Disabled sailors gain freedom on the bay

November 10, 2010 7:58:23 PM PST
Most people lucky enough to sail their own boats on San Francisco Bay would probably tell you the experience is part physical and part spiritual. That's certainly true for the women in the group Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailors. The difference in their case is the physical side requires a bit more determination.

On a magnificent San Francisco day, attorney Kathi Pugh is getting ready to go sailing on the bay -- a passion that began more than 20 years ago.

"I'm out there on the bay, wind blowing in my year, thinking, 'Wow. This is great!' So that's what got me hooked," says Pugh.

Pugh gets hooked into a harness and lifted into the boat because while she is a sailor, she is also paralyzed from her chest down.

"It was Christmas Eve. I was up with my family at 20 years old, snow skiing and just took a bad fall," says Pugh.

Her arms don't have the ability to control the sails, but her hands do with the help of a motorized joy stick.

"Port and starboard as we say. If I just want to bring in the jib or if I'm only controlling the main sail..." says Pugh as she shows ABC7 the controls at her side and how they work. "I have a lot of control over the little boat."

And with a push from the dock, the little boat is on its way. And with Kathi at the helm, it's about to pick up speed.

"I was always one of those adrenaline junkies. For me that's the fun of it. The best part of little boats is being able to push it," says Pugh.

And in a matter of minutes, Kathi's pushed her boat past AT&T park, and into to McCovey Cove.

"Oh yeah, nothing's better than this," says Pugh.

"Every time she comes out here, she just pushes it as hard as she can," says Jeff Breen from BAADS.

The non-profit club is based at the city's south beach harbor and has put together a small fleet of boats like Kathi's.

"Being able to do something like this is exciting to me, I love to do it," says Breen.

Members include a blind commodore, and quadriplegics like Cristina Rubke, who controls the sails and rudder with her chin, the same method she uses to guide her motorized wheelchair.

"Sometimes it can be very physical because if the wind's really gusting, you're going from an upright position to having your ear just a foot above the water, which feels a lot closer, and everything's whooshing buy you very quickly, well it feels very quickly because you're so close to the water," says Rubke.

"Just another beautiful day in the San Francisco Bay. We're so fortunate to live here," says Pugh as she passes by on her boat.

The club depends on volunteers and donations and now provides free lessons and specially equipped boats for dozens of members like Pugh, an experience she describes as life-changing.

"Well, you know, sailing is one of those great things as person with a disability that you can fully engage in, even if you're not physically doing it, your mind is asked to be there. But you know, part of this is just the adventure and being out the bay. I mean, it's scary, it's exciting, it's beautiful," says Pugh.

As the sun begins to lower, Pugh turns her boat back toward the dock, where her husband, Josh Maddox, is waiting for her and her stories of an experience few might have imagined.

"She starts to get bubbly and chatty and one beer leads to two, and boy, she's loving life," says Maddox.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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