What Does it Take to Sail or Race Offshore for a Crew with Disabilities?

When Challenged America first started 35 years ago, the only objective was to race offshore. Easy to do, you may say. But when adding a crew having different types and levels of disabilities, what is traditionally the norm, now becomes quite different, and some may say chaotic and doubtful. To us, it is but another challenge. Hopefully the following will give you a short example of some of the issues confronting any program or skipper having a crew of sailors with disabilities, and a planned offshore adventure ahead.

BOAT: Naval architects tend to first envision a boat’s design from its outside hull shape and form- making sure the hull will be able to accomplish a specific sailing task – and then consider the inside to accommodate all the essentials into the remaining hull cavity, with the new owner being responsible to find the crew capable of meeting to sail and race the boat. However, when Challenged America is able to work with a naval architect to design that “proper yacht” for sailors with disabilities, the designer will need to change focus and work from the ” “inside out.”

As we’ve learned through trial and error – some would say R&D – in real offshore sailing and racing conditions on (donated) vessels not designed with the disabled in mind, we now have to make costly modification and adaptation, or “make do” with what we have, even if it hampers our performance. Safety is paramount; then comes comfort. With the properly designed offshore racing yacht, issues now confronting us will be mitigated or eliminated, safety and performance enhanced, and mainstream sailing achievements reached. Given this, the following is but an introduction to the many issues and concerns Challenged America has previously addressed, and where others should take notice of, when a crew of sailors with disabilities is sailing (mainly) offshore.

DRINKING WATER: Although standard practice allocates ½- to 1-gallon of drinking water per day for each crew member, in most instances, crew members with disabilities require more than the minimum standard allocation to maintain stamina and good health. And when a crew member has a compromised immune system, the water quality should be of higher grade than that of desalinization or water held in a holding tank.

Given this requirement, and water having an 8.345 -pounds per gallon weight, it’s not uncommon that a racing sailboat, on a long voyage with a Challenged America-like crew, such as we’ve done in two Transpac Races to Hawaii, will be burdened with carrying hundreds or more pounds of water (depending on crew size and health/medical requirements), than competitors.

FOOD: Everyone has different culinary and taste preferences, and collecting a crew where all are in-sync to eat anything on the dinner plate is rare. But when you have crew members with disabilities, it’s not only the taste buds that need to be addressed, but health issues and concerns, especially when at sea. Sodium (salt) and sugar consumption, quantities and time of meals, allergic reactions to certain foods, balancing of medications and food consumption, are just a few of the many issues which may arise with some crew members. In most instances, dehydrated or even prepared (frozen) foods, and some snack foods are not an option, and more traditional store-bought foods are required adding extra storage space and weight to the vessel.

GALLEY: We have yet to find a vessel’s galley that is universally designed for sailors with disabilities – from wheelchair users to amputees, those who are blind to others with arthritis, carpal tunnel or using prosthetic. It would take a chapter, if not a book to write about “The Universally Designed Sailor’s Galley,” but I’m sure you can see where the challenge is in today’s sailing vessels are.

Note: In earlier nautical history, ship’s cooks, stewards, carpenters, sail makers and others in the afterguard were often “approved for service” sailors with disabilities. Becoming disabled at sea was not uncommon then; nor is it an uncommon happening today.

SLEEPING: Seasoned sailors are known to be able to sleep anywhere; at any time. And this holds true for many sailors with disabilities. However, for those sailors with spinal cord injury or disease, chronic pain, arthritis, or other medical conditions, sleep accommodations not only need to be medically comfortable but, for some, their sleeping bunk needs to be wider so they can more easily position themselves and move around – to accommodate catheters, infusions sets, and other medical devices, as well as enhance their comfort and be able to change clothes, etc. Curling up and/or crew overlapping their bodies in any available bunk or floor space to sleep, is not a luxury many with disabilities have. Even the standard foam-cushioning may not be appropriate for sleeping accommodations. And the less mobile a sailor is, the closer their bunk will need to be to essentials, such as the head, personal gear, galley, and the companionway to get on-deck.

BATHROOM – HEAD: Where the head is traditionally located on most vessels (in front of or at the mast, unless the vessel is larger with two heads), for sailors with mobility challenges (mainly unable to walk, if they even have limbs), heading to the head in a pounding sea is a challenge, as they slide themselves along the cabin’s flooring to reach their relief area. Going to the bathroom overboard is out of the question, and for the disabled, having a head at mid-ship or at the stern of the boat or near where the bunks are is most important.

Additionally, the head needs to have extra room to accommodate the special needs many have in order to go to the bathroom or take care of personal health and grooming needs, as well as additional safety adaptations – hand rails, even a drop-down bar across the toilet’s seat, preventing someone from falling off the toilet’s seat in rough seas or when an unexpected tack, or gibe occurs is more than a reasonable accommodation … it’s a requirement.

The sink, closet space, doors and drawers, mirror, toilet and sink height, even the size and containment of the trash can, all need to be considered.

ACCESS: Here, again, a chapter can be written on access alone, and expanded to include the access needs of many different types and designs of vessels sailors with disabilities can sail on. From the boarding of a vessel to its cockpit, position of deck hardware and the running rigging to seating accommodations, access the below deck area, and then the cabin itself and being able to easily navigate from bow to stern, both on deck and below, are areas that need serious consideration for the safety and comfort of crew.

Adding and positioning of handrails, possible inclusion of an elevator (hand-driven or motorized) for independent access to/from the cabin (below deck) in any sea condition, slide boards, flashing lights (for the deaf), and other adaptations and modifications may need to be incorporated, depending upon the needs of crew, and type of vessel.

Freeboard height is most important in the design of a proper sailing-racing vessel with crew members having disability, mainly in emergency (M.O.B.) and other access matters.

STORAGE: I’m sure you can envision already the need for additional storage space, and if you’re like most, your vessel shrinks dramatically to the proportion of any planned voyage’s length. And, as you can imagine, just making a size requirement of a pillow case or predetermined size of duffle bag for personal gear, will not work with some sailors having medical needs. And then there may be the additional and unexpected, storage requirements for wheelchairs and prosthetics, in addition to the additional space need for supplies, gear and equipment. Storage space capacity alone may be a determining factor of crew selection, for any overnight and long-distance passage.

MEDICAL: Where most sailors go to sea with minimal medical issues, many sailors with disabilities have secondary medical conditions, both obvious and hidden. Diabetes, epilepsy, chronic pain, high blood pressure, heart or kidney disease, cancer … the list is endless. And with today’s medications and medical devices, this is additional baggage other boats and crews do not (generally) need to accommodate.

Just some of the questions one will need to address are: Where will medications be safely stored for easy access? Do any medications require refrigeration or to be kept cool? Is there a flat work area for crew members to sort and count their pills or set up infusion sets or catheters? How about a place to hang washed catheters for airing and drying? And making special accommodations for disposed needles and other medical appliances needs to be accommodated for the entire crew’s safety and health.

The skipper may also need to carry medications, especially on long voyages/races, that are not the norm, such as pain killers (yes, narcotics in some instances), IV sets, surgical tools, and other medical emergency items … as well as have the knowledge to apply, prescribe and/or use.

The positive side is that, with a crew of sailors having disabilities, the properly prepared vessel just may be the most medically-equipped and medically prepared vessel in any fleet.

TECHNOLOGY: With today’s quickly advancing technology, the scope of what could be covered is extensive. Thus, for the sake of space in this article, and having seen many current advancements in technology either not be applicable to the environment of the open sea or quickly become obsolete before a working prototype is even tested, I’ll leave the technology needs of a proper yacht having sailors with disabilities to another article.

Technology goes in two forms: low-tech and high-tech. And except for communications and navigation, we’ve discovered that in most instances low-tech products tend to have more application, and a much longer shelf-life. What works at the dock often doesn’t work 100 or 1,000 miles offshore.

For example, our cockpit seat for sailors with and without disabilities, now in its 5th generation of development, having thousands of offshore miles of testing, is a proven winner for comfort, safety and performance for any sailor, with our without a disability. Now the redesign of this low-tech, soft-seat needs to be done to make it more cost-effective for commercial use.

Another product many are trying to develop is a talking compass for the blind, or when vision (to see a compass) is poor. The thought and solution by others is sound, but not practical for long-distance offshore use, in our experience. An alternative mode of direction and navigation needs to be developed, rather than a constantly-blasting compass’s degrees audible in the cockpit. We are working on this technology, and will test it when our next offshore racing sailboat is donated.

GEAR/EQUIPMENT: From the proper apparel to the right gear for a crew of “special” sailors is a challenge, with each person so different, even though two sailors may have like disabilities. Giving a crew member a restrictive allowance of only what can fit into a pillow case or a smaller duffle bag, a skipper will quickly discover that some sailors with disabilities require a large suitcase to hold all their apparel, personal gear and cleaning products, medications, medical devices and supplies.

From getting cold quickly (especially when tired), to having clothes easy to remove, for someone who is unable to use their arms or may be missing a hand or two. Apparel is more of personal items, and a complete inventory and evaluation needs to be taken … from head (hat) to toes (socks and footwear).

We often suggest that one prepare themselves for an offshore adventure as if they were going Alpine skiing during the coldest time of the winter, even though we sail mostly in Southern California.

Above is but a sampling, a small sampling, of the many accommodations, adaptations, needs and requirements that need to be addressed or accommodated. From experience, and with Challenged America having done a number of overnight races and two Transpacific Yacht Races to Hawaii, having crew with various disabilities, many being recognized as severely and catastrophically disabled, going to sea with sailors having (obvious or hidden) disabilities takes on a special and unique perspective.

This article may scare you but one only needs to remember that having a disability and having a medical condition or being sick are all entirely different things. And sailors who are in control and able to manage their medical conditions may prove to be the best crew members you have, especially when fatigue or emergencies come into play. It’s the crew member who has a hidden or unexpected medical condition that you are not prepared for, that may be one’s biggest challenge offshore.

If you have a crew member with a disability, or plan on a long voyage with someone having a disability and have questions, don’t hesitate to give us a call. From how to make your vessel accessible, to below deck evaluation, we’ll try to guide you as best we can.

Remember: You and your crew may be able-bodied when you leave the dock, but anything can happen before you return. Being knowledgeable is the key to safe, comfortable, and fast passages.

Thank You,
Urban Miyares
Challenged America, co-founder
Disabled Businesspersons Association, volunteer president