Dani Schirmer sailed as a youngster while spending summers on Traverse Bay in Michigan.
Schirmer wasn’t sure if she would ever sail again after suffering a spinal cord injury a decade ago. However, the northern Virginia native got back out on the water last year by participating in a three-day clinic conducted by Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.
Schirmer attended the clinic, sponsored by grant from Craig H. Neilsen Foundation and Disabled Sports USA, accompanied by her father – an avid sailor.
“It was really special to sail with my dad after so long. We will both remember this fondly,” Schirmer said.
That experience prompted Schirmer and her boyfriend, Rudy Izzie, to attend a couple of the Sail Free Sunday events regularly hosted by CRAB out of its Sandy Point State Park facility. The couple is now married and decided to take their sailing to the next level by racing.
Dani Izzie skippered while Rudy trimmed the jib as the newlyweds won the 20th annual Don Backe Memorial CRAB Regatta, held last weekend out of Annapolis Yacht Club. Veteran sailboat racer Scott Gitchell served as tactician as Rudy and Dani Izzie took first in two races and second in two others in posting a low score of six points.
“Rudy and I are both really competitive so we totally got into the regatta,” Dani Izzie said. “I was a little surprised by how well we did because we don’t have any racing, but we had a great tactician aboard and he was very instructive. Rudy and I caught on really quickly.”
Competition was held in CRAB’s fleet of six Beneteau First 22A sloops, which recently replaced the aging fleet of Freedom 20 vessels the organization used. Rudy and Dani, who were married the weekend before the CRAB Regatta, did a solid job of handling the Beneteau First 22A.
“I thought we did an impeccable job of setting up the boat and getting ready for the first race,” Dani Izzie said. “Scott did a great job of coordinating things and our teamwork was very strong. All the tactical moves we made were very decisive.”
Gitchell, who co-owns the J/105 Tenacious along with his twin brother Carl, was impressed by Dani’s feel for the boat and natural instincts on the water.
“Dani has a very nice touch on the tiller and drove very calmly through the traffic and shifty winds of Spa Creek,” Gitchell said. “I had a lot of fun sailing with Dani and Rudy, who was playing bluegrass music the whole time we were sailing. They are both very enthusiastic.”
Izzie believes those times sailing on Lake Michigan gave her an understanding of how to keep the boat moving relative to the breeze.
“I may not remember all the technical lingo, but I definitely had a feel for the wind and how to go with it, which was really cool. I was kind of steering by basic intuition,” she said.
Dani’s life was forever altered when she slipped and fell in the shower, suffering a broken neck. She is paraplegic with limited arm movement and no fine finger capability.
“Obviously, it was an extremely devastating injury and it took almost three years to recover, both physically and mentally,” said Izzie, who does digital online marketing for Spinergy. “
I’m in a good place now emotionally. I’m very happy and confident. I think the best thing has been my engagement with community of people with disabilities. It has opened up a whole new world, a great world.”
Getting involved with a variety of adaptive recreation activities has helped with the recovering and Izzie plans to continue sailing with Rudy.
“Rudy and I love the water so this is something really fun and enjoyable that we can do together,” said Izzie, who currently lives in the town of Riva near Shenandoah National Park.
Josh Jones, another first-time participant in the CRAB Regatta, finished second with 11 points – one better than veteran competitor Lance Hinrichs. Jones, who is also paraplegic, initially did not want to drive the Beneteau First 22A.
Able-bodied crew member Jay Streit steered while Jones trimmed the jib during the two races held in the morning. Paul Bollinger, executive director of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, told Jones it was time to take over as skipper as they were loading the boats for the two afternoon races.
“When I asked Josh if he was ready to take the tiller he responded that he was not. Josh said he wasn’t comfortable sailing the boat,” Bollinger said. “My reply was ‘Perfect, because that is exactly what CRAB is all about. We take guests out of their comfort zone and have them do things they have never done before.’ Josh looked at his girlfriend and I told them both that it was time to step up.”
Jones allowed Bollinger to board hm into the aft seat and he promptly placed second in Race 3 and first in Race 4. During the awards ceremony afterward, the Delaware resident proclaimed the regatta the “greatest experience of my life.”
Hinrichs, a Sherwood Forest resident and past president of CRAB, won a race and took third in two others as the fleet sailed windward-leeward courses in 5-8 knot winds within Annapolis Harbor. Other members of the Annapolis Yacht Club’s J/105 fleet served as tacticians and crew for the six disabled skippers.
“It was some of the closest racing we’ve ever had in the CRAB Regatta with many finishes within a few feet,” said Gitchell, who joined the Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating Board of Directors this year.
This annual reatta was renamed in honor of Don Backe, founder and longtime executive director of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating. The Annapolis resident died in April, 2013 at the age of 77.