Taking to the Wind in the Arizona Desert

Jake Geller, president of the Arizona State University Sailing Club, puts a 16-foot boat through its paces on Tempe Town Lake. Photos by Bill Norman/2007
by Jake Geller on September 1, 2007 - 9:00pm

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 5

It's mid-February. The temperature is 70 degrees, and 20 sailboats are jockeying for position on Tempe Town Lake, just outside Phoenix. In two minutes the race will begin.

I'm sitting in a borrowed, specially adapted sailboat, the 16-foot Martin 16, which allows people with disabilities to compete equally with able-bodied competitors. I can control the boat with a joystick or a puff of my breath. A 300-pound lead keel hanging several feet below the hull makes the boat nearly impossible to tip over.

Sailing isn’t something you envision a person with a neuromuscular disease doing. And the middle of the Arizona desert isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of sailing.

Yet on this glorious February afternoon, Stephen Hook and I are preparing for our first race on this manmade desert lake surrounded by two bustling freeways and giant T-cranes constructing condos and office buildings.

The boats are zigzagging in front of the start line to make sure they cross at the moment the horn sounds. As novice racers, Stephen and I hang back so we don’t collide with the more aggressive competitors. Stephen, a fellow member of the Arizona State University Sailing Club, helps me with the controls.

Jake Geller with flotation vest
Geller gets a lift into his sailboat from other members of the sailing club (top). First step before heading onto the water is getting his flotation vest strapped on (bottom).

As president of the ASU Sailing Club, I try to foster this inclusive type of experience. Our club welcomes sailors both with and without disabilities. We practice once a week and race every other Sunday in spring and fall. The club plans to compete in intercollegiate racing and national regattas in the near future. Right now we teach sailing and compete with local sailors in the greater Phoenix area.

Studies show that competitions in which able-bodied people participate equally with disabled athletes challenge negative perceptions of those with disabilities. These events also demonstrate many things that people with disabilities can do.

As the wind picks up, Stephen and I move ahead of several boats, but they’re not slowing down. I’m so focused on the race that the only sounds I hear are the crinkling of the sails and the water slapping against the hull. I can feel the warm breeze on my cheek, telling me which direction the wind is coming from.

After we round the final mark, we catch up with other sailboats. But all of a sudden, the wind dies. We constantly adjust the sails, trying to speed forward and catch the boat in front of us.

We cross the finish line in fourth place and get ready for the next race. Although we didn’t come in first this time, I was able to sail not as a “special” participant but as a regular competitor.

Sailing is a welcome excuse to leave my wheelchair and my cares at the dock. My only concern is whether there’s enough wind to fill the sails.

Jake Geller, 28, co-founded the Sailing Club at Arizona State University in Tempe five years ago. A graduate student in journalism, Geller has Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

Although Geller has tried out a combination joystick and sip-and-puff system to control a sailboat's functions, the ASU club hasn't mustered the finances to purchase one of the $6,000 setups. Most often, he sails with another club member who adjusts the sails and tiller according to Geller's directions.

His goal, once the group can afford the combo control system, is to become certified by the American Sailing Association. Certification entails passing a rigorous written exam and demonstrating a variety of sailing competencies.

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