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Catboat offers new cruising possibilities

Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating is providing customized boats to sailors with disabilities

Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating is providing customized boats to sailors with disabilities

The big yachts — 60 and 70 feet — made their proud promenades down the Annapolis waterfront basin, Ego Alley, under a glistening late September Saturday sky seasoned with puffy pink clouds while the 228-foot megayacht of a football team owner loomed at anchor off the United States Naval Academy.

No less pleased with himself than the skippers of these impressive vessels was the captain of a 24-foot catboat, Doubler, that doused its sails at the Alley’s entrance and, reaching the dinghy dock at the far end, pirouetted prettily.

“I was high the whole time,” says Donald Backe, a paraplegic whose vision of a cruising sailboat for disabled sailors resulted in Doubler making its maiden voyage on the Chesapeake the weekend before the annual boat shows.

The Marshall catboat, donated to the charitable organization Backe runs, sports a brilliant new paint job, several refined details and some unobtrusive improvements that — as he demonstrated by crossing to Annapolis from Oxford, Md., about 20 miles to the southeast — make it possible for a disabled person to cruise Chesapeake Bay.

“I think [disabled people] deserve a shot at yachting like anybody else,” says Backe, executive director of Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating.

Backe, through CRAB, has for several years made day sailing available to individuals with disabilities. But until the accident in 1987 that severed his spinal cord and left him in a wheelchair, the 270-pound, 6-foot, 4-inch former private school headmaster and football coach had known the full range of sailing — from offshore racing to Chesapeake gunkholing.

With Doubler, Backe is poised to send CRAB’s clients on their own overnight voyages. CRAB raised $40,000 to cover the expense of the project, Backe says. “She [Doubler] is important because what I would like — and I believe other people with disabilities would like — is to go like other sailors someplace else,” says Backe, 71. “I’d like to be able to sail over to St. Michaels, get in my wheel chair and go to the Crab Claw [restaurant].”

Doubler, unlike CRAB’s daysailers, has the equipment on board to allow a wheelchair-bound passenger to board and debark in relative ease. Its boom serves as a crane. Attached to a powerful electric winch, the crane hoists passengers from the cockpit and deposits them in their wheelchairs on the dock. The boom-hoist also allows these sailors to enter the boat’s cabin, which is equipped with a head, galley and berths for overnight passages. (Electric wheelchairs are too heavy for the system, he says.)

The catboat was donated to CRAB in 1994, Backe says, and he held onto it with the vision of sending sailors with disabilities, accompanied by able-bodied sailors, out on the Chesapeake. At that time he was the volunteer president of CRAB, and he was unable to convince his board to fund the restoration and modifications that were needed.

Most of the boats donated to the group were resold to raise funds to support CRAB, Backe explains. Initially, the group had a fleet of Freedom daysailers inherited from a defunct non-profit organization, and Backe had talked a bank into a loan to get CRAB up and running. The first donation was a 34-foot Hatteras motoryacht. “We cashed that in and paid off the bank,” he says.

Backe, now the paid executive director, has a long-range vision for his program, of which the Marshall catboat is merely the “Mark I” version. His dream is woven both from his experiences in education and those in sailing.

Born the son of a State Department officer, Backe learned to sail in Garmisch, Germany, in 1946 on a small cat-rigged daysailer. He later was enrolled in Holderness School in New Hampshire, where he sailed a Lightning on a nearby lake. His father had a string of boats. His mother did not like sailing so father and son would cruise wherever the elder Backe was assigned. And Backe found himself aboard some remarkable cruising yachts owned by others, often offshore.

At Yale Backe skied in four events and was stroke on an eight-man shell, but he did not sail competitively, although during summer break he took a job tending to a wealthy man’s yacht in Connecticut.

Backe’s education in disabilities was provided by students at the various private schools where he taught or was headmaster. Not only did he find that disabled students “asked no quarter” but, in their independence, were inspirations to other students.

In August 1987 he was selling real estate in Annapolis following the collapse of a small private school where he had worked. One day, after delivering a daysailer he had sold, he was driving home to get his golden retriever, Bennington, when his car crashed. He spent the next several months in a hospital, thinking that from now on his life — until then filled with challenges and fascination — would be painted in shades of gray. “My father didn’t think much of whining and complaining,” he says, so he was stoic. But, “I assumed I’d give up fun.”

A friend told him about Freedom sailboats that were set up for people with disabilities. “More to please [the friend] than myself, I went for a sail,” he recalls. “Once I went sailing, it was Technicolor. I cried. I bawled my head off. I still got the same amount of pleasure out of sailing.”

“[Sailing is] a mechanism for a special kind of rehabilitation. Recreation teaches you that you can do again what you used to be able to do. You just have to figure out how to do it,” he says.

“Some disabled [individuals] accept the judgment that they are dysfunctional and not members of society,” Backe says. “They’ve lost their right to be members of the human race.” He says his long range goal is to make CRAB a community program, where the disabled and able-bodied people share the sport.

Since its inception CRAB has encouraged able-bodied sailors to join. Memberships allow anyone the free use of CRAB boats — all of them named for types of crabs — to day sail. A family membership is $350 a year.

Doubler, given the name that watermen have for mating crabs, expands on that program. When the boat was donated, Backe says, it had a bulky doghouse built atop its classic cabin to afford standing headroom. The doghouse has been removed and a new cabin top, fabricated for CRAB by Marshall, has been installed, as have a new rudder, hydraulic steering and a new Yanmar diesel engine.

With Doubler in the water, Backe will shift his focus to the next CRAB project, Mark II. He wants someone to donate a Pearson 40 or similar boat, so that a family with a disabled member can cruise on the Bay. Mark III would be a “big, old schooner” and Mark IV would be a square-rigger, like the British ships Lord Nelson and Tenacious, which he says take 40 guests aboard, up to half of them in wheelchairs.

“They take wheelchairs up into the crosstrees,” Backe says.

With Doubler, Backe feels his vision has been vindicated. The boat performed better than he expected, both under power and sail, crossing from the Eastern Shore. “There were some times there I was in tears,” he says. “I really love cruising. I love going somewhere, the anticipation. After 19 years of not being able to do that, here’s the machine to do it.”

To contact, mail to CRAB, P.O. Box 6564, Annapolis, MD 21401-0564, call (410) 974-2628 or e-mail