At The Helm

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News November 2013

Injury does not derail Eric Berkey from his love of sailing.

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Lucky for him, Eric Berkey was born to parents who had boating in their blood. Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, his family spent summers and holidays boating on a small lake off Lake Huron in northern Michigan.

 “I spent time on boats of all shapes and sizes,” Berkey says.

Falling in love with the outdoors and jazzed by his connection with the sea, Berkey took the captain’s exam at age 19 and received his first Coast Guard license.

He followed that accreditation with scuba instructor certification, became a certified EMT and a ski patrolman. Not yet tired of exams, Berkey  completed numerous mountain rescue and wilderness first aid courses.

With an undeniable love of nature, Berkey headed west to Boulder, Colo., where he enrolled in the University of Colorado. Studying environmental conservation, he found the perfect niche to fulfill his thirst for communing with the natural world.

More Learning & Sailing

Now both a knowledgeable and educated outdoorsman, Berkey volunteered for the Boulder Emergency Squad, a volunteer mountain and river rescue team.

Having completed his studies in the Rockies, Berkey headed to San Diego where his dad had settled in the early 1990s. He was thrilled to fall into his dream job.

In 1997, he was hired on as crew on a mega yacht. During the next year, Berkey  traveled to the Caribbean, Central America and Europe on the 150-foot motor vessel.

After that year of travel, he returned to San Diego and added an MBA to his growing duffle bag of accomplishments. Finishing yet another school, he returned to the sea to skipper dive boats in Mission Bay, Calif., for a few years.

Berkey then worked at Mikelson Yachts where he was a project manager, commissioning new yachts, performing vessel deliveries and teaching new owners how to operate their boats.

Eventually, Berkey came to serve as the captain of two private sport fishing boats, a 68- and 80-footer.

Feeling Normal

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in 2011 when Berkey tripped over a fuel line and fell off the back of the family boat.

Had the boat been secured in a slip in the water there would have been no harm done. But the boat was on a trailer and Berkey’s uncontrolled fall caused him to hit the unyielding ground head first.

Sustaining a C-5/6 contusion to the spinal cord, Berkey was left a quadriplegic restricted to a motorized wheelchair.

“The response and support from my family and friends throughout this major life change has been absolutely humbling,”he says. “One of the biggest challenges of adapting to life as a quadriplegic has been the shift from being fiercely independent to completely reliant on the assistance of others.”

Fortunately, Berkey was a friend of Dave Meyers who then introduced him to Challenged America (CA) in November of 2011.

Berkey went for his first Martin boat sail on his 40th birthday. The Martin has design features that make sailing accessible to all sailors with mobility impairments. He was thrilled to be back on the water after his lengthy absence. Challenged America allowed Berkey to reconnect with the sea.

“I can’t adequately thank the CA organization, especially the volunteers who make it happen,” Berkey  says. “As I’ve said before, the closest I come to feeling normal is when I’m at the helm of the Martin 16.”

Be Good to Others

You can see Berkey sailing a Martin 16 whenever there’s a regatta.

He was in attendance at the DASH to Chula Vista, Calif., finishing in third place with his brother, Joseph, as his companion.

Having been a long-time diver and fisherman, Berkey  would enjoy seeing the Grand Banks modifications completed to do some fishing from her stern.

Berkey  has a suggestion for those not yet involved.

“Take up a cause! The fact that my injury didn’t kill me tells me I’m here for a reason. I believe we’re supposed to leave this world better than we found it,” Berkey  says. “This doesn’t mean you have to cure cancer or end world hunger … I think a good starting point is simply being good to others.” 

Amen, Eric!

For more information on Challenged America and the Martin 16 sailboat, visit  


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At The Helm


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