During the first week in August in Chicago, 44 sailors took part in a US SAILING national championship on Lake Michigana fact that by itself isnt such a big deal. But it is a big deal that so little is known about the U S Independence Cup. This particular group of sailors went head-to-head in conditions that ranged from light lake breezes to steep chop and gusty winds, from thunderstorms with torrential downpours to sunny, shifty, frontal breezes. The racing was filled with close encounters, ultra-tight mark roundings, and ducks that would make an Americas Cup veteran wince.
What is the Independence Cup? Its the national championship for sailors with physical disabilities, disabilities that range from varying degrees of paralysis to diseases like cerebral palsy, polio, and spina bifida to different types of amputations and congenital birth defects. While most of us worry merely about what conditions we will face on any given day on the racecourse, this remarkable group of sailors must factor their physical limitations into how they will handle their boats around the racecourse. And do these sailors get special considerations on how races are run and scored? Heck no! They will proudly say, and rightly so, that they are out there to best the competition, control the action and tame the racecourse into submission. Disability? What disability?
This years Independence Cup marked the 13th anniversary of the first national championship, which was held in Newport, RI in 1988. The event demonstrated that the competitive side of sailing for those with disabilities is strong and continues to grow. The Independence Cup is traditionally sailed in the Freedom 20 class, in which skipper and crew sail the boats from specially adapted seats that transfer from side to side for tacking or jibing. Both teammates are strapped into the chairs, to level the playing field between those with more severe limitations like quadriplegia and those with milder disabilities. An able-bodied crew member (AB) is assigned to sail with each team, but is only allowed to assist under the direct supervision and command of one of the disabled teammates, and help in safety situations. The AB is not allowed to do anything that the teammates are capable of doing themselves. Having played this role often, I know that it is extremely difficult to be an onboard AB and resist the temptation to try and do more than what is allowed. The key here is learning how to sit back and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it is!
Each year, regional eliminations are held across the US to select the 18 Freedom teams that will compete in three divisions. The last two Independence Cup regattas also featured the inclusion of a new single-handed exhibition division sailed in Martin 16s. The competition at the regional events is fierce, and it amps up at the finals, which have been held in Chicago since 1993 under the auspices of the Judd Goldman Foundation with the support of an impressive list of sponsors. The regatta organizers and volunteers make it exceptionally easy for the sailors to arrive in town, participate in a Rolex instructional clinic, and then go racing for the gold.
This year was no different. Both the Freedom and Martin 16 competitors endured an elimination series to determine gold, silver, and bronze fleets. Weather factors (thunderstorms) reduced the number of qualifying races for the Freedoms, putting a premium on placing high in early heats. Two-time defending champion John Kostanecki suffered a rough start by rounding the wrong mark in the first heat and wasnt able to recover enough to make the cut for the Gold Fleet, which opened the door for a new national champion.
Going into the final day of racing in the Gold Fleet for Freedom racers, Michael Grimm and Greg Watts of Florida were tied with Peter Benson and Matt Sullivan from Newport, RI, Both teams had showed great speed and conservative tactics in their respective elimination races. In the Martin 16s, defending Champ Lee Buratti, from Costa Mesa, CA, went into the finals closely followed by Miami resident David Schroeder, the silver medalist in the 2000 Paralympic Trials.
After two days marked by a broad range of conditions(everything from sunny skies with light breeze, to extreme thunderstorms in squalls), the final day of racing was graced with superb weather. The backside of a passing frontal system left clear blue skies, shifty northwest winds, and increasing velocity as the day wore on. In the Freedom 20 Bronze Fleet, which raced first, Roger Clewworth from St. Petersburg, FL, and crew Adrian Wilt, took two bullets to win the division, followed by Herb Meyer and Mike Passaro from San Francisco. In the Silver Fleet, racing was dominated in the final heats by Kostanecki and teammate David Rash. The Kostanecki-Rash team led each race from the start and never looked back as they re-established their winning form from 98 and 99. The rest of the Silver Fleet racing was close and hotly contested, with Mike Jaffe and Dan Daniher from the Chicago area finishing in second place.
Racing in the Silver Fleet among the Martin 16 competitors, was tight, with exciting downwind legs. Larry Mazur from Winnipeg, Manitoba logged scores of 2 -1 for the day to take top honors, followed by Patrick Standen from Burlington, VT.
The title races in each division took place in stiff northwesterly breezes. In the Martin 16 class, the first heat witnessed a photo-finish between three boats that could have gone either way. In the end, the finishing positions were separated by mere inches at the line, with Schroeder coming first, Buratti second and Mark Evju of Santa Rosa, CA, third. In the final deciding race, Schroeder needed the win with Buratti in third in order to wrest the title away from him. On the second beat, Buratti failed to duck Schroeder on a port-starboard situation and had to do penalty turns. Buratti then fell well back in the fleet, but was able to find some jets and crawled back to second place by the finish to retain his title for the second year in a row. Buratti said afterward, The comeback to get the win was good, but my pride is hurt because I didnt do it on the water [in the last two races]. The main difference between their performances, said Buratti, was that he had a little more familiarization with the Martin 16
I knew the boat a little bit better than David. In third, Evju summed up his feelings: Close racing like our photo-finish was awesome. Being able to compete against my best friends, and knowing you can hang with em is great. It doesnt matter that I finished third.
The real showdown came in the Freedom 20 finals for the national title. It looked to be a showdown between Pete Benson and Matt Sullivan vs. Mike Grimm and Greg Watts, with Steve Anderson and Mike Witkowsky breathing down their necks. True to form, Benson and Sullivan took the pin end at the start and immediately tacked onto the port shift and got launched. They were untouchable in that first contest. But Karen Mitchell and Kerry Gruson, the final qualifiers in Gold Fleet, made their own statement by sailing a smart race to finish second, with Grimm and Watts taking third. That gave Benson and Sullivan a small cushion for Race 2. Off the starting line, Mitchell and Gruson hit the first shift correctly, and legged-out on the fleet. Behind them, the battle was on between Allen Fiske and Alan Febash in second, with and Grimm and Watts duking it out with Benson and Sullivan for third.
The places among the top boats changed often on the shifty beats, and when the leaders approached the finish line, it was Mitchell and Gruson who eeked out a close win over Benson and Sullivan. But second place was good enough for the latter two to capture the coveted crown. In the final standings, Mitchell and Gruson vaulted up from sixth to third overall due to their strong performance, something Mitchell attributed to being more relaxed and focused, with my head out of the boat.
Matt Sullivan and Peter Benson have been competing as a team for almost eight years now. Both are quadriplegics who have learned how to make the Freedom 20s perform as participants in Shake-a-Legs program in Newport. Sullivan explained some of the keys to their success: Keeping the boat flat and easing the main were important. Our communication here was great, and we had good game plans before each start. Peter Benson concurred with his teammate, adding we have grown more consistent year after year, and after the first couple of wins, our confidence was strong. Our upwind strategy and boat speed were good! These guys are champions in every respect, and they truly deserve to own the aptly named Independence Cup.
Sailing programs for disabled people abound around the country. The genesis of this championship goes back to 1988 when Christine Jurzykowski donated the funds to start the National Ocean Access Project (NOAP), whose mission was to provide sailing opportunities to people with disabilities. About the same time, US SAILING (USYRU at the time) established its Committee for Sailors with Special Needs. NOAP, under the direction of John Lancaster, and Shake-a-Leg (a non-profit organization that develops programs for people with spinal-cord injuries) with Harry Horgan at the helm, combined their efforts to establish the 1988 Independence Cup. The first event was held in Newport, RI.
The unfortunate news is that one out of every five Americans has some kind of disability. The good news is that sailing opportunities for disabled people are growing. There are 40 separate adaptive sailing programs in the US. If you have a physical disability or know someone who might be interested in a disabled sailing program, contact Betsy Alison or Serge Jorgensen at Sailing Alternatives, Inc. and theyll be happy to direct you to a program near your area. Betsy and Serge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com.