Left in dry dock

Jeff Benson

For 10 years, Newport Beach's Tom Tolbert didn't let a near-fatal

aneurysm prevent him from indulging in his lifelong pastime. But the

Newport Beach sailor said a "sickening" heist has temporarily

marooned him on the docks.

Tolbert, 56, is a volunteer director at Sailing Fascination, which

gives free sailing lessons to disabled people through the use of a

single J-24 sailboat. He said after he and his students returned from

a two-week break in late July, unknown vandals had thieved the boat's

6-year-old outboard motor.

The eight-horsepower Nissan engine is necessary to get the

24-foot, wheelchair-accessible "Fascination 2" boat out of the dock

and out of the Newport turning basin so Tolbert and the students can

hoist the sails, he said. It's possible to sail out of the harbor,

provided there's enough wind, but he said it would take much more

time than his two-hour lessons allow.

"Maybe they came up by boat and took the engine off that way," he

said. "Can you imagine handing a handicapped guy an oar and saying,

'Take me out to the turning basin?' I don't think so."

Ripping the motor from the program's only boat further hurts a

program designed to aid the handicapped. But Tolbert, who said he has

filed a police report, knows the program will get back on its feet

someday, which is more than he can say for some of the people he

teaches.

The students -- many of whom have been diagnosed with Down's

syndrome, blindness, quadriplegia, multiple sclerosis, post-polio,

learning disabilities and spinal injuries -- will have to be patient.

Tolbert, a long-term care insurance salesman, said he doubts his boat

insurance will cover much of the cost of the $2,500 motor, because he

isn't using it for business purposes. But he hopes to raise enough

money to buy a new one soon.

"Nothing is lower than stealing a motor from a boatful of

[disabled people]," he said. "Being landlocked [stinks]. Waiting for

the insurance company to do its thing is hard enough, but imagine how

the students feel. It's amazing how forward to this they look."

Before the theft, he and co-director Jack Hester made sure the

classes ran smoothly. Hester always stood in the back, ferried the

boat out of the harbor and gave some students their first driving

lessons (on any apparatus), while Tolbert focused on the sails and

sailing demonstrations.

Tolbert said he doesn't make any money by volunteering Tuesdays

and Saturdays but does it to empower those who have handicaps. His

Tuesday students come from local schools and hospitals, whereas his

Saturday students are usually referred to him from places such as the

Braille Institute.

"The amount of self-esteem they get by being in control of a boat

is amazing," he said. "It's a special treat. To look over and see a

student smile is a really big thing. I don't think you can actually

teach most of them everything about sailing, but their ability to

problem-solve is more enhanced. For once in their lives, they're in

charge."

Tolbert said he knows how they feel, because he's struggled over

some of the same hurdles. Formerly a Hollywood stuntman, a president

of his own software marketing company and a dedicated athlete, those

career paths were all cut short in 1994, when he suffered a ruptured

cerebellar aneurysm. His doctor told his wife, Nina, that he'd most

likely die.

The condition left him 70 pounds lighter, partially paralyzed and

with slurred speech. But he also became rejuvenated when he signed up

to take classes at Sailing Fascination and later volunteered to teach

classes four days a week.

"I know how important it is for the process of recovering," he

said. "You want to be the best you can be, and this is part of that."

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