Richard Hughes enjoys paddleboarding in the Coconut Grove anchorage with a little long-haired dachshund named Pippin perched on the board like a sentry, albeit one that’s affectionate and loaded with personality.
Pippin, or Pippin Yachtdog as some know him, is a celebrity of sorts — a “celebudog,” Hughes says — along Miami’s waterfront and on Biscayne Bay. His signature orange life jacket is a dead giveaway that this pup is the apple of his master’s eye. It even has a strobe light on it. “He’s our little buddy,” says Hughes, 57.
The 5-year-old red English cream dachshund is a constant companion of Hughes and his wife, Deborah. Pippin goes “everywhere” with them, and since Hughes is on the water a lot — on the paddleboard, on his surfboard, on his Action Craft 16 flats boat, on the 40-foot wheelchair-accessible Corinthian powerboat he skippers at Shake-A-Leg Miami — he takes no chances. Pippin wears a PFD, although he’s an excellent swimmer. You wouldn’t put your children at risk by putting them on the water without a life jacket, Hughes says. So it is with Pippin. He won’t risk losing his friend to sea sprites.
Just 10 pounds and 11 inches tall, Pippin is well suited for sailing. “He can go on the low side because of his low center of gravity, and I never have to worry about him,” Hughes says.
Pippin loves to go fishing. As soon as the rod bends, he starts barking and dancing around on deck, feinting this way and that as the catch is landed in a flurry of flipping and flopping. “He’s a good, solid companion to have on the boat,” Hughes says.
He loves being around people, which is a good thing because Hughes often has people out on boats with him. He takes vets with disabilities fishing on his flats boat. He sails with paraplegics and quadriplegics on Freedom sailboats. He races Sonars with sailors who have disabilities. And they welcome Pippin aboard as one of the crew.
Hughes has more than an emotional affinity for people with disabilities. He is one. He has a titanium and carbon fiber leg below the knee, the result of a boating accident on Lake Texoma near Dallas when he was 21. He and a friend were launching a Ranger 26 sailboat when a line wrapped around his leg so tightly that it ripped off his foot. Doctors reattached it but couldn’t restore the blood circulation, so the lower leg had to be amputated, though you’d never know it from Hughes’ active lifestyle.
“A year to the day [after] I lost my leg, I went snow skiing,” he says.
Later he participated in triathlons, which he considers his personal best as an athlete. Today Hughes works as a team with Pippin to encourage people with disabilities to get back in the game, as he has. Pippin is a certified service dog, which means he’s a working dog.
“There’s a certain code of conduct expected of all working dogs,” Hughes says. Pippin sits quietly under the table or in a booth at restaurants. He won’t beg. He won’t bark when he’s working. “That’s part of the pride of having him as a dog,” Hughes says.
Pippin doesn’t just come along for the ride when there are kids or vets with disabilities aboard his boat. Pippin is there to serve. “I’ve had dogs before, but I’ve never had a dog with the magic that this dog has,” Hughes says. Pippin is calm, patient, affectionate, tolerant of just about any behavior.
Hughes, who surfed and raced sailboats as a teen and has adopted the email moniker loosefootsurfer, takes Pippin to Surfers for Autism events, where autistic kids learn to surf on placid waters. “A lot of these children are terrified of the water,” Hughes says.
Whether on a surfboard or in a sailboat, whether a child is autistic or uses a wheelchair, Pippin is a calming influence. He makes them comfortable. He gives them confidence. On a sailboat, Pippin will sit in a child’s lap for hours and let the youngster pet him. “The nice thing about having a small dog who is well-mannered is he brings no pressure to the situation,” Hughes says.
Another benefit: Pippin acts as a kind of buffer, an interface between children and the caregivers who accompany them one-on-one on the boat. The dog enables children to loosen their grip on their caregiver and achieve a measure of independence. “Independence is our goal,” Hughes says.
Pippin is all over Biscayne Bay during the winter racing season, either on raceboats or on a chase boat. Hughes estimates that 2,000 racers — locals as well as racing sailors from around the world — compete on the bay each winter. Many of them know Pippin. “They ask about him,” he says. Hughes and Karen Mitchel, a Miami sailor who was a contender for a berth representing the United States in the 2012 Paralympics, race together on a 23-foot Sonar. Mitchel suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident when she was 19 that left her a quadriplegic. “Karen absolutely adores that dog,” Hughes says.
He is listed on their Web page as a member of their sailing team. “Everyone’s blood pressure goes down when you’re racing with a dog on the boat,” Hughes says.
Before his accident, Hughes had thought about a career as a naval architect or in maritime transportation, but counselors advised him that “one-legged captains are only in children’s storybooks.” He doubts he would listen to them today; he really likes being on boats and around the water. However, a degree in orthotics (braces) and prosthetics (artificial limbs) from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has served him well.
He is employed by BioSculptor, a Hialeah, Fla., company that designs and manufactures high-tech scanners and CAD/CAM software and milling machines that design and make artificial limbs. Hughes recently returned from Qatar, where he trained technicians to use the devices.
He has a 100-ton captain’s license and worked for a time as a captain in his 20s in Texas, Chicago and Florida. He has raced in 13 Chicago-Mackinac races and was a world disabled silver medalist in the Sonar with Paul Callahan and Keith Burhans in 1998. Today he’s on the water two or three times a week, often as a volunteer, but also surfing or paddleboarding or kayaking with Pippin.
Hughes decided long ago that losing his leg would never stunt his athleticism. “What does it mean to be an athlete?” he asks. “To understand the capabilities of my body and set my challenges. Learn to cooperate with others in meeting mutual goals.”
That’s what he does every time he goes out on a boat to race with Mitchel or sail with a group of children in wheelchairs or fish with vets who have lost arms or legs. And his buddy Pippin is always there to help out.
“It’s in giving that we receive,” Hughes says. “There’s so much wisdom in that if you really try to live it.”
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December 2012 issue