Setting Sail for Therapy : Disabled Patients Get Lessons at Sea in Hospital Program


Rob Tradewell thought his sailing days were over.

A former high school pole-vaulting champion, the 22-year-old Long Beach resident had spent many summers sailing in Alamitos Bay until a Jeep accident two years ago left him partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. He can’t speak, has double vision and suffers from severe short-term memory loss.

But on a recent afternoon, a smiling Tradewell and two others with brain injuries took turns navigating a 22-foot sailing vessel through the surging ocean off Long Beach. They were aided by a skipper who spends most of his time in a wheelchair.

“Sailing has such wonderful therapeutic value,” said the skipper, Duncan Milne. “It has so many components to it that can help bring you back.”


Milne, 43, heads Access to Sailing, a nonprofit Newport Beach-based organization dedicated to providing sailing experiences for people with various disabilities. Last week he was in Long Beach giving introductory lessons as part of a pilot program sponsored by Long Beach Memorial Rehabilitation Hospital’s therapeutic recreation department.

Organizers said they hope sailing will become a regular part of the hospital’s rehabilitation program for patients.

“This gives them a feeling that they’re controlling something,” Milne said of the sailing experience. “It puts them on a par with someone who isn’t disabled.”

A former physical education instructor, Milne broke his back in a 1977 motorcycle accident. Although he was forced to give up many of the physical activities he loved, Milne said he found that he could still sail--a sport he had participated in since college. By rigging a sailboat so that its ropes and ties can be manipulated from the stern, Milne maintains, he can operate a boat as well as the next person.

Three years ago, he was on a seven-man team of disabled and able-bodied sailors who competed in a 110-mile race along the Mexican coast. He and three other disabled sailors also traveled to Helsinki, Finland, in 1988 to compete in the disabled division of the World Cup, placing 40th in a field of 69. To help raise money for the trip, he had sailed a 12-foot boat solo from Los Angeles to Avalon.

Milne founded Access to Sailing last year to provide therapeutic sailing experiences for disabled people who otherwise might not get such a chance. “I wanted to see if there were (disabled) people out there who had never considered the fact that they could sail and might want to try it,” he said. Access to Sailing has arranged sailing trips for people who are mentally retarded, have been disabled by strokes, or are visually or hearing impaired.

The organization at first had only a donated 21-foot Aquarius sailboat, but now owns four vessels. Three are moored in Newport Beach and one is in Long Beach. Access to Sailing relies on volunteers and donations, but occasionally will ask participants to pay a nominal fee, Milne said.

Staffers at Long Beach Memorial Rehabilitation Hospital said they approved the sailing experiment to determine whether it should be added to the recreational therapy program offered to 15 patients with brain injuries. Other recreational activities include rugby, chess, cards, crafts, gardening, golf and bowling.

“We’ve just been waiting for a program like this to happen,” said Karen Shintaku, a recreation therapist at the hospital. “This gives (the patients) a sense of freedom and a boost in self-esteem.”

Sailing also can help individuals with brain injuries improve their short-term memories, develop their motor abilities and begin to relearn social skills they may have lost as a result of their injuries. Shintaku said she hopes the excursion is the first of many sailing experiences offered to the hospital’s brain-injured patients, and eventually perhaps to the facility’s 50-or-so patients with other disabilities.

“You have so many things taken away from you when you have a head injury,” said Theresa Beguhl, another recreation therapist. “This gives them back a little of their independence.”

To prepare for the day’s trip, an able-bodied volunteer acting as Milne’s assistant rigged the sails and routed all the control lines to the back of the boat, where they could be handled with a minimum of movement. Milne pulled himself on deck, then aides helped other passengers climb out of their wheelchairs and get aboard.

Once at sea, each sailor took a turn at the helm under the watchful eye of Milne and a handful of aides and therapists. Their hair blowing in the wind and their faces ruddy in the salty spray, the three sailors fumbled with ropes and laughed at each other’s efforts. While one steered, the others peered ahead through the mist in search of oncoming boats and other obstacles.

Milne shouted encouragement throughout the day of sailing in the ocean, beyond the entrance to Alamitos Bay.

“You’re a natural at this,” he told the beaming Tradewell, who repeatedly flashed a “thumbs-up” sign.

At the dock earlier in the day, Marilyn Tradewell said she was delighted that her son was participating in the sailing venture. “This will be very meaningful for him,” she said. “This will force him to make functional use of what he has and try to break through some of his physical deficits.”

Another participant, Eddie Macias, 25, said he enjoyed his first sailing experience. “If I weren’t here I’d be playing Nintendo and watching movies,” he said. “I like the fresh air. It feels real good out here on the ocean.” Last year, Macias suffered serious head injuries after an unknown assailant beat him with a hammer.

Not everyone, however, became a confirmed sailing enthusiast.

Todd Smithson, 25, who was left with movement and speech impediments after a motorcycle accident eight years ago, said he likes “living on the edge.”

“But I prefer motor boating,” he said. “It’s a lot less complicated.”