Strong winds are converging from different corners of the territory, but they are all blowing in the same direction: the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016, where more than 4,300 athletes with physical impairments will compete in various sports.
But as every boater knows, you can’t sail in a straight line. The fledging group calling itself the VI Paralympics Sailing Team will have to tack to Australia in the fall of 2015 to compete in qualifying races. Before that, there should be some practice regattas in Florida.
The V.I. sailing team was pulled together over the past couple of years by two of the territory’s best known sailors, Capt. Jan Robinson, who is also a successful cookbook author and event promoter, and John Foster, a six-time Olympian who has raced – and won – so many sailing competitions in V.I. waters he’s probably lost count. Foster is the coach and Robinson is the manager – she laughingly described herself as the person who arranges hotel reservations and makes sure everyone has their protein bars.
The sailing team and equestrian Lee Frawley – who Foster helped to get to the 2012 Paralympic Games in London – are currently the only serious V.I. contenders for entry at the international 2016 Paralympics, according to Kendall Taylor, of the VI Paralympic Committee.
Like the sailing team, the VI Paralympic Committee is new. Taylor said it was established to bolster Frawley’s efforts, but she and other members are trying to expand its scope to include impaired athletes engaged in a wide range of sports.
“We want to grow it,” she said. “It’s just stunning when you see what people can do when they have the drive.”
A case in point is Jim Kerr, who Robinson recruited for the sailing team.
Originally from Wisconsin, Kerr described how decades ago he and his brother followed his cruising parents to the Caribbean and “we went from island to island until we found them” on St. Thomas. After spending time with them, he headed back to the mainland, but “I couldn’t get the color of the water out of my head, so I came back.”
That was 37 years ago.
In the early 1980s, Kerr got together with friends and formed a sailboat racing team.
“We started out as a rag tag group. By the end of three years, we were surprising everybody,” he said.
Sailing was not really his sport, however. Kerr made his mark in competitive swimming and in fencing and is a two-time Olympian, Robinson said.
Now 74, Kerr lost his eyesight at the age of 67.
Before signing on for the VI Paralympic Sailing Team, Kerr said he consulted his doctors whose first reaction was an incredulous “Yachting?!”
“You know there are some things you can show yourself that you can do,” Kerr said. And this is one of them. “It’s the same great world out there. I just have to get into step with it.”
The first outing for the team was the C. Thomas Clagett, Jr. Memorial Clinic and Regatta, an annual event held in Newport that is a sort of training venue and proving ground for men and women with disabilities who want to compete in paralympic sailing. Participants have all types of disabilities, including partial paralysis, missing limbs and blindness.
There are three classes of paralympic sailing: the Sonar, a 24-foot craft requiring a three-person team; the SKUD, a keel boat handled by a two-person team, at least one of whom must be female, and the 2.4 mR, a single-handed boat just under 14 feet.
At Newport, the Virgin Islands team raced a boat outfitted for disabled sailors.
“I was amazed by the amount of equipment designed and built” specifically to get impaired people on and off the vessels and to accommodate them aboard, Foster said.
“The clinic was the big thing for me because I hadn’t sailed for so long,” Kerr said, adding that the coaches were great and the boat was highly maneuverable; one coach suggested moving a team member by four inches and that slight change made a tremendous difference in how the boat handled. “We could feel it.”
The team won a bronze medal, and an invitation to a world competition held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, in August 2014 by the International Federation of Disabled Sailors.
For that race, Foster said the team chartered a Sonar. On board were Kerr, David Flaherty and Bobby Blackwell. A fourth member of the group, Tony Sanpere, competed in the 2.4 single-handed class. They were up against sailors from a other countries including Germany, Italy, Ireland, Great Britain, and Canada.
“It’s a very interesting system” that the IFDS has developed to ensure fair competition, Foster said. Participants are required to bring medical records describing their disability. A team of doctors examines each participant and observes him/her on the water. Then the doctors rate each person on a scale of one to seven, with the lowest numbers representing the most severe disability. In the Sonar class, a total of 14 points is the maximum allowed for a three-member team.
Fewer than 500 people worldwide have the rating, Foster said, so the V.I. Team is proud to have theirs. Kerr is rated 3; Flaherty, 4; Blackwell, 5; and Sanpere, 7.
The team made a good showing in Halifax, but not good enough to win one of the coveted seven qualifying positions for the 2016 Paralympics.
That puts the pressure on getting to Australia in 2015 and winning there; it’s the last opportunity to qualify for 2016, and there are just seven racing team slots still open.
Foster is starting to concentrate on fundraising. He estimated it cost about $50,000 for a race in which the team chartered a boat. But he’s pushing for money to buy and outfit a Sonar for the team.
The group is working with other organizations, he said, including the Veterans Administration (Sanpere and Kerr are both vets) the Virgin Islands Olympic Committee, and the Virgin Islands Sports Trust – in addition to the IFDS and the V.I. Paralympic Committee.
Foster is a founding member of the newly formed Virgin Islands Sports Trust, which received its 501 (c) (3) non-profit status in August. That status means donations to it may be tax-deductible. He’s hoping to use it as well as the V.I. Olympic Committee as vehicles for receiving donations to the team.
The V.I. Paralympic Committee has also applied for 501 (c) (3) status, Taylor said. She stressed that the Paralympic Committee is not part of the V.I. Olympic Committee. Though they share interests, they operate independently. Besides Taylor, the founders of the V. I. Paralympic Committee are Dianne Chandler and Regine Fitzner, who serves as president and who was in Berlin last week representing the group at the International Paralympic meeting.
Meanwhile, Robinson and Kerr also branched out a bit, Robinson adding Kerr to a U.S. team of blind sailors that entered a match race in the states shortly after the Halifax regatta.
Sailors in that race were guided by sounds emitted by racing buoys and also coming from the bottom of their boats.
“These sounds come through the fog and the darkness of your own blindness,” Kerr said, illustrating with a series of distinctive whistles. Sailors also take cues from the wind they feel on their faces.
When he’s sailing, said Kerr, “My disability disappears.”
More information about the V.I. Paralympic Committee is available by contacting Fitzner at 1-340-643-6846. Information on the V.I. Paralympic Sailing Team is available by sending email to Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.