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In Haiti, used sails help the homeless

Draped over PVC A-frames, canvas donated by sailors is sheltering thousands of the displaced

Reaction to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti was global, and the subsequent public outpouring has been just as far-reaching. The sailing community, however, realized it had something to offer beyond credit card donations.

Sailor John Eide (right) coordinates a project collecting donated old sails. The bagged and bundled sails were trucked to Miami, then shipped to Haiti to be used as shelter for residents left homeless by the January earthquake that struck the island.

"I was speaking with two South Florida men who were organizing a cargo ship of food, water and supplies about a month after the earthquake," says Lynn Fitzpatrick, a marine freelance writer from Southern California. "They said what they needed more than anything is tents - lots of them - since the rainy season was coming and so many people were homeless. I thought, What about sails?" Specifically, sails draped over A-frames made of PVC pipe to create makeshift tents.

Fitzpatrick turned to Harry Horgan, co-founder and CEO of Shake-A-Leg Miami, a non-profit water sports community center that works with adults and children with physical, developmental and economic needs. The center has on its property a 100-by-100-foot former Coast Guard seaplane hangar that has become a warehouse for donated sails.

"We're just one of many trying to help out people in a bad situation," says Horgan.

Fellow Shake-A-Leg co-founder and chairman Dr. Barth Green, a Miami neurological surgeon, also co-founded Project Medishare, a non-profit dedicated to helping the people of Haiti improve health care and other services. While Shake-A-Leg serves as a way station for the sails, Project Medishare, which has regularly sent medical teams to Haiti since its 1994 founding, ships them to the island.

There is no central system for tracking how many sails have been collected and shipped, but tens of thousands of square feet of sailcloth has made its way into Haitian hands. The sails have come from a variety of sources - world class sailors, sail lofts, Eagle Scouts in Rhode Island, Doyle Sails and Coconut Grove Sails in Miami, and hundreds of individuals from as far away as Argentina and the Netherlands.

"It seems like people are using the drive as an opportunity to clean out their garages and sail lockers and put those sails to use," says Fitzpatrick, who pitched in 15 years worth of Etchells sails from her garage.

While the sailing community has been generous, Horgan says the effort faces new challenges as the drive wears on. Many of the volunteer ships carrying relief aid to Haiti - and the free shipping they provided - have since returned to their normal duties, and bureaucracy and corruption in Haiti have severely clogged the pipeline of goods. "It's becoming quite challenging," says Horgan.

The immediate need is money to ship the sails, says Horgan. A drive to raise $3,500 for that cause had only brought in $900 as of early April. Shake-A-Leg has set up a donation page on its Web site at

Up the coast

The Miami operation is perhaps the most visible, but sailors in other parts of the country - Maine and Maryland, among others - are working on the same idea. In Annapolis, John D. Dodge II, an oncology account specialist with the biopharmaceutical company Cephalon, has set up Sails to Save Haiti with his wife, Linda.

But unlike the many close-to-home pockets of sail-donation drives set up by individual sailors, the Chesapeake Bay group has gone national. In mid-April, the North Sails Group partnered with Sails to Save Haiti, and now its nearly 30 lofts from coast to coast serve as official drop-off points. Rather than having sailors figure out how to get their sails to Dodge's group from hundreds or thousands of miles away, they can donate them at their local North Sails loft.

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"This is going to take the program to a whole new level," Dodge says.

Dodge, a lifelong sailor who remains active in his local sail scene, says the project was launched with a focus on the Chesapeake Bay area, but as media outlets reported on the sail drive, calls began coming in. Sailors from Maine to San Diego contacted him about

donating, he says.

Now, a group of sailors in Chicago is looking to partner with Sails to Save Haiti. "It's been a pretty magical experience," says Dodge, "a really positive project for the sport of sailing."

Dodge says the group had collected about 125 sails as of mid-April and was planning to pick up another 42 sails from a racing program in Annapolis. The group has made several trips in a rented U-Haul vehicle to deliver sails to Shake-A-Leg Miami for shipment to Haiti.

For information, e-mail Dodge at or call him at (804) 334-6950. The group has also set up a Facebook page.

New England, too

John Eide, a retired Maine resident, was cruising in the U.S. Virgin Islands in February aboard a friend's boat. The friend, an EMT, had just returned from two weeks in Haiti working with a medical team organizing and running a hospital in Port au Prince. Eide was also told of the desperate need for tents.

"I couldn't go to L.L. Bean and ask for 10,000 tents," Eide says. "But I could call on all my friends and contacts in the Maine sailing community to contribute their used sails."

Well-connected locals such as Jane Wellahan at Maine Built Boats, Phin Sprague at Portland Yacht Services and adventure sailor Bruce Schwab at Bruce Schwab Rigging & Systems spread the word.

"I didn't know what to expect for the first few days other than thinking I'd be loading a few sails in the back of a 15-passenger rental van and driving them to Miami myself," Eide says. "I knew something was up when I stopped in at Doug Pope's loft in Rockland [the collection point for Eide's drive] and his response was, 'John, we're in trouble.' "

Just four hours after the collection process was started, a quarter of Pope's showroom was filled with sails.

E-mails from a loft in San Francisco and a sailor in Germany, both looking to donate, showed Eide just how far-reaching the idea was.

Sprague, at Portland Yacht Services, built on the idea by holding a drive in March at his annual Maine Boatbuilders Show. A few weeks later, a tractor-trailer loaded with sails made its way to the Shake-A-Leg Miami warehouse.

Eide has since stepped away from collecting sails and now directs donors to Shake-A-Leg or Project Medishare. However, Emmett Harty, a Westport, Conn., sailor and member of the Stonington Harbor Yacht Club, met Eide at the Maine Boatbuilders Show and was inspired to launch an ambitious sail drive of his own.

Working through his yacht club, Harty, the retired CEO of an investment firm, hopes to recruit yacht clubs and sail lofts around the country to serve as permanent drop-off sites for this and other crises.

In his vision, which is still being developed, ship-ready containers will be placed at the drop-off sites and collected en masse, driven to Miami and loaded onto cargo ships bound for Haiti. "Why can't this be permanent and serve to help people in catastrophes in the future?" Harty asks.

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.