It was a balmy windless night when the three sloops set sail on the Raritan Bay. Too still for sailing, they kicked in their “iron jennies” to motor out into the calm current. But they unfurled their jibs and they unfurled their main masts anyway. The Serendipity, the Soft Rocker, and the Helen Rita. They sail every Tuesday evening. They have to. Not because they’re racers; not because they’re competitive. Because they’re on a special voyage with a special cargo. They’re the fleet for the Special Olympics Sailing program at the Atlantic Highland Yacht Club in New Jersey.
Each sailboat carried a carefully organized crew: the captain, two coaches, and two or three athletes. For these athletes, success is not measured in performance; it’s measures in smiles. Smiles that start on the dock when they arrive and get to say hello to the other sailors that they haven’t seen since last week. They say hello to the coaches who have nurtured the confidence to walk down that ramp, climb onto the boat, and venture out into a different world, a different experience that can be very frightening when you need a sheltered environment. Chris, a tall athletically built young man, was anxious about the boat “heeling” (leaning to one side). His coach knows this; knows how to comfort him; how to make him feel safe.
“Have a good sail!”, called out one girl. Then “Have a good sail!” “Have a good sail!” A chorus of well-wishers for what otherwise would be a common event. I call them kids. Because they are kids. They may range in age from 20 to 52, but as a result of their developmental disorders, their reactions and comprehensions are wonderfully childlike. I wore a baseball cap that said “Sanibel Island”. So did Andrew. When someone pointed this out, his placid expression blossomed into a wide grin. For them, so little can mean so much.
I sailed with Captain Chuck on the Helen Rita. I sat in the stern on the starboard side. (I know this because Coach Helen told me so.) Lauren, one of the athletes, sat across from me on the port side. (You can probably guess how I know that.) We talked at length. About her Sunday job at Jersey Mike’s Subs; about her golfing at Suneagles in Eatontown. About how sailing “gets me away from all my other problems”. And how July 24th is her half-birthday (she’ll be thirty and a half). After a while, she looked over at me and said, “I like meeting people in person”. It was her way of saying in such a sweet, innocent manner “I like you”. We more worldly, jaded people guard our emotions. How unfortunate.
Our other athlete was ToniAnne. She wore an Eagles shirt, Eagles socks, and had an Eagles water bottle. Her pride in these items shone through and why not? Her uncle is a line coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. Her coach, Dr. Bob, (a retired dentist), brings sailing into ToniAnne’s life. He attends to her every question; anticipates her every need. He assisted her to the steering wheel where she “manned the helm” until she got tired. “Turn right”‘ he instructed. And then…”The other right”. He taught her to read the water: “See those ripples; we can pick up some wind there”.
Like the other special athletes, Lauren and ToniAnne navigate not only the waters of the Raritan Bay but the challenges of everyday life. Kathy, 52 years old and the senior athlete, had been in this program for twenty years. She still has trouble putting on her life vest. “I snapped it before I zipped it” she giggled. But there was an angel there to help her. The volunteers – they are angels that walk among us. They too are special. Special in their unselfishness, their patience, their heart. They find the time; they make the time; they make a difference. Captain Chuck told me that before these athletes got involved in Special Olympic programs, they knew the plot of every soap opera. That’s because that’s all they did: watch TV. Now ToniAnne and Andrew were in a dance contest. There are programs for bowling, karate, skiing, and swimming.
Back at the dock, the athletes scurried to find their Mom, their Dad, their caregiver. Their person that everyday stares down that learning disability and allows a quality of life to flourish. When Lauren saw me, she rushed over and threw her arms around me. It was a strong hug, a genuine embrace not meant for a casual stranger. Without a word, she quietly slipped back into the crowd. I may never see her again (although I do feel the urge for a Jersey Mike’s sub coming on this Sunday). For her, a fleeting moment. For me, a moment to last a lifetime.
We hear the words Autism, Asberger, Down Syndrome and they’re just words. We don’t come face-to-face with them. We don’t get down in the trenches. We should. Watching these athletes engage is a remarkable experience. Their excitement, their enthusiasm and appreciation as if everything was happening for the first time. Imagine if every day were Christmas, graduation, your birthday (or your half-birthday). How special would life be then?