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Public Private Partnership
Promotes boating access for the disabled.

There is nothing like the freedom of sailing on the water, turning the power of the wind into forward motion, gliding along with the rudder and sheet alive in your hands.

Allowing the developmentally disabled to experience this feeling of independence and control is the impetus for Collier County’s Adaptive Sailing Program. Run by the county’s Parks and Recreation Department in conjunction with the Freedom Waters Foundation, the initiative allows youths and adults, many with Down’s syndrome and autism, the thrill of captaining their own ship, in a safe and supervised environment.

The program operates four days a week during the cooler months, using access sloops specially designed for maximum safety and stability, or tip-proofness. Those who can sail without assistance cruise around the 60-acre lake at Sugden Regional Park solo, while those who need a little more assistance are paired with a volunteer co-captain.

But once a year, the sailors put their skills to the test, and challenge each other in a full-fledged sailing regatta. Called “Shenanigans on the Lake,” the regatta is in its ninth year at Sugden, and it took place last Saturday. About a dozen developmentally disabled clients participated in the races, with nearly three times that many volunteers helping out. Some joined the clients in a sailboat, some manned the committee boat anchored in the lake and running the races, some roamed around in outboard-powered safety boats, and some remained on shore, rigging the sails and handling logistics. The volunteers joked and horsed around as they helped, seeming to enjoy themselves as much as the clients.

A stiff breeze raised ripples on the lake, and caused the volunteers to reef the lone sail on each sloop, reducing the sail area and costing some speed but helping to avoid capsizing. Like any racing sailors, these skippers “jilled about” between races, sailing off in all directions. But when starter Bill Meisner on the committee boat called out the next race on his bullhorn, a gaggle of boats assembled by the starting buoy, and the race was on.

These captains were way more laid back than most racing sailors. No fouls were called, no protests recorded, and sailors and committee took a laissez-faire attitude toward exactly which side of the buoys the boats were supposed to go.

Freedom on the water is exactly what clients get from adaptive sailing, said Sugden Regional Park manager Michael Toolan.

“You get them out of their wheelchair or their walker, doing something totally on their own,” he said. “You can see the satisfaction on their faces.” The “committee boat” for the sailing races is actually a ski boat used to tow waterskiers during waterskiing events, and those are also provided for the disabled, in the adaptive skiing program.

“People say the disabled can’t do this,” said Toolan. “I say, ‘come watch.’” The Adaptive Sailing Program was recognized by the National Association of Counties with a 2012 Achievement Award, a countrywide prize honoring innovative government programs, for extending water-based recreation opportunities to all.

Freedom Waters Foundation, Collier County’s partner in the adaptive sailing program, provides a wide range of programs allowing people who would not normally be able to get out on the water to enjoy the experience. They offer Fishing for Fun, giving those with disabilities, youth at risk, and now returning veterans the chance to land the big one. Yacht outings for children with cancer or special needs are also provided, thanks to the generosity of local boat owners who donate their time and their craft for three-hour excursions, along with the opportunity to participate in boat parades and family fun days.

Those interested in finding out more about the Freedom Waters Foundation, a nonprofit group, and helping fund their therapeutic aquatic programs, are invited to come out for what else? a boat cruise. On April 17, Freedom Waters hosts its inaugural Caribbean Sunset Cruise, featuring the “flavors and rhythms of the Caribbean.” With boarding at 6 p.m., the Naples Princess will head out for sunset sightseeing, serenaded by the sounds of the seven-piece West Side Tropico band. Casual Caribbean dress and dancing shoes are encouraged, so break out your calypso shirt and huaraches. Tickets cost $50, with a cash bar.

For tickets or more information, call (239) 248-1120, or go online to www.freedomwatersfoundation.org.

Public Private Partnership promotes boating access for the disabled