Accessibility in Cruising: How the Green Family Gained Comfort in Navigating the Waters Again

In recognition of Global Accessibility Awareness Day on May 18, 2023, US Sailing talked with Andrew Green and his parents Linda and Mark (Crystal River, FL) to learn how their family rediscovered their love of sailing and adapted their boat to be accessible for Andrew, who has Cerebral Palsy.

Just before the pandemic began in March 2020, the Green family splashed down in their Seaward 32RK that they had been building with Island Packet Yachts since 2017. Having recently relocated to Florida to get water therapy for Andrew, Mark and Linda also wanted to get Andrew out on the water to experience the joys of sailing and cruising that they shared when Mark was stationed in Puerto Rico during his Navy career. However, the three-year building process was challenging, as they did not have any examples to look to for adapting their boat to accommodate Andrew’s mobility needs. Neil Harvey from Harken developed a system to lift Andrew from his wheelchair on and off the boat using the boom. This system runs on a track along the boom with an extra line that also goes to the top of the mast allowing Andrew to be lifted from the boom in a sling, slide along a track through the companionway, and attach to a track in the cabin which runs all the way to his bunk.

Through the building process, the Greens learned that sometimes the simplest solution is the best. For example, they went through a lot of trials of special chair constructions for Andrew’s chair on the boat including a specifically molded fiberglass model, which became too heavy, unwieldy, and painful for Andrew to sit in. In the end, the perfect solution was a regular office chair which became the most comfortable seat on the boat.

The Greens also learned that “You don’t know what you don’t know.” They did not have other sailors to talk to about their experience nor were they successful in researching the process of adapting a sailboat to meet similar needs and instead were left to figure everything out as they went. At each new turn, Mark and Linda thought, “How can we as able-bodied people do this or that? How do we make it accessible for Andrew?” They put in the effort and money to find solutions to every obstacle, like creating an accessible and compostable toilet, using solar showers that hang off the side of the boat, and choosing a dinghy that easily allows Andrew to move in and out of the boat and the water. They also recognized the challenge of the individualized nature of disability when making spaces accessible to different people. Mark commented that for Andrew who doesn’t have much trunk support, they needed make sure he could be comfortable laying down on the boat, but for others with varying ranges of physical abilities, boat adaptations may still look different than their design.

When the trio began their cruising adventures, Mark and Linda faced a steep learning curve in adapting to the new technology used today that they didn’t have 25 years prior when they last sailed. They eased into sailing, making sure that the waves weren’t too much for Andrew, working out the kinks in their modifications, and gaining comfort navigating waters again. With practice, adapting both to the new technology and refining Andrew’s accessibility features, the Greens embarked on a 3-month cruise spanning 600 miles throughout the Florida Keys. They experienced all the highs and lows that come with long cruises. Some of their lows included stormy weather, a close encounter with a shark, and running out of power in their solar-powered system. However, they all agreed that the highs far outweighed the lows, and the hard times made them appreciate the experience even more. Some of their greatest experiences have included snorkeling and swimming in the crystal-clear water, learning how to catch lobster, enjoying beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and observing the wildlife, including dolphins, birds, and even a manatee and sea turtle. Enjoying the view of the ocean life came with an adaptation as well. The Greens created a window in the bottom of their dinghy so Andrew could lay on his stomach and see what beauty is under the water. When discussing their adventures, Andrew became teary-eyed, noting there’s nothing like being out on a sailboat, feeling free and connected to the earth.

The Greens reflected on how lucky they feel to have the experiences that they’ve had, even just within the past three years. Mark gave the perspective that when you think about the amount of experiences a person can have within their lifetime, it’s incredible what their family has been able to experience within such short time, and they are only just getting started.

 Andrew declared that their 3-month cruise is just the beginning and the cornerstone of their adventures to come, with dreams of traveling to Key West and Boca Chica.

The Greens encouraged that other folks in the disabled community should get out on the water and try sailing if they have the opportunity, and that you don’t have to be racing to experience the great joy and fun of spending time on a boat. Linda, Mark, and Andrew also shared that for all members of the sailing community, the ultimate goal should be to create access to the water for as many people as possible, regardless of what one’s role on the boat looks like.