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Sailing Warriors

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News October 2013

A group of veterans and wounded warriors took on one of the top sailing events on the East Coast.

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One of the premier sailing regattas on the Eastern Seaboard took on special meaning this year with a team of wounded warriors making race history.

The group of veterans was the first disabled sailing team to take part in May’s 42nd Annual Figawi race from Hyannis, Mass., to Nantucket Island. The race included more than 240 boats and over 3,000 people.

Adding the vets to the race was the idea of Tom McCann from Holidays For Heroes (holidaysforheroes.com). It would serve as a “kick-off event” for Holidays For Heroes summer on Nantucket Island, where the organization brings more than 20 wounded warriors for an all-expenses-paid vacation.  

At the Mercy of the Wind

As skipper, I was joined by Jake Murphy, Kyle Cornwall, Shawn Casey and my current civilian disabled crew member, Donna DeMarest.


Donna DeMarest next to the boat Free Rein with the Nantucket Holidays for Heroes banner.

We were floored when seeing our charter boat for the first time. It was a Jeanneau 54-foot luxury yacht and the biggest boat I’ve ever raced.

I started to plot our course for the roughly 25-mile-long race off the Cape Cod coast in the Atlantic Ocean. A cold front had moved in for the morning of the race and it was rainy and windy.

My brother, Carl, and Mark Sexton, commodore of the Hyannis Yacht Club, helped me steer the boat. It was light wind, but we still had good speed starting out.

We held our ground for the most part during the entire race, but after about 25 miles in the open Atlantic Ocean, the wind started to die. Unfortunately, our luxury yacht was heavy and slow in light wind. As the wind died even more, we started to slow down as well.

We were in second place after more than seven hours of racing and trying to hang on to the finish. Then it started pouring rain and our speed dropped even further to just over one knot (1.151 mph).

Painfully, time ran out on us and the race committee ordered us to abandon course. Ultimately, we were the last boat to abandon the race.

Time to Party

When our team sailed into Nantucket, we were greeted by the Nantucket Fire Department Honor Guard.

Around 30 firemen cheered us on as we docked. From the second we got on the island, my crew was honored as VIPs throughout the weekend. Saturday morning there was a Memorial Day parade, and my crew rode in convertibles waving to everyone like the Kennedys.

We spent the rest of the weekend on Nantucket partying like hardened sailors, but Monday it was back to race mode. The next event was called the REDUX, and the wind was up.

Our race to Nantucket was a drag, so we were out for blood in the next race.

A Big Angry Monster

At the starting gun of the next race, the wind was ripping at 35 knots (18 mph) and the Atlantic Ocean was rolling like a big angry monster.

We hit the starting line with full speed and the boat leaning over at about 20 degrees. The Jenneau was crashing through the waves while groaning and popping because I was pushing its limits in the name of redemption. 

After 3½ miles, we were with two other boats that were leading the pack. I was first to spot the marker buoy though, so we were nearly the first boat around.

We passed 90 boats in four miles and were looking good. It seemed like we were going to hold on to the lead at the next marker and head to the finish leading the entire fleet.

The other two boats were so close it was hard to tell exactly who was in the lead. Everyone was excited, but then a voice came ringing out over the radio. It was the race committee and they suddenly canceled the race.

The first racing marker we had already rounded broke loose from its anchor and started drifting before the other boats got around it. That always means the race is over.

The Cherry on Top

I can’t write what I yelled, but it was appropriate when you’re hanging out with a bunch of sailors.

I quickly realized we still had to race back to Hyannis Harbor to win. Without delay, I ordered my crew to alter the course toward the harbor. As soon as we altered our course, all the other boats caught on and followed. We were leading the entire fleet.

The wind was still blowing 18-25 knots, so the race was on again! We were going to finish the race, get rescued or sink. With the Figawi fleet chasing us, we had more than 20 miles to go before the finish.

It was a spectacular sail back to Hyannis Harbor, as the wind never stopped. We never could lose the two boats closely following us, so the race back was right to the end. However, at the finish, an Andrews 68-footer took line honors, and we were second.

That race was the cherry on top of one big adventure at sea. We’ll all remember this trip for life and be back next year, just with a bigger boat.

For more information on the race, visit figawi.com. 

 

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