anything to keep us going."
One of the recent volunteers was Rutherford.
A diehard Cleveland Browns fan from Ohio, the 31-year-old Rutherford has lived all over the country and came to Maryland in 2006 with hopes of starting his own non profit to help bring supplies to some of the impoverished countries he had visited in his travels, most of them involving sailing.
The idea came to him as he was on a two-year voyage to Europe, West Africa and the Carribean. When Rutherford returned to Annapolis in 2008, he quickly realized "that's it's easier to volunteer for an organization that start your own. It takes years to get the funds."
Through a friend, Rutherford was introduced to Backe and joined CRAB.
"I did whatever they needed, I even helped replace the toilets," Rutherford said.
Said Backe, "He's worked like a beaver and he's smart as a whip. He can do anything. We call him our Nautical McGyver."
One afternoon, Rutherford asked Backe if he might be able to use one of the CRAB boats on his next journey – this one starting in the middle of June last year.
"He was leaning against a boat and said, 'Wouldn't it be neat to take this through the Northwest Passage?'" Backe said. "One of our other members said that he would give Matt the boat he had bought from CRAB."
Said Rutherford, "I was half-joking, I didn't expect him to take me seriously, but he did."
With new rigging and new sails, Rutherford took off a few months later on St. Brendan, a boat named for the patron saint of travelers.
It has not only kept Backe and Guerra from thinking too much about their continued medical issues — Backe underwent back surgery and later spent three months in the hospital after complications set in, while Guerra, aside from having a stroke, suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and was diagnosed last year with a rare form of skin cancer — but it has energized their organization.
Guerra discovered CRAB after the stroke left him without the ability to speak for three years and needing to learn "how to read and even put thoughts together." Guerra said he spent six days a week, 10 hours a day, in rehabilitation. After losing his consulting business, and the family home, Guerra needed to work. CRAB seemed like the perfect situation when he signed on three years ago.
As impressed as the organization's leaders are with Rutherford, he is even more amazed by Backe and Guerra.
"They never complain, they never say, 'Woe is me,'" Rutherford said. "If I were in their situation I don't know if I would handle it as well as they do."
Knowing what it did for them, Backe and Guerra realize how important the access to sailing is for others with disabilities.
Backe has been there to witness autistic children calmed by the experience.