Bob Ewing is a paraplegic, but he’s never let that get in the way of his joy of sailing. He co-founded a nonprofit, Footloose Sailing Association, that helps others like him do the same.
Bob Ewing rolls up to his sailboat in his wheelchair with the nonchalance of a seasoned sailor.
He parks the chair alongside the 22-foot boat, anchors it to the dock, lifts his paralyzed legs over the boat’s gunwale and, with the help of a volunteer, slides his lanky frame off the chair and into the cockpit.
As he settles in at the helm, he turns to his sailing companions on the dock, inviting them to ditch their crutches and wheelchairs and slide aboard.
Faster than you can sing a sea shanty, they’re in the boat and heading out for a two-hour sail on Lake Washington.
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For the past 26 years, Ewing has shared his boat and his time with other people with disabilities through the Footloose Sailing Association, a nonprofit he co-founded with two friends to provide sailing opportunities to people with disabilities.
The club’s motto, “Leave your disability at the dock,” is both fact and inspiration.
Ewing says everyone — and he means everyone — can sail. He took up sailing in earnest after breaking his neck diving into the Yakima River 43 years ago. He has sailed with people paralyzed by strokes, people with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, head injuries and learning disabilities. He’s sailed with a boy on a ventilator, and with people who can’t see.
“There are a lot of blind racers,’’ he says. “They can face the stern, and because the hairs on the back of the neck are so sensitive, they can read the wind.”
Ewing, 65, loves the freedom of movement in the sailboat. “You can still get around the world without a wheelchair,’’ he says, and he actively recruits people from support groups, physical-therapy practices, medical clinics, even the grocery store.
“I’ll see someone in a store, and you can cue up the ‘Jaws’ music,’’ he says, describing how he’ll roll up on them with his card in hand, inviting them to sail.
Many sailing seasons
From its modest start in 1991, the Footloose fleet has grown to eight sailboats: four access dinghies, two 21-foot Columbians with swivel seats, and two 16-foot Martins, outfitted in a way that allows quadriplegics to sail using their chin or their breath. The group, currently based out of the north end of Seattle’s Leschi Marina, also has a motorized chase boat for emergencies and for when the wind dies.
Ewing says the boats and the sails have seen better days, but replacing them would mean more fundraising for the small group or increasing fees for a group living on disability incomes. As it stands, $25 buys a membership and a sailing trip. Subsequent trips are $10, with no charge for caretakers.
The all-volunteer group typically holds eight or nine sailing events a year from May to June, including an overnight camping trip to Blake Island, complete with tents and s’mores. Two shifts are offered each sail day, on a first-come, first-served basis.
For the group’s first event of the season, on May 20, the turnout was modest: about a dozen volunteers and at least that many sailors, including a group of disability activists from Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt visiting Seattle on a U.S. State Department-sponsored trip.
They board Ewing’s boat, together with a 28-year-old woman who was paralyzed in a car accident three years ago, and a few able-bodied companions and caretakers.
Meanwhile, on a nearby dock, Faron Shanklin, a 55-year-old quadriplegic from Snohomish, is being lowered into a 16-foot sailboat. To control it, he’ll use a “sip-and-puff” device that enables him to use his breath to move the rudder and operate a wench that controls the sails.
Paralyzed 30 years ago, when someone shot him in the neck at work, the former Navy man has been sailing with Footloose for 11 years, starting first as a passenger, then as a skipper, using a joystick operated with his chin.
Today is his second sail using the breathing device.
His face relaxes into a beatific smile as he recalls his first time at the helm.
“The wind picked up, and we were gone,’’ he says. “I had a new independence. I could go in any direction I wanted. That really hooked me on sailing.”
He’s gotten so adept, he says, that he once sailed from Leschi to Mercer Island and back in eight minutes.
Riding the breeze
Getting Shanklin into the 16-foot boat is a complex endeavor requiring a harness, a sling and several volunteers to operate a manual lift and steer him into a seat in the cockpit. Volunteer John Smith, 88, his nose white with sunscreen, sits behind Shanklin in his own seat, but Shanklin is in control.
The wind is light, but over the course of two hours Shanklin catches enough of it to make it far out in the lake. From the dock, his boat resembles a tiny ship in the distance.
David Andrew, a volunteer with Footloose since 1998, said he committed to the organization the first time he sailed with it.
“My first time out was with a blind girl,” he said. “It lifted her spirits so much.”
Andrew, who is operating the chase boat on this sailing day, said the organization runs with a core group of about 15 to 20 volunteers, including Tim Davidson, who serves as dockmaster, coordinating the comings and goings of Footloose’s boats all day.
“After a day here, you leave the dock and you don’t feel so sorry for yourself for a time,’’ Davidson says. Besides, he adds, “I love to sail. Why shouldn’t everyone?”
Two hours after they left, Ewing and his crew slide back into the dock.
Mehdi Diouane, an advocate for people with disabilities in Morocco, is beaming, despite some residual motion sickness.
The sail, he says, was joyful, and has ignited new possibilities for doing something similar in Morocco.
“I want to talk to my government to have a relationship with them,’’ he says of Footloose. “Why not? I love it.”
Ewing is still at the helm, eating an apple, waiting for passengers for his afternoon sail.
“We can do that,” he says to Diouane.
And after all he’s already done, who would doubt him?