For three quadriplegics, freedom found on the water

Lance Hinrichs grew up around the sport of sailing, but he never truly appreciated the freedom it provided him until an accident during his junior year of college left him as a quadriplegic.

It took six years of rehabilitation until Hinrichs could get back onto a boat. It took a few more years until technology could make him totally comfortable on the open waters.


Since taking his first class geared toward disabled sailors in Newport, R.I., in the late 1980s, Hinrichs said "the sport has grown profoundly" throughout the world.

"There are programs all over the U.S. that do recreational sailing. It's a Paralympics sport, and it is a sport with a very active and very competitive racing circuit," Hinrichs, 53, said. "It has really blossomed."


Which made Friday's sail from Baltimore to Annapolis meaningful for Hinrichs and two other quadriplegics new to the sport. What might have seemed daunting quickly became an exhilarating, four-hour thrill ride.

Having expected the approximately 25-mile trip to take an hour or two longer, Hinrichs said the group was blessed with "fantastic" conditions, including a brisk 15-mph wind coming from the northwest.

Still, the longest sail Hinrichs had ever done presented its own challenges, including the fact that the two other disabled sailors, 61-year-old Patrick Rummerfield and 27-year-old Joshua Basile, were novices.

It was even a little different for Hinrichs.

"For me, I've spent lots of time on the water and had lots of long days on the water but never had done anything that was a point-to-point trip like this," Hinrichs said late Friday afternoon.

Hinrichs said Friday's sail satisfies the goal of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating, an Annapolis-based nonprofit that tries to bring people with physical and developmental disabilities to the water.

"The whole reason why we have our program is based on more than just recreation," said Hinrichs, a longtime member of CRAB and currently the organization's vice president. "We like to say that if somebody goes out and sails a boat and comes into the dock and says, 'If I can do that, what else can I do?' we know that we've been successful beyond any measure."

While Hinrichs, the father of three middle school-age children, said he limits his athletic endeavors to sailing, Rummerfield has done everything from becoming the first disabled person to drive a NASCAR racecar to setting more than 40 records in other sports for disabled athletes.


Rummerfield was the first quadriplegic to participate in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and compete in a 155-mile RacingThePlanet footrace across the Gobi Desert. He also set a world and U.S. speed record for an electric car in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats.

His greatest accomplishment might be his current physical state: Rummerfield is the first known fully functional quadriplegic.

From the time he was disabled in a car crash more than 40 years ago, it took 17 years of rehab — much of it spent developing treatment modalities at his home in St. Louis and later in Baltimore — to get to where he could think about these types of adventures.

Not that sailing a boat across the Chesapeake Bay should be viewed as any less taxing than some of his other accomplishments. Given that he had been out on the water just once — he was on a much smaller boat for a shorter ride a couple of years ago — Rummerfield knew Friday's sail would be different.

"There's a lot of unknowns; it's going to be exciting," Rummerfield, community liaison for the International Center for Spinal Cord Injury at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said Wednesday. "You never know what Mother Nature's going to throw at you."

Rummerfield called Friday's sail, which with Hinrichs' permission he steered for nearly half the time, "an incredible experience."


"It's one heck of a workout trying to keep it on course when the wind hits or a wave hits and starts to tip the boat over," Rummerfield said Friday afternoon.

As part of the 10-year anniversary celebration of the founding of the Kennedy Krieger Institute's International Center for Spinal Cord Injury, Friday's sail was the inaugural fundraiser for a state-of-the-art mouth-control system that helps disabled sailors steer their boats.

According to Hinrichs, the Sip 'n' Puff system was designed in Canada to be used on the Martin 16 sailboat. It allows "somebody who has complete paralysis of their arms to basically steer the boat through an electronic control." Hinrichs said the new system is also compatible with the Freedom 20 models used by CRAB.

Hinrichs said it's not unusual to see sailors with "very minor to very profound disabilities" competing with able-bodied sailors.

"If they have the right boat, they can compete with anybody," Hinrichs said. "The playing field is so level, it is a beautiful sport for disabled athletes. It's not about brawn. It's not who has greater strength in their arms or better balance. It's about being able to understand how the boat works, the wind and the water, how the boat moves."

As with CRAB, the Kennedy Krieger Institute tries to teach its patients how to overcome both the mental and physical limitations of their disabilities.


"What we teach is that nothing is really beyond your reach," Rummerfield said, "if you truly stay committed and turn your dreams into goals and your goals into priorities and don't stop until you achieve them."

A decade ago, much seemed beyond Basile's reach. A swimming accident in Bethany Beach, Del., during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Skidmore College changed the direction of Basile's life. A few months after the accident, he met Rummerfield at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

"He gave me a ton of hope early on; he played a huge part of keeping myself mentally going," Basile recalled.

Shortly after they met, Rummerfield took Basile with him in a racecar going around Dover International Speedway at over 100 mph. Through his own Determined2heal Foundation, Basile has taken other paraplegics gliding and skiing, but until Friday, the only two times Basile had been on a boat were for dates.

"This was a voyage compared to that," he said. "But this was fun. I don't have any other way to describe it. Hang out with the boys on the open water, crack some jokes, the wind in our hair — it was such a good day. There are so many people in this area that I'm going to push toward disability sailing. CRAB is such an amazing organization."

Basile, who graduated from Maryland in 2010 and works as a lawyer specializing in medical malpractice for a Washington law firm, said Friday's sail represented the kind of freedom he once thought impossible.


"So often, people with spinal-cord injuries, they end up being physically paralyzed, obviously, but they get stuck in their home and they're afraid to go outside and experience the world. It's a mental paralysis," Basile said. "It's such a scary world out there. Doing an adventure like this, not only does it get you outside your comfort, it's more than doing an adventure. It's getting you to the next adventure. It's such a beautiful thing."