Sailing to New Heights : Rehabilitation: People with disabilities regain a sense of independence with the help of Sea Legs, a San Pedro boating program that teaches them to set their own course.


Seated in a swivel chair mounted on a rotating arm, James Neal swung from the port to the starboard side of the sailboat and pulled on the tiller, heading the craft back to its San Pedro berth.

"I love it!" he shouted, as the craft began moving back to Ports O' Call.

The 56-year-old attorney, who suffered a stroke in June that left him with little movement on his left side, had performed a sailing maneuver called a tack , in which a helmsman changes the course of a sailing vessel by turning it into the wind.

On a scorching September day, Neal was taking part in Sea Legs, a nonprofit San Pedro program that this month began offering sailing to people with disabilities. Organizers say Sea Legs is the first program of its kind in Southern California. They have spent about $80,000 over the past year to outfit four Cal 20 sailboats for disabled students.

Each boat's cockpit is larger than usual so students have room to get in and out, and the tiller has an extension to give the helmsman more leverage, requiring less strength to steer. The sheets--ropes used to control the two sails--are dyed different colors to aid students with learning disabilities. And the special helmsman's seat allows people without use of their legs to move from one side of the boat to the other.

The boats have extra safety features that make them harder to capsize and more buoyant if they do tip.

"These boats won't sink," said program director Gianni Brill, the owner of a Ports O' Call charter sailing business. "You can fill them with water and they will stay afloat."

Brill began organizing Sea Legs a year ago, after he had seen an article about a Chicago sailing program for the disabled. He is paying for the specially designed boats and professional sailing teachers with his own money, donations from individuals and businesses and fees from students.

Introductory lessons are free, but there are charges for regular classes. Four private lessons cost $360, and four group lessons cost $120 per person. Sea Legs also is establishing scholarships to pay for students with financial hardship.

The program currently has six students, but Brill hopes to visit hospital therapy programs and rehabilitation clinics to find new recruits.

Some Sea Legs students sailed before they were disabled.

Neal said he had a Cal 20 that he used to take to Catalina Island, though he left the steering duties to a more experienced sailor.

"I manned the jib or was just there," he said. "I never sailed with myself at the tiller."

He sold the boat 25 years ago, he said, because his wife was concerned about his safety. So after suffering a stroke this summer, his chances of getting back to sea seemed particularly remote. He made a trip in a wheelchair to Newport Beach about a month after his stroke, but couldn't do much more than watch passing boats.

"I had so much anxiety after the stroke, but none going out today," Neal said, as he guided the converted Cal 20 off Ports O' Call. "The most therapeutic thing about this is with my mind. You are able to do something other than sit in a room."

Another former sailor enrolled in Sea Legs is Lisa Haller, 33, of Irvine. Haller hadn't gone sailing since a 1986 auto accident left her with little movement below her neck. But she has limited use of her hands and, after four lessons, has learned to operate the tiller.

"I'm on a wheelchair all the time, so getting on something moving like a boat, just that is relaxing," she said after a recent sail. "Plus, it builds muscle. I finish up after an hour and a half and feel fatigued, but it's a healthy kind of fatigue."

After four lessons, Haller has learned to navigate Hurricane Gulch, one of the windiest parts of Los Angeles Harbor.

"That's the only place she wants to go sailing now," Brill said. "In the beginning, students are very apprehensive. But once they do it, they want to put the boat so it sails totally on its side."

Haller often wraps a rope around her legs or arms, or clenches it in her teeth.

"There is a therapeutic side to this," Haller said. "For my husband and I, there are not a lot of activities that we can do together."

Some of the more experienced disabled sailors in the Sea Legs program are helping teach.

Tom Keegan, 54, a former Merchant Marine captain, became a paraplegic after he was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1985. He resumed sailing several years later after building upper body strength and getting help from friends.

The benefits, Keegan said, go beyond recreation.

"You can get awfully despondent being in a wheelchair," said Keegan, who continues to work as a ship's captain. "But when you find you can sail, you find you can get a job. You gain that confidence."

That sentiment is reflected in the Sea Legs brochure, which touts the program as "an extremely safe way to sense independence."

"Out on the water, everyone is doing the same thing," said Julie Cross, a North Hollywood music producer who volunteered about a year ago to help start the program. "They're in control. They do everything."

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