In 1982, Paul Callahan started an innovative program in Newport – Sail to Prevail, which provides “therapeutic sailing” instruction to people with disabilities. Since then, more than 21,000 amateur sailors have taken the helm. Such disabilities are wide ranging; some have Down syndrome, epilepsy, or terminal cancer. Many have physical disabilities – including Paul himself, who slipped on a wet floor in college and was paralyzed from the chest down.
“Since my accident,” says Paul, who gets around by electric wheelchair, “I have a better understanding how much it means to share these things that I’ve been able to accomplish – like going to the Paralympics or working for Goldman-Sachs in New York. Sailing is just a wonderful way to drive some of these things that I’ve been fortunate enough to experience through this modality.”
This summer, more than 1,000 more children and adults will learn the art of sailing through specially outfitted, 20-foot vessels. Paul insists that the adaptive equipment is actually fairly simple, and many students remove helpful elements as they master certain skills.
“We’ve used this same technology for more than 20 years,” Paul says. “It starts with standard levers and lines, anything you would find in a physics book. While a newer boat may have great technology, it also takes away from the necessity of the disabled person to do the work themselves. The idea is to make it safe and enjoyable, but equally important is to challenge their limits as an individual or as a team.”
Sail to Prevail already partners with 26 different organizations, and two additional operations take place on Nantucket and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thanks to the Harvard Varsity Sailing Team. But after so many years of instruction, Paul and his team are starting to study their own methodology. In years to come, Paul hopes to expand the program to far-flung communities.
“We’re going to start to understand why [the program] has worked, so we can share it with other programs around the country,” he says. “We’re trying to prove – academically – why it’s been so successful.”