After 32 years of operation, Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) is moving. Six years, countless volunteer hours, persistent efforts working with state, county, and local lawmakers, and $5 million have gone into creating the country’s premiere Adaptive Boating Center, CRAB’s new home on Back Creek in Annapolis, Maryland. It opens on May 2, 2023.
CRAB’s mission is to make sailing possible for folks with a range of disabilities both physical and developmental, as well as for their families and caregivers. This means that the facility had to be built with the full gamut of guests’ needs in mind. It’s fully ADA-compliant with well over the required number of handicapped parking spots. There are no steps anywhere on the nearly one-acre property. Signs in braille, large-print laptops, and bluetooth sound amplification for the hard of hearing are all standard.
On the waterfront, the organization has built 8-foot-wide docks to make it possible for two wheelchairs to pass each other easily. All boats are docked beam-to, and the 325 linear feet of dock are elevated to make it possible for guests to board via a downward sloping ramp, rather than having to scramble up from a wheelchair.
And that’s to say nothing of the boats themselves. CRAB has a fleet of six Beneteau First 22As. These custom boats are fitted with racing car bucket seats, four-point harness belts, and modified roller furling gear. They’ve also moved the entire mainsheet pedestal from the cockpit to the transom to keep clear access throughout the boats. The tillers are even fitted with Velcro straps to help guests with limited physical strength hold on while helming. CRAB also has a Martin 16 with sip-and- puff controls, which enables quadriplegic sailors to steer and trim via two straws and their own breath.
And if a guest wants to sail with a friend or family member who has a boat that’s not modified for accessibility? No problem, the new facility has an 80-foot T-head pier with a custom Hoyer lift to help guests get from the dock onto pretty much any kind of boat.
“There’s a therapeutic value in having a strong sense of accomplishment, control, and teamwork,” says Paul (Bo) Bollinger Jr., CRAB’s executive director. “The guests are trimming the sails or helming the boat with their CRAB skipper as part of a team. There may not be many other activities where someone who’s disabled can participate in that.”
With the help of around 150 volunteers, CRAB served 1,200 guests last year alone through a variety of programs. They offer free family sails, group visits from disability programs, camps for under-served youth, and more.
“You teach to the level of the guest,” says Bollinger. “If you’re developmentally disabled, there’s a certain limit there, whereas if you’re physically disabled, the limit is different. But that doesn’t mean they have any less interest, aptitude, or desire to get on the water and learn to sail.”
The goal always is to give the client the ability to helm the boat. Some start with no sailing experience; others are knowledgeable sailors already. Either way, volunteers—who are carefully trained in safety and teaching protocols—work to put the helm into the client’s hands, so that they are the ones sailing the boats.
“They come back and they’re beaming. It’s a symbiotic relationship between our volunteer skippers and our guests. Both love what they’re doing and find it rewarding,” says Bollinger.
Until now, CRAB has operated out of Sandy Point State Park on the Chesapeake Bay, just outside of Annapolis. For years, the nonprofit has been outgrowing this facility, and dock space was limited. As one of the state’s most popular parks, at peak capacity it was sometimes impossible for CRAB clients to get into the park at all because officials would close it.
Finding its own home, which would enable CRAB to expand its sailing programming as well as offer clients powerboating and fishing opportunities, became a priority. After years of effort, the organization won $1 million in state funding, $1.3 million in county support, and $500,000 from the City of Annapolis, which agreed to purchase the property and allow CRAB to sign a long-term lease. CRAB embarked on a capital campaign to raise money for the center itself.
The expansion won’t stop with completion of the new facility. Bollinger says CRAB is already looking to grow the services offered by adding to the fleet and hosting programming to support their community during the sailing off season.
For more on CRAB and its programming, visit crabsailing.org.