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I’ve sailed my fair share of ocean races over the years, but the most unusual of all was the 2016 running of the Conch Republic Cup, a three-legged affair that began and finished off Key West, Florida, with a couple of 90-mile crossings of the Florida Straits to and from the north shore of Cuba. The CRC, at the time dormant for 13 years, had a colorful history owing largely to its Cuban ports of call, but aboard the 58-foot catamaran I was sailing, Impossible Dream, it wasn’t the venue that made it unique. Rather, it was the dynamic crew I was sailing with, three of whom were straddling wheelchairs. Our crew included two paraplegics and a quadriplegic. I’d never before gone to sea with paralyzed mates, but it was pretty fitting that someone had crossed off the first two letters of the cat’s name on the hull, with the “I” and the “m” scratched over. On Impossible Dream, everything seemed, well, possible.
It was my first sail aboard the one-of-a-kind, fully accessible, “barrier-free” catamaran, but hardly my last. For the yacht has continued its stated mission of creating sailing opportunities for people with disabilities, and, in the years since competing in the CRC, it’s made annual summer voyages from Florida to Maine, introducing thousands of inner-city kids, wounded military veterans and folks in wheelchairs to the joys of sailing. When it cruised into my home waters of Newport, Rhode Island, last summer, I was ecstatic to once again hop aboard.
Some background: Impossible Dream was created by extreme-sports enthusiast Mike Browne, who was paralyzed in a skiing accident and commissioned Nic Bailey to design a boat on which he could still pursue adventures. It was built by Multimarine, an advanced composites outfit, in England in 2002. Among its features are a wraparound deck that allows wheelchairs full access forward and aft, internal lifts for wheelchair boarding, a deckhouse with special seating on tracks, and all sail-handling lines leading inside. For more on the boat and its programs, visit its website: theimpossibledream.org.
The boat found a new home at Shake-a-Leg Miami, a remarkable facility based in Coconut Grove, Florida, for disabled sailors and watersports enthusiasts. The organization was founded by an old Newport pal named Harry Horgan, who was paralyzed in a car accident and saw the opportunity to empower others through firsthand experiences at sea. Horgan teamed up with another paraplegic, businesswoman and Shake-a-Leg Miami volunteer Deborah Mellen, who donated the funds to acquire the boat. The longtime skipper is Capt. Will Rey, ably assisted by first mate Paulina Belsky. Together they all make a highly talented, driven and formidable squad.
I’ll always remember our voyage to Cuba aboard the quick cat back in the day, and the genuinely gnarly conditions we encountered in the Gulf Stream, which Impossible Dream handled with aplomb. It turns out a cat is a pretty great seagoing platform. Our spin on Narragansett Bay last August was a much more mellow outing in a light southerly with a very happy contingent of participants enjoying the sun and breeze. Capt. Will always maintains a safe-and-sound ship, but it’s also pretty clear he wants everyone to have a great time. And they do.
We were tying back up in downtown Newport when, not for the first time, it struck me how special Impossible Dream truly is. Whether upright or in a chair, there’s nothing quite like a great sail, and this really cool cat is an equal-opportunity portal to nautical dreams unlike any other. As Muhammad Ali once said, “Impossible is nothing.”