Paralympic dream drives ex-yacht captain
Posted on 29 March 2012
Written by Jim Flannery
Jody Hill’s dream is to sail for the United States as a Paralympian.
Resting in his wheelchair on a Miami dock after six hours of racing on Biscayne Bay, Hill confesses that he has been having trouble with his upwind speed in the qualifiers.This has knocked him out of the running for the 2012 Paralympics in September in England.
But it has not doused his determination. Betsy Alison, the Paralympic coach and a National Sailing Hall of Famer, has given him a thumbs-up for his starts. He’s been “blasting off the line” first during the Jan. 22-28 Miami Olympic Classes Regatta.
“She’s been really upbeat, giving me encouraging words to go forward,” says the 41-year-old Hill. And he plans to. Largely self-taught, he plans to get a coach with the help of his sponsor, Moore Stephens, a British yacht services company. He’ll be practicing one-on-one with Paralympic gold medalist Paul Tingley in Miami after the regatta.
“I’m excited to do better,” he says.
His parents, Lauren and Kathleen Hill, are excited, too. Competing to go to the Paralympics has been “fabulous” for Hill, his mom says. “It has made all the difference.”
Clawing his way back from a 2006 auto accident that ended a 13-year yachting career, Hill has found joy again — in sailing and racing. He chose sailing as a profession when he was 22. His parents had taken him as a teenager on holidays to the Caribbean, where the family chartered yachts, and sailing bewitched young Hill.
In 1993, three-and-a-half years into his college studies, he couldn’t wait to go to work on a sailing yacht in the Caribbean, so he flew to Antigua with $200 in his pocket to look for a job. Five years after that leap of faith and stints as a deckhand and mate, Hill became a yacht captain. In five more years he was skipper of the classic 1934 ketch Flicka, a 52-foot Alfred Westmacott design.
He spent winters in the Caribbean and summers in the French Riviera on Flicka, squiring her owner and guests to quaint port towns and anchorages. “I really felt like I’d arrived,” Hill says. “I wasn’t making a ton of money, but everything was taken care of. I had more than enough. I had an amazing lifestyle and was incredibly happy.”
The decision to abandon his studies and follow his heart seemed to have been vindicated. “I couldn’t help thinking I’d come full circle, that I was doing exactly what I dreamed I would be doing all along,” he says. That idyllic life was just a short road trip from calamity.
In 2006 in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, while backing away from a washout on a hilly road, his four-wheel-drive vehicle slipped off a cliff, landing 20 feet below. Hill suffered a broken back and was paralyzed from the chest down. A friend who was with him ran a half-mile to a house to get help. It took four hours for rescuers to extract him from the crumpled wreck.
Like many who work on yachts, Hill had no health insurance. His mom had recently given him $500 to buy insurance, but the money remained in his bank account. He lay for four days on a backboard in a hospital in Tortola while his parents arranged to airlift him to a hospital in Houston. Without insurance, that was a formidable task.
“I only got a bed [in Houston] because my parents knew somebody who knew somebody,” Hill says.
He is pretty sure he would have died had he stayed in Tortola. He arrived in Houston with a collapsed lung, seven broken ribs and his body’s left side, including his head, “crushed.” Doctors put a metal plate and five screws into his head, stiffened his spine with two metal bars and fused five vertebrae. The surgeons put Hill back together; it was up to him to learn to live without use of his legs.
“There was a lot of tough love in rehab,” he recalls. “I’d ask, ‘Can you help me with this?’ They would say, ‘No. Do it yourself. Figure it out.’ That stuff motivates you.”
Hill is the first to acknowledge that his recovery — medically, psychologically and financially — was a cooperative effort. His parents and friends in Antigua raised $25,000 to help defray his medical bills. The hospital gave the money back to assist with his rehab. His Caribbean support network published a 1,000-copy run of a “Girls of Yachting” calendar as a fundraiser.
Chris Martin, a judge for the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta, encouraged Hill to sail again. His parents’ neighbor, Rankin Johnson, gave him a 1969 Venture 24 sailboat, in rough condition, to work on so he could get back on the water. His father, and brother Charlie helped him repair and refit the boat.
Hill wanted to sail again, and after meeting patients in the hospital “who were a whole lot worse off than I was” and after befriending some disabled veterans at a recreation center in Houston he thought he might be able to help them in their rehabilitation while he helped himself in his own.
“I had a knowledge of sailing that I could share with people who had suffered and suffered so much,” he says. “I wanted to share with them that freedom and independence and serenity that I get from sailing.”
In 2008, after restoring the Venture, Hill started taking disabled friends out for sails on Houston’s Clear Lake. He calls these ventures “Positive Sailing.”
“I love it. They love it,” Hill says. “It is so amazing to leave my wheelchair at the dock and just go sailing. … It’s so peaceful, so serene. To see [their] grimaces of pain relaxing, it’s so rewarding to me.” His dream at the time: to establish a charity that would take disabled men and women to Antigua to learn to sail in a tropical setting.
Hill began living aboard his boat at a marina on Clear Lake. In September 2008, Hurricane Ike blew through with 110-mph winds. Having invested so much of himself in Rankin — the name he gave the boat — he insisted on staying aboard to look after her, much to the chagrin of his parents. “I spent all day — 14 hours — getting the boat ready,” he says — sealing hatches, doubling lines, securing the boat to the floating dock, gathering up loose paraphernalia in the cabin.
He went to bed at 10 p.m., and Ike hit about midnight. “It rolled me off the bunk onto the cabin sole,” he says.
Despite his best efforts to seal the boat from the elements, water leaked in “from everywhere.” That scared him, as did the sounds of chaos outside. “The noise of the wind in the rigging was a whistling sound,” he says. “The whole boat was like a violin,” vibrating in a high-pitched harmonic.
A 13-foot flood tide floated Rankin’s dock to within two feet of the top of its pilings, but the pilings and dock held together, although the ramp floated away. “I came through it,” Hill says. “I had this amazing feeling of accomplishment and success. I felt like I could take on the world after that. It gave me so much self-esteem, crazy as it was and as angry as people got with me.”
Still, he was stuck on the boat by himself for five days until the fire department showed up and got him off, using its rescue equipment. In the meantime, the dockmaster kept an eye on him, throwing food out to the boat from time to time — steak and beans one day, a real feast.
Next tack, racing
In July 2010, regatta sponsor American Airlines flew Hill to Chicago to the North American Challenge Cup, where he sailed a borrowed 2.4 Meter Class to a third-place finish in one of the premier regattas for disabled adults.
Racing has given Hill a new vision of his future. “It has given me focus; it has given me purpose,” he says. “I thought my purpose before I discovered racing was teaching and introducing people with disabilities to sailing.” His goals have changed.
“I raced classic yachts, but I never really considered myself a racer,” Hill says. “It is only recently that I have started to get that eye of the tiger, that aggressiveness. I’ve always been a very courteous racer — nice.” No more Mr. Nice Guy.
Hill set his sights on the 2012 Paralympics, which run Sept. 1-6 in Weymouth and Portland, England. Again he moved forward with the help of a community of well-wishers. In October 2010, Merelita Revel, a first mate and longtime friend from the islands, organized a Positively Pumpkin Fundraising Regatta in Newport, R.I., that pitted rowers in big fiberglass pumpkin shells against each other. The event raised $4,000, enough for Hill to buy a used 2.4 Meter, which he named Positive. He finished second in the 2011 North American Challenge Cup in that boat and wooed Moore Stephens, a U.K. yacht management company and crew insurance provider, as his sponsor.
Since the accident, Hill has raced boats such as the Sonar with other disabled crew aboard, but he prefers single-handing the 2.4 Meter, known as the 2.4mR. “I want to steer. I want to drive if I’m going to race,” he says.
A 13-foot, 8-inch single-handed keelboat, the 2.4mR is the class boat for the Paralympics and is ideally suited for disabled sailors. The big keel makes it very stable. The skipper sits in the boat facing forward with just head and shoulders visible above the cockpit coaming. All rudder and sail trim controls are within arm’s reach from that position. Indeed, the boat is great for disabled sailing but, just as important to Hill, “you have this bond with the other sailors,” he says. “You make some very good friends.”
That can be bittersweet. He has lost some of those friends to the illnesses that cripple their bodies. “We’ve lost three really good sailors, good friends of mine,” he says.
Jody Hill is on the mend, although it has been a struggle. “I went through some really tough times, when I was treated by the community as this sort of vagrant, homeless person,” he says. “I’m a yacht captain, but people would see me on the street and, if I sat still very long, somebody would come up and give me a dollar. I began feeling like I was less than I was. You begin to believe that you are what people treat you to be.”
He became angrier and angrier — until he took up sailing again. “The first time I took Rankin out, it lifted a heavy weight off my shoulders,” he says. “I was going out on my own vessel. I had done so much work on it. I took pride in it. … Being captain of my own boat and taking people out on it — that was a big moment.
“That’s when I stopped being angry with the world.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.