Disabled Sailors Compete in Transpacific Yacht Race

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By Sherry Metzger, MS
The whole team (from left) Urban Miyares, Jim Halverson, Josh Ross (back row) Jeff Reinhold, Kevin Wixom, and Scott Meade. Photos courtesy of Kevin Wixom.
The whole team (from left) Urban Miyares, Jim Halverson, Josh Ross (back row) Jeff Reinhold, Kevin Wixom, and Scott Meade. Photos courtesy of Kevin Wixom.

In July, skilled mariners sailed across the Pacific from Los Angeles, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, marking the centennial anniversary of the Transpacific Yacht Race. As one of the longest, non-stop ocean races, Transpac, as it's called, attracts top sailors from around the world. Challenged America, San Diego, California, a nonprofit organization offering free sailing programs for children and adults with disabilities, entered its Tripp 40 racing sailboat, B'Quest, to compete with over 70 others. The B'Quest team members were chosen from 44 candidates with disabilities vying for the six coveted crew positions aboard their ship.

Gusting winds and high seas challenged the sailors' physical abilities, strategies, and seamanship. However, this race, unlike most recreational sports, is able to level the playing field for small and large boats, amateur and professional sailors, and the disabled and able-bodied mariners alike. B'Quest raced 2,225 nautical miles in a respectable, 13 days, 23 hours, 31 minutes, and 50 seconds, to finish fourth in its division.

About Transpac

The race is the longer of the two oldest ocean races in the world, dating back to 1906 along with the Newport/Bermuda race. Beginning when Clarence MacFarlane invited friends from San Francisco, California, to race to his home in Honolulu, the Transpac tradition continues biennially on odd years, alternating with the Newport/Bermuda race. The race begins in Los Angeles, off Point Fermin on the Palos Verdes peninsula, and finishes just east of Honolulu at the Diamond Head Lighthouse. Since 1991, the launches have been staggered according to yacht size in order to merge the finishes and facilitate award ceremonies at the conclusion in Hawaii.

This year, a near record of 75 entrants competed for several awards, including the coveted Transpacific Yacht Club Perpetual Trophy, better known as the "Barn Door," a 3 ½ x 4-ft. plaque of hand-carved Hawaiian koa. Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, set the record in 1999, finishing in 7 days, 11 hours, 41 minutes, and 27 seconds with his 75-ft. Reichel/Pugh maxi ultralight, Pyewacket. This year, Hasso Plassner's Morning Glory broke Disney's record by finishing in 6 days, 16 hours, 4 minutes, and 11 seconds. Plassner also set a new one-day record of 393 nautical miles.

Challenged America

Challenged America began in the late 1970s with the purchase of a Cal 20 sailboat by two disabled veterans who loved the sea. In 1990, Challenged America was formally launched, providing free learn-to-sail and advanced sailing programs year round. Its mission is "to enhance the life of people with disabilities and their loved ones through innovative sailing programs designed to advance their rehabilitation, increase participation and performance in a successful mainstream outcome."

Challenged America's Boat: B'Quest

Challenged America's Transpac team raced in a donated Tripp 40 sailboat that had been modified over a period of three years. "Sailboats are designed for sailing, not for people," Josh Ross, the skipper, joked. "They are not comfortable or ergonomically correct." They added a few features to their boat to accommodate the unique crew. For example, a simple elevator was added to move the crew back and forth from the cabin to the top deck. Also, despite the use of prosthetic limbs, it can still be difficult for an amputee to move around a boat, so they built a simple sliding bench to move from the front to the back of the boat. They also attached four seats with harnesses to hold up the upper body and included a talking compass and GPS system. "You can rig up a boat to equalize the physical needs in a boat. We've leveled the playing field, so then it comes down to strategy," said Kevin Wixom, crewmember.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 B'Quest: The Crew

Josh takes a sun sighting with his sextant. Four sightings were required by the Transpac rules.
Josh takes a sun sighting with his sextant. Four sightings were required by the Transpac rules.

Of the 44 sailors who applied, these six were chosen for their competency, sailing experience, medical stability, and their commitment to the program.

Joshua Ross, program director of Challenged America, was ideally suited for the position of skipper and navigator of B'Quest. Being a professional mariner for over 17 years and his "on-thespot" safety training with the US Coast Guard, prepared him to captain this particular crew. "A good crew is one that you don't really have to tell what to do," he said. "I was confident in our ability to work as a team, and we all relied on one another for our safety." He also captained the history-making 2003 Challenged America Transpac team, the first disabled crew to ever compete in the Transpac. "We sailed in 2003 to make history, and this time to show it hadn't been an accident," he joked, adding, "It was a peak experience. It wasn't easy, but there were such great moments." Ross is recognized as a leader in teaching adaptive sailing as recreational rehabilitation for the disabled and has earned several honors, including "National Outstanding Director of a Year-Round Program" and "National Outreach and Inclusion Sailing Program" awards by the US Sailing Association.

Kevin Wixom, a transfemoral amputee, served as the trimmer, navigator, and handled the helm and pit on this, his first Transpac race. Married and father of four grown sons, Wixom lost his leg in a car accident shortly after he and his wife, Rhonda, ordered their sailboat. "I decided right away that I was going to 'stay in the game.' I wasn't going to back off work, sailing, or life," he recalled, mentioning that he went back to work three short weeks after his accident. "I got involved with Challenged America and a local triathlon. I'm in better shape now than I was before the accident," he added. With an electrical engineering degree and an MBA, Wixom is an engineering manager of product development teams, as well as a mentor for disabled youth and adaptive sailing instructor.

Proud of his team's accomplishments, Wixom noted, "we didn't get special treatment; we were pitted against [able-bodied] competitors, and we beat many of them because we were good and we worked hard." Wixom stressed, "I truly believe all this attention is not really about us or Challenged America, it's about all of those people stuck in their homes who perceive their disabilities as limitations. Beyond the personal challenge of Transpac, I hope that those people will be inspired by this story to become more active. They may not sail across the Pacific or enter a triathlon, but maybe they'll go to the mall or their kid's graduation."

Urban Miyares, president of the Disabled Businesspersons Association and co-founder of Challenged America, sailed as the trimmer, sewer, and handled the foredeck and galley. He has dedicated his life to helping the disabled return to work or school, particularly with vocational rehabilitation. The White House, US Congress, US Small Business Administration (SBA), the governor of California, and Inc. Magazine, have all recognized Miyares' accomplishments as a business owner, inventor, public speaker and educator, world-class athlete, and authority in the rehabilitation and returning to work of people with disabilities. Honors have included the National Disabled Veteran of the Year and Disabled Athlete of the Year by the San Diego Hall of Champions Museum. Miyares is a stroke and kidney transplant survivor; totally blind, and hearing-impaired.

The crew saw lots of beautiful sunrises.
The crew saw lots of beautiful sunrises.

This was Miyares' second Transpac race. Three days into the race, he choked on a chocolate chip cookie that upset his stomach and tore his esophagus in the process. He couldn't eat or drink for four days, and incredibly he healed himself. He stated, "We were like a floating pharmacy out there. We fortunately know our bodies' needs so well that we can take care of ourselves without becoming a medical emergency."

Jim Halverson has had a fair share of challenges over the last few years. His left leg was amputated above the knee in 2003; he survived lung cancer in 2004; and 2005 found him at the helm as a trimmer or a mechanic in his first race across the Pacific. The latter was not only a new challenge, but also one of his greatest accomplishments. "We did this not just to prove we can do a race," he commented, "but to show other people to forget their disabilities and focus on their abilities. If you can breathe, you can sail." After several days on the boat, Halverson began prioritizing what he would do once on land. "I need a hot shower, good steak dinner, and sleep--in that order!"

Halverson has raced sports cars, competed in the Daytona 24-hour Endurance race, and worked as a regional and national sales manager in the machine tool business before meeting his wife Judi. Now in retirement, Halverson enjoys sailing with her, their four children, and eight grandchildren, and being an adaptive sailing instructor.

Scott Meade, with 20 years of sailing experience, returned for his second Transpac voyage as a mechanic and trimmer who could handle any crew position as needed. A US Navy Veteran, Meade lost his right arm and became partially deaf while serving in Vietnam. He is also a cancer survivor who has been sailing with Challenged America since 1995. A member of the American Legion Post #88, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Meade enjoys spending time with his two children, six grandchildren, and sailing with Challenged America.

Jeff Reinhold, trimmer, helm, medical and communications specialist, sustained a spinal cord injury in 1981 resulting in quadriplegia. In 1993, he moved to Seattle, Washington, bought his own boat and began cruising and racing the Puget Sound. He owns a small printed circuit board company in Seattle, but often travels to San Diego to train and sail with the Challenged America Team.

Teamwork Carries the Day

As a team, this crew faced many challenges that they were able to overcome with camaraderie and teamwork. Once, when the spinnaker wrapped around a cable, the crew had to work together to unwind it. When one member became ill, two others had to quickly learn to fill his position. "A typical crew position is different for us. We have to overlap one another and understand each other's abilities," Wixom explained, "Other crews do that too, but for us it's even more critical to work together."

Keven, Jeff, Josh, Urban, Scott, and Jim with Pacific High Trophy (the most northern boat) at the Transpac 2005 banquet.
Keven, Jeff, Josh, Urban, Scott, and Jim with Pacific High Trophy (the most northern boat) at the Transpac 2005 banquet.

For Ross, the real challenge was "getting to the starting point." He said, "We prepared for six months, but I always wondered if we were ready. During the race we were 1,000 miles from land, the farthest you can be without being on the moon! So, we hoped we had brought everything we needed!"

At the awards celebration in Hawaii, Roy Disney gave his farewell speech after sailing the Transpac 15 times over the last 30 years. He said, "This race is not about the big boats. It's about the Cal 40s; it's about B'Quest's disabled sailors.

Keep doing this." The Transpac team has shown that sailing is an "all-inclusive" sport, even for the severely disabled. Ross concluded, "These are interesting people, living their best life."

Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and may be reached at metzgerfive@hotmail.com